Monday is Amber Seaman’s birthday. She woke up a champion.
The feeling she and Ball State Women’s Volleyball felt Sunday night can only be described as “pure joy.”
That is what head coach Kelli Miller Phillips called Ball State’s (20-11, 11-5 MAC) 3-2 win over Bowling Green (19-12, 11-5 MAC) to clinch the Mid-American Conference Championship Sunday.
This is the seventh time in school history the Cardinals have won the MAC Tournament and the first time since 2002. They are going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
For Ball State, it was about sticking to tradition and keeping to what it has been focusing on all season long. It led to this moment, and Miller Phillips said she could not be more proud.
“It feels awesome to be able to continue to build upon the awesome tradition that has been Ball State Volleyball for so long,” Miller Phillips said. “It is just reinforcing the things we have been doing and preaching. I can’t be more proud of how coachable these girls were and how much they bought into everything thing we have been doing.”
The Cardinals took a 15-5 fifth-set victory on the Falcons’ on their own home court. They have won their last three five-set matches.
Three players led the team in kills. Freshman outside hitter Natalie Risi, junior outside hitter Kia Holder and freshman outside hitter Natalie Mitchem all had 12 kills. Senior defensive specialist Kate Avila led the team with 29 digs, and senior setter Amber Seaman led the way with 29 assists.
“Our service pressure was on point again,” Miller Phillips said. “That was a strength of ours the entire tournament but especially this game. I thought our service pressure picked up in set two. I thought our defensive presence really picked up. I thought in set one, we were over-amped, but after that, I thought we settled down and played our style of volleyball.”
Miller Phillips had high praise for Mitchem, who tallied her highest kill total all tournament and was a significant presence in the blocking department.
“I think she did a great job,” Miller Phillips said. “Her blocking presence was huge for us all weekend. We typically matched her up with the opponents’ best left side because she is a physical blocker, and we put that pressure on her, and she loves that. She played with joy and confidence.”
The game ended just how Miller Phillips drew it up.
Bowling Green served the ball, freshman defensive specialist Maggie Huber passed the ball to redshirt freshman setter Esther Grussing, who set the ball for freshman middle blocker Marie Plitt behind her. Plitt slammed it down, and the ball deflected off of the Falcons’ blocker and trickled to the floor. Then, the Cardinals’ celebration was on.
“I called a play for [Plitt] right before the ball was served for her,” Miller Phillips said. “I told Esther, ‘Hey, you’re going to set Plitt,’ and I knew it was going to work. They hadn’t stopped Plitt all night behind the setter, and I had all of the confidence in the world she was going to get that kill.”
Three freshmen were involved in that final play. There are 10 freshmen on the team, and at the beginning of the season, they were brand new. The upperclassmen had to mentor them, and it ultimately led to this moment Sunday night.
“We just kept getting better,” Miller Phillips said. “At the start of the year, half of our team was brand new, so it just took us a while to figure out things, and it took time to get us playing with chemistry and playing at a high level. I knew we had talent, it just takes time to develop that chemistry and that belief. We kept believing and getting better every week. Our seniors did such a great job of leading our freshman.”
Next up is the NCAA Tournament. The Selection Show is Sunday, Dec. 1, and the first round begins Thursday, Dec. 5.
“It is no different than how we have been doing it all year,” Miller Phillips said. “We get to go back to work. We will get back to the gym, continue to get better and focus on every single day just like we have done to get to this point. I don’t think we do anything different.”
The words Miller Phillips used to describe her team all season?
“Selfless,” she said first before pausing. “Gritty.”
Contact Ian Hansen with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ianh_2.