Playing below a newly hung 2022 MAC title banner inside Worthen Arena, the Cardinals closed out their first weekend of action on Saturday with a competitive afternoon loss and a decisive evening sweep.
The Cardinals’ 2-1 record on the weekend equates to a second-place finish in the four-team Ball State Invitational.
GAME 1: Oklahoma (L, 3-1; 18-25, 25-22, 25-13, 25-18)
In the squad’s first action against a power conference opponent this season, the Cardinals fell 3-1 in a competitive afternoon match to an offensive-minded Oklahoma (3-0) squad.
“They had one player that we just couldn't stop,” Ball State head coach Kelli Miller Phillips said. “[Alexis] Shelton had 26 kills, and we tried a variety of different block moves, a variety of different defenses, but she was unbelievable tonight. And, I just felt like that really kind of took the wind out of our sails, even offensively.”
Amidst the Sooners’ late-game boom and missed opportunities for Ball State, Miller Phillips found a silver lining in the loss – the Cardinals showed flashes of resilience, and a pair of young players gained game experience.
The cardinal and white’s mental fortitude was on display in the opening set, which was the only frame that went in favor of Ball State. Miller Phillips’ team entered a media timeout midway through the set trailing 15-12 but closed it out on a scorching 13-3 run behind six kills from Cardinals hitters.
In addition to the spirited first-set comeback, strong debut outings from true freshman Kendall Barnes and redshirt freshman Aniya Kennedy also provided intrigue for Cardinals fans in the loss.
Barnes, a 6-foot-1-inch hitter hailing from Bartlett, Tenn., entered her debut outing in the third set and went on to accumulate two well-placed kills and a block assist.
“[Barnes] has done a great job of just being in tune in practice, so she got her opportunity tonight,” Miller Phillips said. “We gotta find a combination of all of our front-row attackers that can be consistent; we're still working through that.”
A 6-foot middle, Kennedy enjoyed her first in-game action after taking a redshirt season in her first year in Muncie. The LaPorte, Ind. product recorded four kills and a block assist late in the match.
“[Kennedy] is absolutely physical and capable enough to be a starter,” Miller Phillips said. “Her thing is how to get that game experience and learn that game speed.”
Stabilizing the youthful presence in the afternoon outing was a pair of strong performances from Cait Snyder and Megan Wielonski. Snyder posted a team-high ten kills, recorded three total blocks, and notched a career-high in digs (eight), while Wielonski dished out a team-best 31 assists and logged 11 digs.
Oklahoma is one of three major conference opponents on the Cardinals’ 2023 schedule, and Miller Phillips is looking to build on her team’s success and miscues against the Sooners as it will search for victories against stiff competition in the future.
“It's part of the deal when it's non-conference time,” Miller Phillips said. “You want to play great teams; you want to play physical teams, and certainly, Oklahoma was just that.
GAME 2: Purdue Fort Wayne (W, 3-0; 25-18, 25-11, 25-21)
After a three-and-a-half hour break following the first half of their double-header, the Cardinals returned to the court to capture a decisive 3-0 win over Purdue Fort Wayne (0-3).
In spite of her team’s quick turnaround, Miller Phillips was pleased with adjustments the Cardinals made after falling to Oklahoma just hours before.
“We just had to reset and take this one as a new one,” Miller Phillips said. “We knew we were capable of doing that. We're still trying to figure out a lot of things as a team; different lineups, trying to figure out different people in different spots, and so I thought they responded well… That's the whole point of the non-conference.”
At the core of the Cardinals' victory was a punishing front-row attack. Ball State’s corps of hitters logged 44 kills, matching its total from the four-set Oklahoma match, at a 0.372 hitting percentage.
Senior Lauren Gilliand and graduate student Marie Plitt were the leaders of the frontcourt attack, as the duo smashed nine and ten kills, respectively. Also a key to the Cardinals’ block, the standout Cardinals combined for three total blocks.
Although considerable production has come from the Cardinals’ front row, Miller Phillips still terms it a work in progress. Gilliand, a veteran of the unit, is proud of the steps taken in building the new core.
“I think it's awesome to see [the underclassmen] develop into their own roles,” Gilliand said. “I think everyone's coming together and making a good team effort.”
Making the hitters’ night possible were Wielonski’s efforts, as she capped off the invitational finale with another admirable outing – posting 39 assists (her top mark of the weekend) and a pair of aces.
“I was talking to the team earlier and we were saying just how cool it was to be playing at home again,” Wielonski said. “We just got chills out there, so it's just so exciting.”
Following up a pair of strong outings in Ball State’s previous matches, fifth-year libero Havyn Gates led the Cardinal and White’s defense with 16 digs.
Another pivotal piece to Ball State’s winning puzzle was its stellar performance from the service line. Cardinals servers registered six aces on the night, one shy of their combined total from the last two nights.
Ball State’s competitive non-conference schedule will not relent next weekend, as the Cardinals will participate in the loaded Bluejay Invitational – a four-team blockbuster event that will feature Creighton (the host), Northern Iowa, and LSU.
Each participating school appeared in the NCAA Tournament last season, and Wielonski commented on the Cardinals' necessary steps to succeed next weekend.
“I think this weekend really showed us what we have to do this next week to get better,” Wielonski said. “We’ve got to continue to pass, we’ve got to continue to serve well, if we want to beat those big teams.”