Around the vast, concrete concourse at Worthen Arena, indistinct cheers rung through the halls. On the court, players – dressed in white shirts featuring the “Dancing Charlie” logo – quickly migrated from one practice position to the next. Ball State head coach Kelli Miller Phillips, sporting a complete volleyball outfit (knee pads and all), demonstrated reception techniques to her backcourt players.
Ball State’s practice on the eve of its Mid-American Conference (MAC) opener displayed a palpable intensity.
Although the Cardinals were gearing up for a doubleheader with Central Michigan – the same team they faced in last year’s conference debut – the red and white enter this season with a different non-conference resume than they did in 2022.
Last season, the Cardinals tallied an 8-4 non-conference record and recorded a pair of tournament victories. In 2023, amidst a rigorous schedule and a slew of injuries, Ball State leaves the non-conference slate with a 3-8 mark – the slowest start since Miller Phillips’ debut campaign in 2016.
In spite of the Cardinals’ ebbs and flows early in the year, Miller Phillips describes the first weeks of the season as a time filled with positives.
“Even though we had to play a super tough schedule, and maybe didn't have the results that we wanted all the time, I think that gave us a real opportunity to do some reflection of where we're at and to not be content at all with where things are,” Miller Phillips said. “It gives us some good motivation going into league play of where we need to go.”
Graduate student Marie Plitt acknowledged the ups and downs of the Cardinals’ first 11 matches and described her call to leadership amidst the struggles.
“I think we're looking to learn and grow from all the experiences that we've had,” Plitt said. “We've played a lot of good teams, so they've given us a lot of good looks of what we're gonna look like and what we can do. And leadership-wise, we're having to step up a little bit; me and some other seniors. We want to win, so we're gonna have to change some things.”
“She grinded last season.”
Ball State’s unforeseen start has been met with contributions from unexpected emerging stars, a group led by redshirt freshman middle blocker Aniya Kennedy.
The La Porte native did not appear in game action during her first season in Muncie, but she has been an offensive force since her debut against Oklahoma (Aug. 26). Through half of her first season of full-time action, Kennedy now leads the Cardinals in kills (108).
“Aniya [Kennedy] has been such a key component on our team this year so far, and, hopefully, that continues,” Plitt said. “She grinded last year. She redshirted, so it's kind of hard like going into practice and then knowing you're not going to play, but I think she did a great job. That's helped her this year to continue to just keep getting better and growing.”
The 6-foot blocker attributed her growth to her individualized training this spring, which presented basic skills in a simplified style.
“Training in the spring helped a lot,” Kennedy said. “We went over the fundamentals of blocking the fundamentals hitting. It was just a lot I didn't realize needed to be fixed.”
All of Kennedy’s early stardom has come at inconsistent positions, as injuries have forced Miller Phillips to place her young blocker in nearly every front-row role. Despite this inconsistency, Kennedy expressed that she hasn’t felt overwhelmed.
“It's not really uncomfortable because I feel like all my career I've played everywhere,” Kennedy said. “I can play anywhere, so I think it's just like relearning.”
“Wherever she needs to be, she's gonna find a way to score,” Miller Phillips said. “She uses her athleticism to the best of her ability.”
Kennedy earned MAC West Offensive Player of the Week honors for her strong performances last week (September 11-17). The standout rookie was honored for her early recognition, as it proved that she made clear improvements from last season.
“I don’t think our approach changes.”
Ball State, the reigning MAC regular season champions, was chosen to win the MAC West division in the annual coaches poll. Although the Cardinals have not enjoyed scorching starts like their conference foes, Miller Phillips underscored that each team starts at an even record and that a championship focus remains in the program.
“The conference is a new opportunity to come in with a blank slate,” Miller Phillips said. “We still have the same goals to win the league [and] to win the tournament, in order to be in the NCAA Tournament again. That doesn't change.”
Plitt echoed her coach’s remarks and highlighted the Cardinals’ “every practice, every single point matters mentality.”
“This is a whole new season that we have coming up,” Plitt said. “[We are] just approaching it with what we've learned and then growing. We want to win the MAC.”
The Cardinals will begin their conference journey with a home doubleheader against Central Michigan (6-6) Sept. 21 and 22. The Chippewas handed Ball State two of its three league losses last year, but Miller Phillips said “we’re going be a little more ready” for this season’s clash.
“I think that was a huge wake-up call for us last year that you know if you don't come in ready to play on any given night you're gonna get your tail handed to you,” Miller Phillips said. “I think we've learned that lesson.”
For many Cardinals volleyball fans, October 7 is perhaps the most intriguing date on the calendar, as Ball State squares off against Bowling Green. The Cardinals and Falcons have squared off in three of the last four conference tournament championships, with Bowling Green emerging victorious in the 2022 title match.
Miller Phillips describes her program’s matchup with Bowling Green as a strong rivalry and added that defeating the MAC rival will rest on “not [letting] the past – whatever's happened good or bad – define what we're going to do moving forward.”
The MAC has perennially been one of the nation’s top mid-major volleyball conferences, which Miller Phillips said provides a challenge over the coming months.
“It's fun to be able to play great teams,” Miller Phillips said. “That's the whole point of what we're doing. We want to play the best as possible. We want to beat the best teams possible.”