When you walk into the Ball State Track and Field locker room, it looks as you would probably expect. There are lockers along the wall filled with gear. Two couches and stools help fill the space.
But laying in the corner are two things that stick out: two water guns.
Some might ask, what are water guns doing in the corner of a college locker room?
But if you understand the coaching style of Cardinals head coach Adrian Wheatley, you would probably get why they are there.
“There are other small things we do,” Wheatley said. “We play loose and I do believe that helps in regards to student-athletes feeling like this is a safe place that we can go and make mistakes.”
That “loose” mentality has proved to produce results as the Cardinals left the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championship with multiple achievements. Jenelle Rogers finished the meet with a fifth-place overall finish.
But the positive results did not stop there. Senior Charity Griffith walked out of Mike A. Myers Stadium and Soccer Field in Austin, Texas as the Cardinals’ fifth national champion in the university's athletic program history, and the first since 1999.
“I know I’m leaving after this year… and I wanted to leave Ball State on such a good note,” Griffith said. “I didn’t want to leave nationals with nothing. I wanted to leave big and that's exactly what happened.”
Griffith won the high jump national championship when she launched herself to clear 1.93 meters [six feet four inches]. But long before she made her way to the Lone Star State, she had some mountains to climb.
“It was frustrating for a while just because I wasn't hitting the marks in the weight room that I would typically,” she said. “And I just needed to be more patient. I was already walking two days after surgery without crutches. And I did 200 repeats the day before surgery.”
But once recovering from her torn meniscus, she would go on to have a remarkable season that allowed her to qualify for the NCAA Championship.
“These ladies have been here before and they’re battle-tested,” Wheatley said. “They understand what the highs and lows are. Having them compete at the national rate and do as well as they did, obviously, there's a little surprise. But it's not as we've seen this before.”
After completing the soon-to-be winning jump, Griffith did two things. First, she raised her hands and pointed to the heavens above.
“With me finally trusting in [God], I was able to go into that meet,” she said. “And I think he told me that ‘okay, you're ready for a big stage… And for me to actually win that national championship, I don't think that it was just me winning. I think I'm on a bigger stage to spread his word.”
Secondly, she thought about Rogers.
“As soon as I got done with the high jump, I knew the gun was about to go off [for the 800-meter dash],” Griffith said.
According to Griffith, her teammate is one that always wants to do more. So when every competition had hit its respected finish line, she looked at her teammate and asked, are you happy with this one?
Her response: “I’m not satisfied. But I’m happy.”
“Of course, everyone wants to be number one,” Rogers said. “ I was satisfied that I gave one hundred percent and that’s the best that I can do.”
Even though Griffith is leaving Ball State this year, she wants to build off of this achievement.
“[I want to make the] USA Track and Field championships in Oregon,” she said. “... I'm gonna go for that and also try to make the team for the World Championships in Budapest.”
But what about the Cardinals’ future?
They finished the 2023 campaign with a national championship, two All-Americans in Griffith and Rogers [Ball State’s ninth and tenth of all time], and being ranked nationally in the top twenty. Can the program match this?
To Wheatley, this is just the start.
“We're pretty excited, especially when you finish [tied for] 17th in the nation,” he said. “I've been in the business long enough to understand what you're looking at. We're a single-gender program, and being able to do what happened, our hope is we can continue to build upon that… We're gonna make sure that we identify the words of courage.”
But there is one thing that the second-year head coach wants to continue. Even though some might view track as an individual sport, Wheatley wants the team-first mindset to remain a staple.
“We're competing for something bigger than just ourselves,” he said. “We're competing for this team and this program. And that takes the pressure off us. Listen, if I've got to go out and do everything by myself, that's a lot of pressure. If I know I'm gonna go and be the best version of myself on that day, and I know that the person next to me will do the same, I’m in a good spot there.”
The historical season doesn’t just help the Cardinals. Wheatley believes this will help the Mid-American Conference as a whole and help Ball State with recruiting.
“One of our biggest things when we're looking at recruiting, you're trying to win the state,” he said. “There are two Big Ten teams [Indiana University and Purdue University] in our state, right? We're trying to out-recruit those schools and generally, if we can't out-recruit them, then we're going to out-coach them.”