There's been a feeling around the Ball State softball community in recent years that the Mid-American Conference Tournament wasn't right. Twice the Cardinals won the league's regular season and twice they failed to win the tourney.
Consequently, twice Ball State did not win the tourney and did not advance to the NCAA Regionals.
"In the past, by the time we played our first game there were already two teams eliminated," Munster native and Andrean graduate Audrey Bickel said. "The teams we opened with got their first-game jitters out. It was hard to come into that game because they had the momentum."
In 2011, Bickel's team was upset by Miami in the MAC tourney. In 2012 Miami did it again. And in 2013 it was Northern Illinois.
"Since the bye was taken out this year, it levels the playing field," said Nikki Steinbach, a Hobart native and 2012 Andrean grad. "We're coming in like every other team this year. I feel like this is our year. We can't over-think everything.
"When we're relaxed, we're fun to watch."
Today, Ball State (32-17) opens against Miami at Firestone Stadium in Akron. The MAC tourney champ will be decided Saturday.
Bickel hit a home run her freshman year at Andrean that gave the 59ers the 2007 state title. Steinbach struck out 11 in the 2012 state title game to give Andrean another state crown.
Bickel was a four-time Times first-team softball honoree. Steinbach won the Times Player of the Year award twice, in 2011 and '12.
"Audrey was one of the main reasons I chose Ball State," Steinbach said. "We played together in high school for two years. With her here, it was not intimidating coming on. I know how reliable she is. She always has my back. I can trust her."
Bickel is hitting .378 with 46 RBIs and nine home runs heading into today's game. Steinbach is 14-10 with a 3.72 ERA and 84 strikeouts.
On Tuesday, Bickel was one of five Cardinals named to the All-MAC first team. Steinbach was named to the second team for the second straight season.
"Oh my God, the four years have flown by," Bickel said. "I can't believe I graduated on Saturday. I'm proud we won the MAC (regular season) three times in four years. That has been huge. And I'm proud of the relationships I've built with all the players here."
First-year Cardinals coach Tyra Perry was used to the top seeds, getting the bye when she coached at Western Kentucky. But she also understands the mindset of this current group of players. She knows they want to get out and play.
Ball State went 12-4 in the MAC this year.
Perry is pumped to have both 59ers on her roster.
"With Audrey, if it's a strike she's going to smoke it," Perry said. "(Steinbach) is an evolving young lady. She gets better every time she gets on the (circle). She is definitely a force out there."