Daniel Sipocz

Sparks are bound to fly with Mid-American Conference tournament implications on the line Thursday night when the University of Toledo and Ball State University face off at Worthen Arena.

With a pair of wins, starting Thursday over the Rockets, the Cardinals could host a first round MAC Tournament game. A loss to Toledo doesn't necessarily end Ball State's hopes of hosting a first round game, but takes them out of the driver seat.

Beyond that, scenarios start getting messy depending on what other teams do — the messiest being a handful of teams who split the regular season meetings finishing at 7-9 in the MAC.

"Fans are going to see two very motivated teams," coach Dave Boos said. "Toledo is fighting for a bye and we're fighting for the right to host. You'll see a high-level match with intensity and passion. We just have to take care of business; there's too many scenarios of what could happen."

Another reason for the intensity between the Rockets and Cardinals is the outcome of the last two meetings. Last year Toledo ended a long 42-match drought and did so by defeating Ball State at Worthen Arena. The last time out, the Cardinals avenged the loss with a thrilling five-set victory at Toledo.

"We know they don't like playing here and that could motivate them," sophomore setter Brittany McGinnis said. "We have a lot riding on this weekend. We have to concentrate on playing in the moment and executing the game plan. I think we can possibly take advantage of Toledo not liking to play here."

In order to do so, the Cardinals will need to buck a trend of losing the third set. In 27 matches this season, Ball State is 17-10 in the first set and 14-13 in the second set. From there, it's all downhill with a 12-15 record in the third set and only a 2-9 mark in the fourth.

The team did not secure it's first fourth-set victory until its Oct. 10 match against the University at Buffalo. The fifth set has been a crapshoot all year with the Cardinals posting a 2-2 record in five sets after dropping an NCAA high of seven a year ago.

The good news for the Cardinals is that they're coming off a stellar defensive effort, holding Central Michigan University to a -.412 hitting percentage in the final set of a three-set sweep Sunday.

"Knowing we can have control like we did Sunday is a good thing," said junior libero Alyssa Rio, the reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Week. "We know we can play well defensively. We want to take the pressure off the front row again like we did Sunday."

Defense will be key for Ball State against Toledo. Ball State enters the final weekend of action ranked third in opponent hitting percentage at .178, just behind Central Michigan at .176 and Ohio University at .161.

"We're one of the top defense teams in the MAC and we slowed them down last time we played Toledo," Boos said. "It's going to be about us putting the ball down offensively."

Emotions will be high with it being the final regular season, and potentially the final home match, for seniors Alisha Green, Julie Breivogel and Elania Kakatolis, which could make for high-error volleyball, which is not something the Cardinals can afford to let happen.

"We need more kills and less errors. We need to pass and receive the ball well," Rio said. "We have to put them [Toledo] in a bad position and take advantage of it."

First serve is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday night at Worthen Arena.

"The key to making a run will be building offensive consistency and continue to have really good defense," Boos said. "We're tough to prepare for with having the ability to change the lineup and go with who's hot. On any given night an opponent may not know who we will have on the floor. We have to put balls down, though."