'Building into something great:' Ball State softball advances to the MAC title game for the first time since 2015

<p>Ball State players rush from the dugout after a home run against Bowling Green April 13 at First Merchants Ballpark Complex. Ball State had three home runs in total. Andrew Berger, DN</p>

Ball State players rush from the dugout after a home run against Bowling Green April 13 at First Merchants Ballpark Complex. Ball State had three home runs in total. Andrew Berger, DN

When Helen Peña took over as Ball State softball’s head coach in the summer of 2023, she instilled in the Cardinals to trust the process. 

That was something the red and black remembered in the three games they played throughout Friday in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship. After playing 21 innings and 63 outs, the No. 6 Cardinals defeated the likes of No. 5 Central Michigan, No. 4 Toledo and No. 2 Ohio to advance to the MAC Championship game.

“[We spent] every weekend [during the season] getting better, improving and growing as a team,” she said. “I knew we were building into something great.”

In the background of the over-the-phone interview, screams could be heard at Akron’s Firestone Stadium. The Cardinals were ecstatic, being the first Ball State squad to reach the finale since claiming the title in 2015. 

“This team is unstoppable and we're resilient,” redshirt junior pitcher Emma Eubank said. “We got dealt a really hard hand and we took it and went with it.”

The ‘tough hand’ the Cardinals were given started at 10:30 a.m. as they faced the Chippewas. While the contest was supposed to take place Thursday evening, Mother Nature had other plans. The schedule change did not bother Ball State as they jumped to a 4-0 lead in the first four innings. 

Yet, the game was not over. Central Michigan pushed the Cardinals to their limits as the Chippewas stole a 6-4 lead – three RBI singles, a two-RBI single and a wild pitch – in the fourth inning. 

However, Ball State’s chance of being eliminated sparked something. 

“As a senior, it's hard to get on the brink of those moments and not think about my last moment on the softball field,” graduate student infielder Samantha-Jo Mata said. 

After a walk from graduate student infielder Jazmyne Armendariz and a Chippewa error, which allowed redshirt sophomore infielder McKenna Mulholland to reach base, Mata was up to bat. On the 1-0 count, she smacked a two-RBI single to tie the game. Following that, freshman Maia Pietrzak scored Mata with an RBI single, which became the 7-6 decider. 

“In those moments, we had to get back to playing our game,” Peña said. “It's easy to ride the highs and the lows of the game, especially when you're competing against the best teams in the conference.”

While the Cardinals soaked in the win, they were not out of the woods yet as Toledo was waiting for them. However, the Rockets may have not expected the red and black to launch three home runs – two by redshirt junior catcher McKayala Timmons and one by Mulholland – in the matchup. 

Timmons’ first deep fly – a two-run shot in the top of the third – was No. 24 on the year, which gave her the program record for most home runs in a season. With her second – a solo shot – she is now at No. 25. 

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Junior utility McKayla Timmons is surrounded by teamates after hitting a home run against Bowling Green April 13 at First Merchants Ballpark Complex. Timmons had three homes runs over the two game series. Andrew Berger, DN

To her, there was only one word to describe the accomplishment. 

“Unbelievable,” she said. “That was never the goal to begin with.”

The Cardinals – who finished with 11 hits – took a 9-1 lead in the sixth, but Toledo – who recorded 13 knocks – fired back and only trailed 9-7 in the bottom of the fifth. But Eubank captured the win by forcing a groundout right to Pietrzak. 

Once again, the Cardinals were not finished. The only thing between them and a MAC Championship title game berth was Ohio, who defeated the Cardinals 8-0 Thursday evening. Ball State had multiple fielding errors in that contest and could not find life at the plate. 

In the rematch, two things changed. First, the Cardinals found the poise they were missing and scored five runs with eight hits. Secondly, Eubank did not allow the Bobcats to catch fire. In her fifth start of the season, she threw her first collegiate complete game – four hits, one run, three walks, two strikeouts – helping Ball State defeat Ohio 5-1. 

“I had to save the best for last,” Eubank said, chuckling. 

When Peña looked back at the three victories, she knew her first Cardinal roster had come together and delivered. 

“That's what's special about this team and the human beings we have on this team is they're selfless,” she said. “They encourage one another and they're about what's across their chests and not their last name. They're playing for each other right now.” 

While Peña believed this team could accomplish this feat and would have quote “put her name on it,” there were trials and tribulations. An eight-game losing streak was just one of those cases.  Yet, the struggles and being the lowest seed in the event have made this run what it is. 

“It makes it that much sweeter,” Peña said. “[If] you don’t face adversity and have to climb out of the hole a little bit. If you don't lose, it's really hard to savor the taste of success. 

“Everything this team has been through, the good and the bad, the struggles they've been able to overcome again and again, that's what makes this team so special and that's what makes these wins so incredible.”

For the first time in nine years, Ball State will compete for the MAC title when they face the No. 1 Miami Redhawks. The battle of the redbirds will start at 1 p.m. If Ball State wins the contest, a second game will be played due to the Redhawks’ undefeated record in the tournament. 

“We believe we can win, plain and simple,” Peña said. “We believe that we're capable and we believe that we're going to do it. Belief is a powerful tool and we've got it on our side.”

Contact Zach Carter with comments at zachary.carter@bsu.edu or on X @ZachCarter85.

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