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‘Last piece of the puzzle:’ Ball State softball is graduating 10 seniors after the 2023-24 season

By Zach Carter, The Daily News | Published on in The Daily News
Seniors Jazmyne Armendariz (right) and Haley Wynn (left) pose together after facing Bowling Green April 13 at First Merchants Ballpark Complex. Andrew Berger, DN

It’s not about stats.

It’s not strikeout rates or RBIs or stolen bases.

It’s not the “what” they see on a stat sheet but the “who” they see in the dugout. The relationships made both on and off the field are what mattered most for the 10 softball players who are reaching the end of their careers at Ball State.

“I’ll remember it forever,” graduate student infielder Samantha-Jo Mata said. “These are my best friends, and most of these people will be at my wedding.”

The graduating team members have played through a global pandemic, coaching transitions and the uptick in transfer portal applications. While some arrived in Muncie and never left, others have come along for the ride.

Despite different backstories and pre-collegiate careers, their time at Ball State has made them more than athletes.

“They’re the last piece of the puzzle,” redshirt sophomore utility player McKenna Mulholland said. “The culture they brought to this team over the last few years has created our team.”

‘Better than they found it’ 

Before current head coach Helen Peña took the reins, former head coach Lacy Schurr spent a great deal of time with the now-veteran group during her three seasons (2021-23) in Muncie.

While she recognized the gameplay skills of the group, the way they handled themselves off the field stood out even more.

“They took care of all of the younger [players] coming in and set a really, really good example,” Schurr said. “At their core, they are just really good human beings.”

Events at player’s houses, team dinners and just having fun at practice, Schurr — who is now associate head coach at the University of Pittsburgh — said the seniors accepted their roles on day one and never lost sight of that.

Despite challenges during their tenure, the graduating players kept their faith in the program.

“They’re built a little differently,” Schurr said. “They all came from very, very different backgrounds.  I think the character of who they are just says a lot about them … Given the state of what nationally [happens], with a lot of people coming in and others going out, this group bought in and fought for each other.”

The two seniors who stood out the most to Schurr were graduate students Jazmyne Armendariz and Haley Wynn. Both were always there for their teammates and coaches no matter the situation.

“Somebody like [Armendariz] in the program who is really wise beyond her years,” Schurr said. “She just did such a good job of welcoming everybody in. And then Haley Wynn … to watch her grow and develop solidified this class.”

While Schurr is now coaching the Panthers, most of her memories from Muncie involve this group and what they did for her and the entire program.

“They’re just so caring and are leaving the program better than they found it,” she said. “That’s all you can ask for any class.”

‘Even when they’re gone’ 

Before Peña arrived at Ball State’s campus, she noticed the high number of seniors, which was unlike any team she had coached prior. With that in mind, she knew she was going to get a group of upperclassmen who saw themselves as more than just athletes.

“I feel like the previous coaches have done a good job just because our juniors and seniors are great athletes and great people,” Peña said. “I feel like the underclassmen have looked up to them, and they’ve done a good job leading them throughout the year.”

She arrived with some housekeeping items, but it did not take long for the 10 seniors to lend their hands to the process.

“They helped me not only get my message to the team — but also just when it comes to logistics and keeping me in the know — they helped me as a first-year head coach,” Peña said.

While she was pleased to see their stats and value on the field, Peña’s first preview of how the group worked was when Wynn hosted a “dip night” for the entire team and coaching staff.

“It’s a tradition here. We had it and all 29 athletes and coaches were all sitting in her large living room,” Peña said. “We were doing a Jeopardy-style game and we were split into teams. It was just something that they organized.”

That night, the upperclassmen showed Peña and the new coaching staff they were serious and cared more about the other 16 Cardinals outside of  the game of softball. From that point to now, their mentality has never changed.

That same mentality is the main point Peña wanted to bring to Ball State, with her slogan “culture of care.” Since its implementation, the upperclassmen have embraced it every moment of every day.

“They were not only sharing that, but they were walking the walk and leading by example,” Peña said.  “I think for the future, [it will help] with the types of recruits that we’re trying to get in here. Not only elite athletes, but ones with character and elite integrity.

“They were the ones that kind of paved the way in a sense. They will be an amazing alumni group, and they’re still going to have an impact on the team, even when they’re gone.”


Graduate student infeilder Samantha-Jo Mata yells for a strike against Bowling Green April 13 at First Merchants Ballpark Complex. Mata had six put-outs in the field. Andrew Berger, DN

‘One Saturday or Sunday’ 

While the Cardinals still have at least five games remaining on their schedule, they know the end is near.

“We’re trying to think about it too much,”  King said. “[We’re taking it] one game at a time to make the season last as long as possible.”

The acknowledgment of their careers coming to a close has given the seniors time to look back at their years in the program and the games they played on the softball field at the First Merchants Ballpark Complex.

“This has been the best time of my life,” Mata said. “I’ve never had anything like this — family-wise, team-wise or coach-wise. This has been the best three years of my life without a doubt.”

Though the upperclassmen have mixed feelings about the rest of the season, the Cardinals, who are in line to carry the Ball State name, are not ready to lose their presence.

“They make everything fun,” Mulholland said. “With a [senior] group this big, it means that much more going into the rest of the season. Every game is for them.”

Yet the emotions and mindset cannot stop the inevitable. After hundreds of games, thousands of innings and outs, their final “play ball” moment is almost here.

“We’re just trying to enjoy every single moment,” Wynn said. “Because one day, one Saturday or Sunday, it’s just gonna be the end of it.”

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