The Cardinals’ bid at redemption came up short on Saturday, as the red and white fell in both of their games to close out the Dayton Tournament.
Ball State leaves Dayton with a six-match losing streak and a 2-7 record, the Cardinals’ slowest start since head coach Kelli Miller Phillips’ debut campaign in 2016.
“It's only week three, so there's a lot of time left,” Miller Phillips said. “And, we played a really, really tough schedule, and that’s OK. So, it's remembering, although our record’s not what we want it to be, we all feel pretty good.”
Game 1: UIC (L, 3-1; 26-24, 23-25, 25-19, 25-23)
Ball State fell 3-1 to the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) (7-3) in the opening match of its doubleheader, a setback that closely mirrored the Cardinals’ four-set loss to Wright State just a day before.
The first set of the Ball State-UIC matinee was tightly contested – featuring 11 ties and five lead changes – and concluded with a 26-24 score in overtime, the exact first-frame count in the Cardinals’ match against Wright State.
Again following suit with the Wright State matchup, the competitive first frame in the Saturday morning outing was followed by a pair of sets in which Ball State dropped by a two-point edge.
To this point of the young campaign, six of the Cardinals’ set losses have been decided by three points or fewer. Finding the winning side of close sets will be a focal point for Ball State head coach Kelli Miller Philips as her team approaches league play.
“We were right there with them,” Miller Phillips said. “We're just trying to find some ways to eliminate some of our more silly errors, [like] service errors in untimely moments and some more routine things. Part of that is experience, playing in those moments, getting used to playing in those moments."
In addition to its monopolization of close sets, UIC’s stifling front-row play was also a key to its win, as the Flames logged 61 kills. Miller Phillips acknowledges defending their quick, physically imposing hitters was problematic.
“[UIC was] super fast, so they were running an extremely quick tempo offense at both pins,” Miller Phillips said. “They've got really, really physical attackers, and that's difficult when they're in system.”
In spite of the similarities between the Cardinals’ two losses to open the Dayton Tournament, the red and white’s slim loss featured a number of improvements from previous outings.
Most notably, Ball State enjoyed its finest performance at the service line. Led by junior setter Megan Wielonski’s three aces, Cardinals servers dropped in seven service aces – their highest total of the season.
The Cardinals’ ball movement was sharper than it was against Wright State, as the red and white notched fewer reception errors and more assists, compared to their Friday match. Wielonski led in the distribution department, posting 40 assists and 13 digs in her fifth double-double of the year.
“[Wielonski’s] always a steady presence for us, and I think she's competing hard,” Miller Phillips said. “She's trying to continue to bring the fight out of all of her different teammates out there. We need her.”
The Cardinals’ corps of hitters also enjoyed a more efficient outing in the front row, registering 52 kills on a 0.211 hitting percentage – a mark that surpasses those of their last four matches.
Sophomore opposite Madison Buckley led the charge with 14 kills; fifth-year middle blocker Marie Plitt was second with 12 kills on a 0.400 hitting percentage; and, senior outside hitter Cait Snyder rounded out the top three with 9 kills.
Game 2: Dayton (L, 3-0; 25-12, 25-17, 25-20)
The Cardinals (2-7) battled Dayton (8-2) in five sets last season but were unable to push the Flyers past three frames in the 3-0 loss.
Dayton, a team that nearly knocked off No. 2 Louisville earlier this week, jumped out to a scorching start by snatching the first set, 25-12. The Flyers’ first-frame performance set the tone for the remainder of the outing, prompting Miller Phillips to highlight the importance of blazing a trail early in the match.
“We're learning a lot about how important those first few points are, just to get our confidence going, but it's about the whole course of the game,” Miller Phillips said. “We're just trying to find our rhythm.”
Playing off its early momentum, Dayton’s sizable frontcourt blockers posed challenges for Ball State hitters. The Cardinals posted season-low marks in both hitting percentage (0.032) and kills (19).
“[We’re] still not passing really well, so we are really one-dimensional offensively,” Miller Phillips said. “That makes it easy to read and [to] be in front of us from a blocking standpoint.”
Even in the sweep, a few Cardinals enjoyed notable outings. Fifth-year libero Havyn Gates anchored the Ball State defense in the face of the Flyers' offensive onslaught, which tallied 44 kills. The Muncie native registered 16 digs, two assists and two service aces, and she kept the Cardinals alive in a number of lengthy rallies.
The loss also provided a platform for a trio of Cardinals freshmen to gain experience. Freshman Lindsey Green saw her first action in the red and white, performing admirably when thrust into a competitive second set. The 5-foot-10-inch setter recorded her first career dig and kept the ball off the floor on a few occasions.
“We were trying to find a defender that I felt like was gonna go in and make a few plays,” Miller Phillips said. “[Green has] been playing hard in practice making plays in practice.”
Additionally, freshmen Reese Baker and Kendall Barnes each saw the court late in the game. Baker notched four digs (her second-best mark of the year), and Barnes added a kill on just three attempts.
Ball State will participate in another highly competitive non-conference tournament next weekend, the Alyssa Cavanaugh Classic hosted by Western Kentucky. The Cardinals will take on the hosting Hilltoppers at noon on Friday, September 15 and will square off against East Tennessee State at noon the following Saturday.
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