After just the third practice back from the offseason, those in the Ball State soccer program gathered together to hear head coach Josh Rife’s closing remarks. The 2021 Mid-American Conference (MAC) Coach of the Year talked about the importance of being battle-tested, and encouraged the Cardinals to continue the energy they’ve brought to camp after just two days back in Muncie.
Unlike many collegiate programs, Rife gives the Cardinals a full offseason to themselves, trusting the Cardinals to prepare on their own. He felt this is the best approach toward instilling a desire for the upcoming season, as it allows the Cardinals to recharge their mental and physical batteries in order to come back to camp invigorated.
“It's hard for me to be the motivating factor for 26 different people,” Rife said. “We'll help give them a blueprint of what it takes and hopefully put a framework around them that allows them to be successful, and then it's on them to step into that and own those roles.”
Practice was over, but in less than two hours everyone planned to meet back up at Mancino’s in Muncie for a team dinner. The Cardinals were excited to be back together again.
“It’s a blessing that we all come back and we're all appreciative of the time gone and how special being together is,” junior forward Lexi Fraley said. “I think that everyone is so motivated and we all have the same goal that over the summer when we're not together, it doesn't really matter because everyone's putting the work in.”
After playing in a summer league and working out on her own to be prepared for the start of the season, sophomore forward Delaney Caldwell said her time away from Muncie made her more excited than ever to get back on the field and rejoin the Cardinals. But Ball State doesn’t have much time to spare before practices turn into competition, as the first official practice of the 2023 season came just five days before Ball State’s first contest, an exhibition against Indiana University.
“It doesn't matter how great your team culture is or how great of a team [you have], it's college athletics, [and] people graduate,” Rife said. “Early on in preseason, where you don't have distractions with school and other responsibilities, you want to try to get as much time together as you can and it doesn't always have to be on the field.”
Caldwell, 2022 MAC Freshman of the Year, said the short time to prepare creates a necessary balance between locking in on the field and enjoying time with teammates off of it.
“It helps us better communicate when we're on the field and helps things stay more positive,” Caldwell said. “We're not having people yelling at each other, and [it allows us to] be able to play to each other's strengths.”
Rife said the Cardinals commitment to putting in work when it isn’t asked of them also helps build responsibility and accountability, lessons that he hopes transfer off the field just as much as on it. These values, along with discipline, grit and intensity, create a culture that returners and newcomers alike can buy into.
“It's really important for the returners to help the newcomers and the transfers get situated right away and get out all that rust from summer,” senior forward Avery Fenchel said. “In the first few practices, we’re not so much focusing on specifics, but how we work together.”
While the Cardinals have those core values instilled in them, Fraley said there’s a bigger meaning behind just the words.
“It’s really based on family,” Fraley said. “Discipline and all of that stuff goes around being a good person, being there for people and doing what you can do outside of soccer that will play into helping you be a better soccer player and a better soccer team.”
Despite reaching the MAC Championship in 2022, Fraley, a 2022 First Team All-MAC member, knows the Cardinals are capable of going even further. Ball State fell 2-0 to Buffalo in the title game, a feeling Fraley described as unforgettable and one she let sit with her throughout the entire offseason.
Using that feeling as a motivator is one thing, but Fraley said keeping tunnel vision is key to reaching the mountaintop in 2023.
“In the MAC, any given day, any team can beat any team,” Fraley said. “Every game is so important for your placing, so [we] really are just taking it game by game.”
Rife has been one win away from clinching an NCAA Tournament berth twice during his time at Ball State. He said falling just short doesn’t eat at him, per se, it just makes the Cardinals want to win that much more.
“The game can be cruel sometimes,” Rife said. “We talked about just controlling everything we can control and sometimes it just doesn't work out in your favor, but this is motivation for the group 100 percent. We're always chasing it.”
Along for each of those losses with him has been Fenchel who, despite her First Team All-MAC selection in 2022, desperately wants to help lead Ball State to its first NCAA Tournament berth ever.
“It's very frustrating not to come home with it,” Fenchel said. “We expect to be there every year, so we just got to go out and finish it.”
In the same post-practice huddle Rife talked to the Cardinals about the importance of resilience, Ball State University Athletic Director Jeff Mitchell asked the athletes to raise their hand if they thought they were good at what they do. While most were tentative, not wanting to gloat, eventually everyone raised their hand.
Mitchell said it’s that mindset and that confidence that will make for a successful 2023 campaign and why he’s excited for the group to represent Ball State soccer. Only four schools in the MAC have a men’s soccer program, and Ball State isn’t one of them. As the only soccer program at Ball State, Fenchel said the Cardinals carry an extra sense of pride representing the university.
“Everyone's supporting us, so we try to make a good name for ourselves both on and off the field,” Fenchel said. “We are Ball State Soccer and we have to make everyone proud.”