Through the Cardinals' bench mob, Ball State women's basketball has a constant source of energy to encourage success

<p>Ball State women's basketball celebrates junior Alex Richard scoring a three-point basket against Ohio March 13 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio. This was Richard's first three-point basket for Ball State. Mya Cataline, DN</p>

Ball State women's basketball celebrates junior Alex Richard scoring a three-point basket against Ohio March 13 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio. This was Richard's first three-point basket for Ball State. Mya Cataline, DN

CLEVELAND – Through 32 games this Ball State women’s basketball season, there has been a multitude of consistencies for the Cardinals. 

All-MAC First Team junior Ally Becki was probably going to drop double digit points. Back-to-back Mid-American Conference (MAC) Defensive Player of the Year junior Nyla Hampton was probably going to record two or more steals. 

And those occupying the end of Ball State’s bench were probably going to be cheering the Cardinals louder than most fans in the bleachers. Jumping up and down, shouting encouragement to their teammates more than anyone this season was perhaps the trio of sophomore Sydney Bolden and freshman twins Hailey and Olivia Smith.

Although none of the three averaged more than five minutes per game, head coach Brady Sallee said their enthusiasm from the bench does make an impact in the win column.

“We hit the lottery with character when it came to these kids,” Sallee said. “As frustrated as they may be not to get an opportunity to play, they understand what it's about, they understand the bigger picture and they know their time is coming.” 

Bolden’s playing time actually decreased from 7.1 minutes per game in her freshman season to 3.6 minutes per game this season, but it seems that she has taken that in stride. She said she has no trouble contributing in a more unsung role, and most of that comes down to the chemistry between all 14 players.

“We all want to see each other thrive,” Bolden said. “Bringing that energy for friends and teammates means a lot to me, because I know they would do the same if they were in my position.” 

Joining a highly successful program with a deep roster, the Smith twins knew what their roles would be coming into Ball State from Fishers High School where they each earned First Team All-Conference honors. 

“I've always been a part of a winning team, but this is a different level,” Olivia said. “So there's some different meanings to it, but we go into practice every day and compete.”

Olivia felt the transition from high school to college basketball in terms of chemistry was made easier due to the common ground all 14 players on the squad have: a love of the game. 

“At first, we came in scared a little bit, but once you're around the team every day, you have to talk and you have to build connections,” Hailey said. 

And it was common ground that bonded the Smith twins with Bolden out of the gate as well, as the three knew their roles for Ball State would look similar during the 2023-24 campaign. Bolden described the role she takes on as ensuring her teammates’ nerves are calmed and their focus is on playing up to their capabilities. 

Their energy seems to be infectious both on and off the court, made evident through a group dance performed a few hours before the Cardinals’ first-round MAC Tournament contest in the dining room of a Cleveland hotel with junior Alex Richard. 

“We’re always together,” Olivia said. 

In fact, Olivia said sometimes seemingly light-hearted activities like that can go a long way toward results on the court. She said Richard expressed some nerves in the hours prior to tipoff against Ohio March 14, and later told the three that the dance helped her feel more loose once it was time to play. 

Richard tied her career high in points with 22 on 9/9 shooting in the 77-53 win against the Bobcats. 

Perhaps the biggest way the Cardinals have been able to bond this season was during a near week-long trip to Tampa, Florida, for the Sun Coast Challenge in Dec. 2023. Hailey thought back to Ball State’s excursion to a nearby animal enclosure that housed alligators, which the Cardinals all held one-by-one. 

“It was a lot of people stepping out of their comfort zones,” Hailey said. “You just got to see the reactions; some people were scared, some people were screaming.”

During her two seasons with Ball State, Bolden has traveled overnight to numerous locations, including Puerto Rico in her freshman year. Looking back on those experiences, Bolden underscored the importance of team-bonding for success on the court and relayed personal memories that will always stay with her. 

“Not all teams get to click like this,” Bolden said. “All those activities, we don't take them for granted; we enjoy every minute of it. We know we're not gonna be able to go back in time and get these moments back.”

Always joining the trio on the end of the bench is someone who fits right in, despite not suiting up in a jersey and shorts. Assistant athletic trainer Brad Bunten said he never lets his mind stray from the possibility of an injury on the court, but after his pregame treatment of players who need it, he essentially becomes a fan on the end of Ball State’s bench during the 40 minutes of gametime.

He said at this point, his energy isn’t so much of a conscious effort as it is his competitive nature taking over. 

“I want to win just as bad as they do,” Bunten said. “I want to see them succeed.” 

Bolden even said Bunten’s constant energy from a staff member’s standpoint encourages her to be more energetic as a player, which Bunten said is his goal whenever the Cardinals are feeling down at any point during a game.

“It's a great bond that not many people get with their athletic trainer,” Bolden said. “He celebrates with us when we're down and when we're up, and that's what we love about him.”

Citing positive relationships his wife, Morgan, and his 10-year-old son, Mason, have with the players and staff, Bunten also recognized the unique situation he’s in. Ball State is the third stop of his professional career since 2015, and while he threw no shade toward either of his past employers, he emphasized how the family atmosphere with the Cardinals is different than he has ever felt professionally. 

“There's no one else that I'd rather be sitting on the end of the bench with than these 14 student athletes and this coaching staff,” Bunten said.

No. 2 seed Ball State plays No. 3 seed Kent State at approximately 12:30 p.m. Friday, March 15 in a MAC Tournament semifinal, which will be the Smith twins second-ever conference tournament game at the collegiate level.

Olivia said she was more excited than nervous heading into her first time in Cleveland, mostly down to the high expectations and confidence she has in Ball State to succeed. The twins and Bolden said their roles don’t change when the stakes are higher, in fact, they ensure to maintain consistent high energy throughout the entire season, no matter the opponent or situation.

“Energy is always important,” Bolden said. “Whether it's the MAC Tournament or regular season or even preseason, any energy is enough for the team to get us going.”

Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at or on X @KyleSmedley_.


More from The Daily

This Week's Digital Issue

Loading Recent Classifieds...