Conference championship weekend was over in a blur of close meets, upsets and surprise champions. What many gym fans may not have realized, however, was that one of those victories—namely Temple’s incredible program record score of 196.500 to seal the EAGL championship and punch its ticket to regionals—effectively kicked Ball State out of postseason contention after being in a position to qualify all season.
“That’s a tough pill to swallow; to be in it all year long and then sit right there on the edge,” head coach Joanna Saleem said.
The Cardinals have had an incredible 2021 season, spending the majority of it undefeated within the MAC and breaking their fourth program record in just two years. Such a feat would be noteworthy at any time, but it’s even more impressive considering the shortened 2020 season and the uncertainty and training challenges 2021 afforded.
“You’re seeing the product of many years. It’s a process,” Saleem said. “In the last couple years you’ve had these young women really buy in. We have an amazing staff, and you put all those things together and it starts to become more of what is expected.”
Saleem, currently in her ninth season as head coach, has high expectations and has seen significant growth in the program during her tenure. During her first season in 2014, she led the Cardinals to a fifth place showing at her first MAC championship—the highest finish for Ball State since 2011. At the 2016 conference championship, the Cardinals set a new program best team score. Since then, there have been multiple gymnasts who have set individual program records and qualified to regionals. The team has also continued to improve, setting new event highs on floor (in 2017) and vault (in 2019). In addition to the three program records in 2020, Ball State had its highest winning percentage in 20 years—only to be topped in 2021 along with setting yet another new program best, the fifth under Saleem’s leadership.
“We have continued to raise the bar every year that I’ve been here,” Saleem said. “You sit down and continue to push yourself to be better. We’re not settling, and we’re not complacent.”
This year Saleem was recognized for her efforts by receiving the MAC Coach of the Year award, an honor she said she is humbled by. “You don’t get an award like that by yourself. For me, this is just a recognition of the hard work and the sacrifices that this entire group of people have made to have a successful year.”
While the Cardinals have seen a lot of success during Saleem’s tenure, she keeps pushing for more. She knows what her athletes are capable of, and she knows what needs to be done to meet that potential.
“We got to that point [in prior seasons] where they were confident and knew what they were doing. But then when something would go wrong, they were no longer confident in their skills,” Saleem said.
Because of this, she was faced with the challenge of needing to figure out how they could improve the team’s adaptability. The solution? Planning unpredictability.
Athletes will typically come into practice with an expectation of what their workout will be on any given day. The last couple years, though, Saleem and her coaching staff have reworked their entire training regimen with the goal of keeping athletes on their toes and catching them off guard.
“We sat down and said, ‘OK, on this day we typically do this’—for example, we usually do a lineup day on Sunday—[but] we’re just going to throw it in on Tuesday,” Saleem explained. “And then we would analyze it afterward and say, ‘OK, what was different?’ And I think that really helped.”
Her goal was to provide opportunities for the team to build confidence in those moments of perceived chaos instead of just drilling consistency. She wanted the team to be more prepared to handle the uncertainty that can come from a missed routine, rough event or—as was the case this year—a thoroughly unpredictable season. The level of adaptability and tenacity required to deal with the unknown has led to her affectionately referring to her team as “gritty.”
“That’s saying I’m not going to give up, and I’m not going to lose my mind because things didn’t go exactly as I wanted,” Saleem said. “What we do with that is what makes the difference, and being able to recover and move forward is huge. That’s the reason we continue to use the word ‘gritty.’ We can miss an event, a key person can miss a routine and now not everybody feels like the world has ended.”
It can be difficult for any athlete not to get wrapped up in expectations and pressure, especially the kind that they tend to put on themselves during a competition. The closer the Cardinals got to the conference championship and regionals, the more that pressure seemed to settle in. It’s something Saleem is still working through. “They all want to do really well. They all wanted to go. So how do you handle that and still go out and compete freely and not tighten up?”
Finding the best way to help her athletes has been a challenge that Saleem welcomed. “It’s challenged me as a coach to do different things and to speak with other coaches and sports psychologists and [ask] what are some [other] ways to do this? We will continue to work on that; I don’t think you can ever get too good at that adaptability.”
That grit was put to the test when the Cardinals fell just short of qualifying to regionals as a team, yet four individuals earned spots: senior Claudia Goyco on floor, sophomores Grace Evans and Megan Teter on bars and freshman Victoria Henry on vault.
“Right now the four of us have to practice, and the team has the option to come in if they want,” Henry said. “The four of us have noticed, and the coaches have noticed, that the team comes into practice and supports us way more than they have [in the past]. It’s nice knowing that they’re excited for us.”
Saleem agreed. “These young women are already planning and working new skill choices and talking [about next season] and unifying in a way that [we didn’t see] in the past. They’re all talking to each other and showing up in the gym to encourage the women who are going to regionals.”
That very culture is one of the things that drew Henry to Ball State in the first place, and made her freshman season so enjoyable. “It was really exciting to be undefeated and to keep getting better for each meet,” Henry said. “I love the connection we made as a team during that process, and when things started getting tough, we still worked as hard as we could.”
Perhaps most importantly, the team is already focused on next season and new goals.
“Of course I want to have the program go so much farther because I know it can,” Henry said. “With each incoming class, we just get better and better. We’re really excited for the new freshmen to come in next year.”
“They all feel like they should be going to regionals as a team, and they know they’re good enough to do it,” Saleem echoed. “Our young women are doing it for themselves now, and that is something that is super exciting. Every year we’ve progressively had a better season or some kind of record that’s been broken, and you’re going to continue to see that. We’re looking forward to next year to be able to make some really strong statements about the success of this program and the strength of this university.”
Henry, Evans, Goyco and Teter will compete at the Tuscaloosa regional on Friday, April 2 at 8 p.m. ET.
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Article by Kalley Leer; photos courtesy of Ball State University Athletics
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