Daniel Sipocz

Growing a program can be difficult. Some nights a team looks brilliant. Other nights, a team will show its flaws. Ball State experienced both in the opening weekend of Mid-American Conference action.

Mental toughness helped Ball State (11-3, 1-1 MAC) turn a 2-1 set deficit at Northern Illinois (15-2, 1-1) into a thrilling five-set victory 25-20, 18-25, 17-25, 25-23, 16-14.

"We proved ourselves Friday night," junior middle blocker Kelsey Brandl said. "We proved to ourselves and the MAC that we can play on the road with a lot of people there in a loud environment."

The five set win was an emotional one for the Cardinals. The emotion was too much for Ball State to be ready to knock off Western Michigan (11-4, 2-0).

"[Friday] night we had one of the heartfelt nights with the win. We came out flat and there's nothing you can do about it but fight and grind," Brandl said. "We haven't beat [Western Michigan] before and tried to rally. We were there, but didn't make it happen. It's very frustrating."

Brandl was the focus of the Ball State offense over the weekend. Friday night she recorded 19 kills. Against Western Michigan, Brandl added 16 more kills and carried the load at times when the Ball State offense needed points.

"Every good team needs a player like Kelsey," coach Steve Shondell said. "We would like to have two players like her. In a league like this we have to have someone play as well as she is playing."

Western Michigan had the answer to counter Brandl. The Bronco's answer was middle blocker Jessica Brown, who registered 15 kills and was the back breaker for the Cardinals.

"She's a really dynamic hitter, very athletic and can hit," senior libero Alyssa Rio said. "We have to be ready for her next time."

Rio continued to be solid defensively. She entered the weekend ranked in the top 20 in digs nationally. She added 27 more digs in anchoring the Ball State defense in the losing effort to Western Michigan.

The defense of Rio is not the only thing that has increased in 2010. Rio's confidence has boosted.

"It's nice to be playing well. I give the credit to Steve," Rio said. "He's got me playing with a lot of confidence in myself. The fact he has confidence in me helps. I appreciate him and the coaching staff for their confidence in me."