Ever since Ball State Soccer lost in last year’s MAC Tournament semifinals to Buffalo on what should’ve been an #SCTop10 nominee, an upper-ninety from almost forty yards out in double overtime, there’s been talk of what could be for this year’s campaign.
Sophomore goalkeeper Alyssa Heintschel reflected on the ending.
“It was definitely one of the most disappointing moments of my soccer career, but I think it motivated me to work harder.”
With the team returning many of its key players and adding in a lot of young talent, it was nothing but high hopes for 2015.
But with high hopes come high expectations, as the head coaches of the conference voted the Cardinals as co-favorites of the MAC West before this season began. The goal is not just to reach the MAC Championship anymore, but now to win it all.
That mission begins Friday, as the Cardinals take on Eastern Michigan at home at the Briner Sports Complex. The match, produced by Ball State Sports Link, will be live on ESPN 3 and the Watch ESPN app at 5 p.m.
It’s been a long road for the team this season during non-conference play. Literally, a long road.
Seven of the team’s eight non-conference games have been away from Muncie, with road trips including Kentucky and Louisiana. But all of the travel has caused the team to grow very close together.
“We spent a lot of time together off the field too,” Heintschel said. “We’re always messing around on bus trips and hanging out in the hotel rooms. I think that’s brought us all closer together as teammates.”
This sentiment was echoed by senior midfielder Madi Oyer.
“It’s crazy how much everyone likes each other, it makes playing the games a lot more fun,” Oyer said.
The challenges the Cardinals have faced to this point however are more than just travel. The team has faced two opponents from the “Power Five” conferences in Indiana and LSU, with both matches being played on their home fields in front of large, loud crowds.
The Ball State defense stifled an LSU team currently ranked No. 24 in the country during the “Stomp in the Swap” tournament hosted by LSU.
“It’s a sign of how far we have come that we can go toe-to-toe against a high profile team like this,” head coach Craig Roberts said.
In Bloomington, the Cardinals controlled the game against the Hoosiers, and saw many near-miss attempts sail just wide in what could have been a signature victory. The win would’ve marked the 50th in Coach Robert’s career, but he was able to attain that mark in the next game against Morehead State.
Roberts becomes just the second coach in the history of the program to reach the 50-win milestone, joining Ron Rainey who coached the team from 1999-2005.
There’s no doubt to anyone who attends a Ball State Soccer game as to what the Cardinals’ strength is, and that is the incredibly talented defensive back line.
The squad is anchored by Leah Mattingly, a junior defender, who has started all 50 games of her career and has played 4,718 of a possible 4,739 minutes. She owns a streak of 4,389 consecutive minutes played dating back to the fifth game of her freshman season.
Adding to that line is transfer Lorina White, who alongside Mattingly, has played every minute this season, with the other back line starters being Orla Travers-Gillespie and Sam Mattlin.
Ball State has allowed only seven goals through eight games. The Cardinals are tied for second in the MAC in fewest goals allowed, behind only Miami (5).
Heintschel ranks fourth in the league with a 0.85 goals against average.
“Orla and Lorina’s speed in the middle makes it nearly impossible for players to get in behind,” Heintschel said. “Sam and Leah do a great job of closing players down and not allowing shots so it makes my job a lot easier.”
Rookies have combined to score five of the team’s 14 goals this season — Abbie Boswell (3), Kelcy Fiser (1) and Emily Scott (1). Boswell is tied with Gabby Veldman for the team lead in goals, and she also paces Ball State in shots (23) and shots on goal (14).
It’s definitely an offensive by committee, with 13 players recording either a goal or an assist this season. When the Cardinals struggle, it’s to score at times, but with that stellar defensive the team only needs so much.
The Cardinals are averaging 19.4 shots per game, to only 7.6 for opponents. So while the team has had stretches where it has had a hard time converting, the sheer amount of attempts points to improvement as the season goes along.
Headed into conference play, Ball State has the best non-conference record of any team in the MAC West Division and matched Kent State for the best record in the league as a whole. History is also on the Cardinal’s side.
Ball State has won its past three MAC openers, including a 5-0 home victory over Bowling Green last season. The Cardinals are 9-6-1 all-time in conference-opening games. Ball State and Eastern Michigan last opened the league schedule against each other in 2004, a scoreless draw in Muncie.
If you can’t make it out to Briner Sports Complex on Friday for the conference opener, the game will be broadcast live on ESPN 3, produced by Ball State Sports Link.
However, if you live in the area, you’re going to want to make it out to a game and see what is turning out to be a special team play.
“We’re all focused on one main goal, and that’s to be MAC Champs,” Heintschel said. “With how technically skilled this team is, I think this really is our year to win it all.”