Daniel Sipocz

Its time to put up or shut up. Mid-American Conference action begins today when the Ball State women's volleyball team (10-2) travels to Northern Illinois (13-1).

All the hours spent in the gym has led up to the moment when Ball State walks onto the floor looking to rebuild a damaged image.

"We're going to show that we've got a new program and that we're a different team than in years past," freshman outside hitter Kylee Baker said. "We expect it to be tough, but we can exceed expectations. We're going to show we're not the same team as last year."

Expectations from other MAC schools have been low in 2010. The Cardinals were picked to finish fifth of six teams in the MAC West.

Countering those expectations are those of first-year coach Steve Shondell. Five months ago Shondell set the bar high. He said this team would take Ball State back to the NCAA Tournament.

Shondell still holds high expectations, but downplays talk of an NCAA Tournament birth.

"This might be the toughest the MAC has ever been. Almost every team has a good record," he said. "It could be the best start in MAC history collectively."

Northern Illinois has suffered one loss all season. It was beaten 3-0 by undefeated Wisconsin (11-0).

Western Michigan (9-4) beat Arizona State (5-7) to start the season and haven't missed a beat. The Broncos only losses came to three top-25 ranked teams and one just outside the rankings: No. 3 Illinois, No. 7 Nebraska, No. 20 Dayton and Ohio State, which is receiving votes.

"Anytime you play the best competition you are left with a lot to think about. There's no doubt Northern Illinois and Western Michigan benefited from playing teams from big conferences," Shondell said. "We also benefited from playing teams like North Carolina and Appalachian State."

Ball State meets Northern Illinois today at 8 p.m. and Western Michigan on Saturday at 7 p.m.

Even with a successful nonconference run, Shondell would have preferred to start the MAC schedule at home. Ball State hasn't played at Worthen Arena since Sept. 4 against Oakland.

"We're going to k now where we stack up in the MAC really quickly," Shondell said. "We'd rather have the benefit of being at home, but we don't have control over that. We have to focus on what we do have control over, ourselves, and maintain our passing and serving consistency."

Baker takes Shondell's philosophy one-step further. She insists on continuing a never-say-die attitude that helped push Ball State to five-set wins over IPFW and Appalachian State last week.

"We really connect as a team," Baker said. "We have been leave everything on the floor and that means there's nothing else anyone can do."