BY STEVE KRAH
Making memories against formidable foes.
That’s one thing Ball State University head baseball coach Rich Maloney considers when putting together the Cardinals schedule.
When the opportunity came to open the season at perennial powerhouse Arizona, Maloney jumped at it.
Kent State had planned to visit the Wildcats, but was not allowed to travel.
Maloney asked Ball State director of athletics Beth Goetz about taking the place of their Mid-American Conference partners.
“We’ve got a veteran team,” says Maloney of his sales pitch to Goetz. “They didn’t get to go last year (because of a pandemic-shortened 2020 season). They’re hungry. We wanted to be able to go somewhere and play.
“I try to schedule really good opponents and get the kids to have the opportunity for experiences that they can remember and go to places they’ll never forget.”
A couple of items sweetened the deal. Arizona offered a guarantee in case the series could not be played because of COVID-19.
Also, one of Maloney’s former players at Michigan — Derek Kerr — is an Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at American Airlines and that just happens to be the carrier the Cards chose to take to Tucson.
“It was totally incidental,” says Maloney. “I called and asked Derek if there was any way he could help Coach out and get an extension in case we got hit with COVID and couldn’t make the trip to Arizona. He promised and that’s what gave Beth Goetz the green light to say it’s OK to schedule the flight.
“Our guys have done a nice job of staying in their bubble the best they can and we’ve been able to make these trips.”
With senior right-handed pitcher John Baker playing a major role, Ball State split four games Feb. 19-22 at Arizona, went 2-1 Feb. 26-27 against Bradley in Normal, Ill., and 2-1 March 5-7 at Kentucky for a 6-4 start to 2021 season.
Baker has made four appearances (three in relief) and is 1-0 with a 1.45 earned run average. Opponents are hitting .127 against him.
“He should have gone to pro ball a long time ago,” says Maloney of Baker. “He has amazing moxie.
“He’s so underrated. He has the ‘It’ factor.”
Senior left-hander Lukas Jaksich (2-0), junior right-hander Chayce McDermott (1-0), junior Tyler Ruetschle (1-1) and sophomore right-hander Andre Oreselli (1-0) have accounted for the other mound victories.
In Sunday’s 4-3 win at UK, the Cards’ starting batting order featured junior second baseman Noah Navarro, freshman designated hitter Decker Scheffler, senior right fielder Ross Messina, junior first baseman Trenton Quartermaine, senior catcher Chase Sebby, junior left fielder Nick Powell, sophomore third baseman Ryan Peltier, sophomore shortstop Justin Conant and senior center fielder Aaron Simpson.
Those nine represent 521 games (with 465 starts) in their Ball State careers.
Sebby, the 2019 MAC Defensive Player of the Year, has started 122 of his 130 games while Messina and Simpson have started all 83 times they’ve been in the lineup.
“We’ve got a great bunch,” says Maloney. “It’s a fun team to coach. They’re highly-competitive and they’re experienced.
“They’ve done some pretty incredible things in the first couple of weekends. I’m certainly happy for them. They’ve created some great memories. But we’ve got a long way to go. We can get a lot better than we are.”
Maloney says he is encouraged by the “grit” of his team, which has several players back — right-handed fireballers Drey Jameson and Kyle Nicolas being the notable exceptions — from that went 38-19 overall and 20-5 in the MAC while Central Michigan was having stronger year at 47-14 and 22-5.
“In any other year we would have been a (conference) champion,” says Maloney.
WarrenNolan.com has Ball State No. 1 in both RPI and Strength of Schedule among NCAA Division I programs. Indiana State is No. 9 and No. 10, Notre Dame No. 20 and No. 35.
Maloney says high-profile wins can only help the Cards.
“Over the years we’ve been good enough to be in the NCAA tournament but because (the MAC) has been a one-team bid we just haven’t been able to get over the top in tournament play.
“The RPI — the power of the league — has held us back.”
When Maloney was head coach at Michigan, the Big Ten had bids for the conference champion and an at-large bid — something not enjoyed by the MAC.
“I talk about it a lot with the other coaches. There’s going when we can get two teams in. I don’t know if this is the year or not. Our conference is winning some games out of conference.
“The Mid-American Conference is at the highest level its been in a long, long time.”
For example: Kent State beat No. 2-ranked Mississippi State Saturday, March 6.
“The difference between David and Goliath isn’t really that big,” say Maloney.
Next up for Ball State is a three-game series March 12-14 at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
The Cardinals is scheduled to open the home portion of their season with a four-game set March 19-21 against MAC foe Western Michigan.