Mason Plummer / Lead Writer / Ball State Sports Link
As is the case in sports, focus and emphasis is always placed on what is next. Rarely is there time to reflect on what has been done or completed in the past, because most are always looking forward to the next best thing and what can be accomplished next that is even better.
The Ball State women’s soccer team had just moments to reflect on winning the Mid-American Conference West Division championship before it focused its attention on the next game, the next best thing, Bowling Green.
The Cardinals, sporting a record of 6-2-1 were set to square off with the Falcons of Bowling Green, 5-1-0, for the MAC Championship and a berth to the NCAA Tournament that comes along with it. Both teams were running on all cylinders heading into the matchup, but only one team would leave with a smile on their faces and another game to look ahead to.
“We knew coming into the game that Bowling Green was going to be a tough opponent,” Junior forward Tatiana Mason said. “We usually matchup with the teams in our division very well, but they had a lot of size and athleticism that we knew would be tough to deal with.”
It was a scrappy, hardfought first half that saw Bowling Green strike first in the fourth minute through a goal from Falcons forward Kennedy White. The Cardinals answered back nearly immediately with a goal from the aforementioned Tatiana Mason off of a cross from Shelby Kean just minutes after Bowling Green broke the deadlock.
“Shelby had been playing balls to me like that all season and it was great to score and get us back in the game so quickly,” Mason said. “That goal showed us we were in it and weren’t going down easy. It was a tough first half but being able to answer their goal right away was big.”
The game went into halftime knotted up at 1-1 and it stayed that way shortly into the second half. Bowling Green took the lead in the 61st minute through a goal from midfielder Katie Cox and rode out the lead from there despite Ball State’s best efforts.
The goal, a thunderbolt from over 20 yards out, broke Cardinal hearts and put an eventual end to what was otherwise an extremely impressive season from head coach Josh Rife and company.
However, Rife and the Ball State Cardinals are already looking forward to next season. The focus is getting better and getting ‘over the hump’, which may actually start with recruiting players that are already on the team.
Due to COVID-19, the NCAA has established a ruling allowing players who are graduating and would have exhausted their eligibility, an extra season to play. Senior defender Shelby Kean is among the players that would be welcomed back into the Ball State program with open arms, as she was a mainstay and leader for the Cardinals defense throughout her career.
“It is definitely an option for me,” Kean said of returning to Ball State. “I have had a few discussions with my parents and the coaches here at Ball State and I really feel blessed to even have the opportunity to come back and play again. I’m going to have to sort some things out but it is definitely a possibility that I will come back.”
Kean is pursuing a masters degree in Sports Administration and may be able to do that at Ball State. Muncie is where she would prefer to stay if the stars lineup and she knows her teammates would welcome her back with open arms.
The core of the Ball State team is young and hungry and could benefit from the leadership of someone like Kean returning to the squad again for next season.
As for everyone else on the team, the work has already begun to get back to the MAC Championship game and finish the business they started. When Josh Rife took over the Ball State program in June of 2019, he made it clear what the goals were for his team and he came close to accomplishing it.
Rife and his girls believe, though, that next season will be different.
“With next season just around the corner, there is no time for us to dwell on last season,” Rife said. “We have started preparing for the fall already and we have big goals. A majority of the team is coming back and we are excited about the future and winning a MAC Championship.”
The Ball State skipper faces a tough upcoming offseason however, as he will not be able to contact his players throughout the summer. In fact, the first time he will see them will be in Ball State’s preseason training which starts just a few weeks from the first game of the fall season.
Rife is confident that the veterans of the team will prove themselves as leaders and be sure the team comes back hungry and ready to chase another MAC Championship, but he made it known that the honess is on them. There is only so much he can do as the head coach.
“It’s going to be tough to not be able to see the girls over the summer and see them train but I have no concerns about them not coming back ready to go,” Rife said with a laugh. “I know how hungry they are to get back to the MAC Championship and win it this time. They know what they have to do to get there. They have a chip on their shoulder, I can feel it.”
The chip on the shoulder, cliche as it sounds, can be felt in those who cover the women’s team as well. Ball State Sports Link lead soccer broadcaster Parker Webster called each and every game for the Cardinals and has a unique perspective into the team. A longtime player himself, Webster can see through this team and see the future is bright.
“This team defines what having a championship culture is all about,” Webster said. “Each and every player carries a ‘go get it’ mindset that has proven why they are championship contenders. This season they were unable to finish, but there was no lack of effort or intensity. They will be back, even stronger.”
Webster’s partner-in-crime covering the women’s team for Ball State, Oli Thompson, shared a similar sentiment.
“Getting to the MAC Championship against a team like Bowling Green was just a testament to the hard work and patience this team showed all season,” Thompson said. “Even with that tough loss to end the season, there are so many positives to take into the fall. Coach Rife’s system works well in the regular season and if he can find a way to make it work just as well in the postseason, Ball State will be pushing for the MAC Championship yet again.”
The short layoff into a brand new full season will be interesting for the team and for Rife, who each have never experienced anything quite like this. Rife, who has nearly seen it all as a coach and player throughout his time playing at TCU, Indiana and professionally in the USL, before finding his niche in coaching, will have to be at his best yet again.
While there is no official schedule released yet, expect the season to start hot and heavy for the Cardinals this fall. In speaking to players, coaches, fans, broadcasters and more, it is clear that everyone around the program is ready to bring home that elusive MAC Championship and this past season was just a glimpse into what this team can be.