In 2023, Ball State’s lone senior Amaia Daniel was celebrated throughout the season and received an emotional tribute on the Cardinals’ senior day. She was given flowers after walking down the third baseline with her parents and her dog.
When she walked off the field for the last time at Miami (OH) University – the host of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship – she was met by her teammates and parents with hugs and tears.
While the Cardinals only had to say goodbye to one teammate then, the 2024 season will be a bit different since Ball State will graduate multiple seniors.
“Our coaches have really emphasized not taking anything for granted, because there's five of us at my house,” redshirt junior outfielder Hannah Dukeman said. “Lately, we've been talking a lot about how next year and a couple of months from now we're not going to be able to walk down the hallway and say ‘Hey, good morning.’”
The Cardinals finished the 2023 season with a regular season record of 27-24 and came in fourth place in the Mid-American Conference (MAC). However, Ball State ended its campaign with back-to-back losses at the MAC Championship.
While they have a lot of the same pieces, the Cardinals come into 2024 with multiple changes. After former head coach Lacy Schurr was named the associate head coach at the University of Pittsburgh, Helen Peña was hired to lead the red and black in the upcoming season. Before coming to Muncie, Peña was the associate head coach at Middle Tennessee and was a pitcher at Cal Poly.
“The people are amazing, and I love it,” she said. “I've gotten a lot of support and encouragement. Someone asked me recently, ‘What's been your favorite thing about Muncie and Ball State?’ It has awesome people.”
As a former pitcher, Peña has been hands-on with the staff. After the past season, junior starting pitcher Angelina Russo transferred to Albenine Christian, leaving a hole in the rotation. During 2023, Russo went 11-8 with a 2.87 ERA and 91 strikeouts.
However, other starters like redshirt junior pitcher Emma Eubank and sophomore pitcher Bridie Murphy are returning.
“Coach Peña has been really supportive of all of us, especially my mindset on the mound,” Eubank said. “I've kind of lacked confidence throughout the years, so she's really supported me in that way.
“I think we've kind of taken different positions as a pitching staff. Losing [Russo] was a big loss, but I think we all have stepped up in our own way.”
Last year, Eubank had an ERA of 4.16 and a 2-3 record. Being one of the many seniors, she wants to be someone the Cardinals can call when they need someone to rise to the occasion. However, Peña’s main goal is to try and find the best spot for everyone.
“[We’re] definitely trying to develop them, which I think that's the key,” Peña said. “I think that's the foundation that we need to start at. I've got three pitchers that are seniors, and so it's not me trying to carve them into something they're not.”
The progress Peña is trying to find goes beyond the mound. During Ball State’s practices, the coaching staff has put the Cardinals in different situations that could happen in actual competition. This is something the red and black have not seen in the past.
“Every single practice, we’re doing some type of pressure situation,” redshirt sophomore utility player McKenna Mulholland said. “We're gonna be that much more prepared in-game time. But we've never had this type of pressure put on us before. It's either you rise or you fall, and you can see that on the field.”
At the plate, Ball State is bringing back multiple weapons. Graduate student infielder Haley Wynn had the team’s second-best batting average (.377) and recorded 61 hits.
“I think this is the most we've prepared physically and mentally in probably all of my five years here,” Wynn said. “I feel like we're in a really, really good spot.”
Other returners that had a strong season include redshirt junior utility player McKayla Timmons (.345) – who led the Cardinals with 12 home runs – and Mulholland (.336).
Yet the way the Cardinals play this season might not be about talent. It won’t be entirely about who pitches and who can get on base. It will be due to their ability to put everything together and keep the success going.
“We didn't play our best ball at times last year, but we still got to where we wanted to be,” Wynn said. “Now it's like, ‘What are those little details and pieces that we need to do to get us playing our best ball?’ It's a completely different story at the end of the season.”
She said it comes down to who can pitch and hit cleanly with little to no errors. Last year, the Cardinals went through a midseason slump where they went 2-8 in MAC play.
However, Ball State found ways to close out the season and post a regular season record above .500. Yet the number of seniors is still heavily on the Cardinals’ minds as they know this is it for many of their starters.
“I could tell you stories about every single one of them, and that's the best part about this team,” Mulholland said. “We are so close-knit, and we all know each other inside and out. These seniors are so easy to get along with, so friendly, so kind, so smart and they just love the game.
“I think they've all had some type of impact on me throughout my career here.”
The Cardinals will start the 2024 campaign when they travel to Jacksonville, Florida, for the River City Leadoff tournament. Ball State will face James Madison Feb. 9 at 11 a.m. The Cardinals’ home debut is set for March 15 against Ohio.
“I'm really excited because there is definitely a sense of urgency,” Dukeman said. “I know we have so much potential, and I know we have what we need to win it.”
Contact Zach Carter with comments at email@example.com or on X @ZachCarter85.