Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Ball State football coach Mike Neu tees off during the Northeastern Indiana Cardinal Classic Golf Scramble and Dinner at Chestnut Hills Golf Club on Thursday.
Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Ball State men's basketball coach James Whitford speaks during the Northeastern Indiana Cardinal Classic Golf Scramble and Dinner at Chestnut Hills Golf Club on Thursday.
Friday, June 29, 2018 1:00 am
State of Ball State athletics
Football team hoping for health
After getting off to good start, injuries took toll last season
DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette
Ball State year in review
Baseball: 32-26, 17-10 in MAC
Basketball: 19-13, 10-8 in MAC
Football: 2-10, 0-8 in MAC
Golf: 2nd in MAC Championships
Swimming and diving: 6th in MAC Championships
Tennis: 14-11, 3-4 in MAC
Volleyball: 18-12, 10-4 in MAC
Basketball: 25-7, 13-5 in MAC, reached WNIT second round
Cross country: 11th in MAC Championships
Field hockey: 5-12, 1-5 in MAC
Golf: 6th in MAC Championships
Gymnastics: 9-10, 2-5 in MAC, 7th in MAC Championships
Soccer: 11-7-3, 8-1-2 MAC
Softball: 37-19, 16-7 in MAC
Swimming and diving: 4-7, 8th in MAC Championships
Tennis: 11-11, 3-5 in MAC
Track and field: 10th in MAC Outdoor Championships
Volleyball: 19-11, 11-5 in MAC
Saturday: Region colleges
Sunday: Purdue Fort Wayne
In case you missed it: Indiana (Sunday), Purdue (Monday), Notre Dame (Tuesday), Saint Francis (Wednesday), Indiana Tech (Thursday)
Ball State football won two of its first three games in 2017 and nearly beat Big Ten opponent Illinois on the road in the season opener.
Then the injuries began.
The Cardinals had one of the worst strings of injuries to key players in recent memory, losing starting quarterback Riley Neal, 1,300-yard rusher James Gilbert and starting receivers Jordan Hogue, a New Haven graduate, and Corey Lacanaria for at least eight games each, to go along with myriad injuries on the offensive line.
All those missing starters took a toll, and the Cardinals lost their final nine games, losing all eight MAC games by an average score of 48-12. They finished 2-10 in coach Mike Neu's second season at the helm.
“We've been through some growing pains,” Neu said at the Cardinal Classic Golf Outing in Fort Wayne on Thursday. “We had some injuries that took place a year ago; no excuses, but I'm excited because we've got a lot of depth now, our staff's done a great job in recruiting the last couple of years.”
After the tough end to the season, Neu said one of the main goals of the spring practice schedule was rebuilding the confidence of players who might have become demoralized. The Cardinals' coach, who played quarterback at Ball State in 1990-93, said he was pleased with how the team had regained its belief in itself in the spring and early summer.
“I think our young men know we can be a pretty dangerous and good football team when we got all of our guys healthy,” he said. “It was good to see that in spring, having fun again and we've carried that into the summer. ... Our guys know we need to finish the summer the way we started it and I have no doubt that will happen.”
One of the silver linings of a season that didn't go according to plan was young players being forced to step up and play far more snaps than they otherwise might have. One of those young players thrust into the lineup was former Norwell standout Curtis Blackwell.
Blackwell started seven games – five at right guard and two at right tackle – as a true freshman after earning Class 3A all-state honors at Norwell.
Neu said the offensive line is a particularly challenging position group to play as a true freshman.
“Curtis accomplished something I didn't think was possible,” the coach said. “When you're entering a college program as a true freshman, the toughest transition is really in the trenches. To be a starter as a true freshman was very impressive. It's a testament to how hard the young man worked when he arrived in our program.
“Curtis is such a high-character guy and for him to be able to compete early in his career; ... now he's used to the speed of the game. There's a lot of moving parts when you enter as a true freshman, so now he knows all that.”
The Cardinals' men's basketball team had a tough season, as well, though it was more successful, going 19-13 and posting a winning record in the Mid-American Conference for the third consecutive year.
Off the court, the Cardinals had to deal with the tragic death of redshirt freshman Zach Hollywood in August, shaking the team before the season began.
In addition, senior Jeremie Tyler was dismissed from the squad for a “violation of team rules” and guard Jontrell Walker was indefinitely suspended in January. He has since left the team.
“I'm really proud of our team for overcoming a tremendous amount of adversity, particularly in the loss of Zach, which was very hard,” coach James Whitford said Thursday. “I'm extraordinarily proud of the way our kids came together and supported each other throughout the year.
“The other edge of that coin is I feel like we could have been at 22 or 23 (wins), should have been. There was a feeling at the end of the year that we left a few chips on the table and that's a big motivator for all of us.”
Whitford said he's been pleased with the way his team has worked this offseason. The Cardinals have recently moved into a new practice facility, the Dr. Don Shondell Practice Center.
“We just had practice there this week for the first time,” Whitford said. “It's a great addition for our guys. Now they have access to facilities to get better 24/7. We need to give our guys the space to try to become great. To me that's part of our commitment to them when they choose Ball State and now we have it.”