As music floods the stands inside Worthen Arena and a newly minted pregame montage flashes on the suspended center-court screen, a slew of cheers ring from a sizable – and certainly boisterous – contingent of students in the seats. Echoing the student section’s excitement, the Cardinals players eagerly rushed through a line of high-fives before tossing their signature miniature volleyballs into the crowd.
Two hundred and seventy-six days after the women’s volleyball’s heartbreaking Mid-American Conference Tournament loss, a new energy fills the Indiana volleyball cathedral.
Energized and excited for the fresh campaign, Ball State (1-0) made quick work of Gonzaga (0-2) in a 3-0 (25-17, 25-19, 25-18) sweep of the visiting Zags on Friday in the opening round of the Ball State Invitational – a four-team round robin event also featuring Oklahoma and Purdue Fort Wayne.
“I couldn't be more incredibly excited about the crowd that we had tonight,” head coach Kelli Miller Phillips said. “ I think that that set the tone from the beginning what we're going to be for this new season, and then I thought we had a really balanced offense. We still left a couple plays on the table that I felt like we could have been even better, but for our first match I thought that we came out ready, we came out prepared.”
Leading the Cardinals’ potent offensive attack, which logged 49 kills in the three-set outing, was fifth-year senior Marie Plitt. The six-foot middle blocker recorded a team-best mark in kills (13) on a 0.500 hitting percentage and added five digs.
“Marie's been unbelievable; she has put in so much work,” Miller Phillips said. “She really sets the tone for how to be great, and the results are taking care of themselves.”
The veteran front-court anchor noted the benefits of her experience donning the Cardinal and White, especially when working with her underclass teammates.
“Experience definitely helps a little bit, but I think that we kind of help [the underclassmen] calm down a little bit,” Plitt said. “They feel just as comfortable as us out there, and they do a really good job.”
Supporting her experienced partner in the front court was senior Cait Snyder. The six-foot outside hitter logged 11 kills (the Cardinals’ second-highest mark), recorded seven digs and assisted on a block.
“I thought Cait Snyder has done a good job stepping up as our sixth rotation outside,” Plitt said.
Junior setter Megan Wielonski and fifth-year senior libero Havyn Gates also shined in the starting lineup, as the pair of standouts logged, respectively, 36 assists and 11 digs.
Gates was a critical piece to a new-look defense, which lost star defensive specialist Maggie Huber to graduation last season. In their first run, Miller Phillips was proud of the efforts made by her freshly-staffed defensive unit.
“I did actually think we made a lot of defensive plays,” Miller Phillips said. “We made a couple adjustments early… There's only so much preparation you can do, and I thought our defense did a great job of making quick in-match changes that were effective right away.”
Beyond the performance of the squad’s experienced core, the season opener also provided an opportunity for Cardinal fans to see a fresh crew of talent who will look to replace last year’s productive senior class.
Sophomore Madison Buckley, who made just the second start of her career, led the group of young players who made a statement on Friday night. The sizable opposite hitter, who sought to improve her vertical over the offseason, logged ten kills (a career-best) and a block assist.
“She can play even better, but it was a great start for her real – big-time first start,” Miller Phillips said.
With the first-round victory, the Cardinals have notched wins in each of their last five home openers. Plitt attributes much of her team’s current and past success to their fan support.
“The community of Muncie shows out every single game and it's just so electric to play in here,” Plitt said. “We love playing at home. We love our fans. We love the community.”
The Cardinals will close out their action in the Ball State Invitational with a double-header tomorrow; the two-game slate features a tilt against Oklahoma at 1 p.m. and a nightcap versus Purdue Fort Wayne at 7 p.m.
The Sooners are a familiar opponent for Miller Phillips’ squad, as the Cardinals defeated the power conference foe 3-1 last year in the early-season Lipscomb Tournament.
Although Miller Phillips acknowledges that her team’s familiarity with the Cardinals’ upcoming opponent will provide some advantages, she and her staff assert that they still “gotta be ready to play tomorrow morning.”
“[Oklahoma runs] a really, really fast offense,” Miller Phillips said. “They're big and physical, so we know we're going to have to come out and be the aggressor on the defensive end. And, certainly, it helps that we've seen him once before, but (they are a) very different team, and we're a different team. And so, it's kind of you start that from scratch.”
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