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I wasn’t planning on going to Ball State last week on my Midwestern volleyball sojourn.
But last Thursday, I woke up in Champaign, Illinois, and made a change. Toledo was playing at Ball State, and, well, I’d never been to Muncie, Indiana.
What a great call. A new place, met some great people and saw a volleyball team that’s pretty good.
Ball State — with a remarkable hitting performance — swept Toledo. After they swept Buffalo two nights later, the Cardinals are 14-5 overall, and tied with Eastern Michigan at 5-1 atop the MAC West Division. They’re home against Ohio on Friday and Kent State on Saturday.
A bonus for me was watching the match with former Ball State coach Steve Shondell, whose two brothers — Dave (the former Ball State coach) and John, both Ball State grads — I would see the next night when their Purdue team played at Michigan.
But I knew about Purdue and Michigan.
The pride runs deep, like with third-year coach Kelli Miller, who grew up in Muncie. One of her Munciana club teams was coached by Ball State alum Mike Lingenfelter.
Or junior libero Kate Aliva, who went to nearby Yorktown High School, where coincidentally that night the legendary patriarch of the Shondell family, Don, went to watch a big prep match.
“It means so much to me play here at Ball State,” Avila said. “My dad played here, my high school coach played here, my family has deep roots here. I grew up playing for the Shondells. Playing here was a dream of mine growing up and to get to live it out every day is awesome.”
Indeed, Ramon Avila was a three-year letter-winner for the Ball State men’s volleyball program from 1975-77. Now he’s a professor of marketing at the school. And while it wasn’t Ball State, Avila’s sister Laura also played in the MAC, where she was a setter from 2010-13 at Bowling Green.
The 5-foot-6 Avila had 22 digs against Toledo and averages 4.81 per set, sixth in the libero-loaded MAC.
“She handles the ball really well,” Miller said. “She’s from Yorktown, right up the street, and her dad works here, her uncle works here, she’s high IQ, such a steady, player, nothing’s going to rattle her. She’s competitive internally but stays cool, calm and collected all the time. You know what you’re going to get out of her every day.”
The offensive leader is 6-foot-1 senior outside Ellie Dunn.
Dunn, a product of Sugar Grove, Illinois, who leads in kills with 253 (3.67/set, fourth in the MAC), hits a heavy ball and has developed a lot of shots. This season Dunn is playing six rotations for the first time and is averaging 2.62 digs, second only to Avila.
“She’s always been a power attacker and really has had to work on control and limited her errors, because in years past that was her Achilles’ heel,” Miller said. “So this past spring and summer she just put such a focus on being a complete player. Being able to pass, being able to play the back row, being able to serve tough, and her hard work is showing.”
Junior Sydnee VanBeek, a 6-2 middle from St. John, Indiana, who was injured all of last spring, has 177 kills (2.72/set), is hitting .328, and is second in blocks with 59, 11 solo.
The other middle is 6-6 Meg Starling, a fifth-year senior Hopkinsville, Kentucky, who was redshirted as a very, very raw freshman. She has 135 kills (2.08/set), is is hitting .329, and leads with 81 blocks, 19 solo. She’s second in the MAC at 1.25 blocks per set. Starling has been a continual work in progress and it’s “all coming together now,” Miller said.
Freshman Reece Kral, from Crown Point, Indiana, has 108 kills (1.80/set) and graduate-student Jessica Lindsey, a product of Frankfort, Illinois, has 82 kills (1.86/set).
Setter Amber Seaman, a junior from Carmel, Indiana, averages a conference-leading 10.29 assists and has 55 kills, a team-high 22 aces, 10 digs (1.91/set) and has worked hard to be a better blocker and has 25 this season, two solo.
Miller, Muncie through and through, was a standout player at Muncie Central High School, where she won two state titles and was all-state for four years. Then she was a libero for Dave and John Shondell at Purdue, finishing in 2008 as the school’s all-time digs leader.
She served as a volunteer coach at Purdue in 2009 before coming to Ball State to work for Steve Shondell.
Miller’s first team as head coach in 2016 finished 13-18 overall, 9-7 in the MAC.
Last year, the Cardinals were 19-11, 11-15, the season ending with a five-set loss to Western Michigan in the quarterfinals of the MAC tournament.
“When you have seven seniors, winning is expected. They’ve been here a long time. This is only my third year as the head coach, but I’ve been here on staff for nine years, so I’ve seen these guys grow. And certainly we expected big things out of this class. And our junior class.
“We keep building. Part of building a program is adding on to the pieces that you have. You can’t just start over every year. You continue to build and build. That’s been my goal in my three years at the helm, getting better regardless of how many seniors we have. But they’ve worked hard and it’s paying off for them right now.”
That’s not lost on Avila.
“We’ve come a long way since my freshman year and we’re just working to get better every year,” said Avila, a 4.0 student.
“We have more experience this year, we have higher standards and we have a tradition that we’re building on. We’re all on the same page, we’re all going in the same direction and we’ve just really worked hard for this.”
The night Ball State beat Toledo five of its hitters produced a truly remarkable stat: Five combined for 50 kills in 109 attacks with five errors.
Dunn had 15 kills and no errors in 38 swings and hit .395.
“We have depth,” Dunn said. “We have depth on the bench, we have depth on the court, and it’s great that we can spread the ball around any time.”
Starling, had 12 kills with four errors in 24 attacks to hit .333.
VanBeek had 11 kills and no errors in 18 swings to hit .611.
Lindsey had eight kills and one error in 23 attacks to hit .304.
Seaman had four kills and no errors in six swings to hit .667.
As a team, the Cardinals hit .374.
Matches like that won’t happen all the time, but it gives a glimpse of what can be, especially if the Cardinals can get the MAC’s bid to the NCAA Tournament. No at-large bid is coming for a team with an NCAA RPI of 114.
“We can be great,” Avila said. “We can be elite and it’s just a matter of working every day in practice and working hard through every match. I mean, it’s volleyball. Every team in the MAC is good and they’re going are to be bumps in the road, but if we can overcome them, and keep getting better we’re going to be ready when the time comes.”
Miller likes the Cardinals’ chances.
“We were predicted in the preseason to win our division. We won our West Division last year and we played below our standard at the MAC tournament,” Miller said. “And that’s something that has motivated us moving forward.
“We’ve actually not been talking about end of the year. We’ve put a lot of focus on the next set. Focusing on the next set and if you build too much pressure you can’t control the end of the season. You can’t control what anyone else is going to do. So we’ve been really trying to keep internal, focus on ourselves, get better the next day, focus on the next opponent and let the chips fall where they may by the end.”