Everyone is chasing Ball State football.
After the Cardinals won the Mid-American Conference championship in 2020 and capped the season with the first bowl victory in program history – an Arizona Bowl triumph over San Jose State – everyone will try to knock them off in 2021. Coach Mike Neu wants his team to embrace that reality.
“We train in 'One at a Time' T-shirts and on the back of that we put a target on every one of the shirts,” said Neu, who is entering his sixth season. “You have to embrace the fact that you're the hunted now and you're going to get everybody's best effort. We wouldn't want it any other way.”
Neu was in Fort Wayne on Wednesday at Chestnut Hills Golf Course along with Cardinals men's basketball coach James Whitford and women's golf coach Katherine Mowat for the Northeast Indiana Alumni Association of Ball State's annual Scholarship Golf Outing and Dinner. The event was canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, but returned this year to give three scholarships to local students who will begin attending Ball State in the fall.
While every team that wins a championship talks about repeating, Neu's team is uniquely positioned to do so because it returns 20 of its 22 starters. Many of those are super-seniors who used the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA during the pandemic to play one more season in Muncie. Among those returning veterans is Norwell graduate Curtis Blackwell, a two-time All-MAC offensive lineman. Blackwell will almost certainly be a fifth-year starter in 2021.
“Curtis Blackwell is a champion,” Neu said. “Not only on the football field, but he's a champion in the classroom. ... He's a tough Cardinal and he's everything you could ask for in a student-athlete. He's a great role model for every young player that comes into our program.”
Whitford's team went 10-13 in 2020-21 and will bring in six new faces for the upcoming season: three freshmen and three transfers. Whitford, entering his ninth season, believes his team can get back to contention in the MAC – the Cardinals won their division in 2016, 2017 and 2020.
“It's a big summer for us because we have a lot of new faces,” said Whitford, who is trying to take his team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000. “It's an important summer for us to get time together and really start building the chemistry, on the court and off.”
Mowat's team returns everybody from the spring season, a group that set school records for 18-hole score and 54-hole total in the Spring Break Shootout in Florida in March before finishing sixth out of 10 at the MAC Championships in April. Mowat is also excited just to be back on the road.
“It certainly feels good to be back and load up my car this morning to drive to the golf course, something I missed doing the last year or so,” she said. “And this is a special event, I've come to Fort Wayne for this outing, the first time was probably 15 years ago. It's been a long run for me, which is fun.”