Rhett Umphress

It's been quite the ride for the Ball State women's volleyball team.

Twenty-four wins, a Mid-American Conference regular-season title and an undefeated home slate are achievements the Cardinals can point to when discussing their résumé for the postseason.

While my expectations before the season were certainly more modest, did anyone really expect the season to go this well? The Cardinals' success wasn't even anticipated by the team.

Steve Shondell, coach: "I had no idea. Going into the MAC season, I had no idea if we could even win a match."

Kelsey Brandl, junior middle blocker: "When Steve came in, I was really apprehensive at first. I was unsure. He was a high school coach coming into college."

Alyssa Rio, senior libero: "I told the girls that I didn't think this was going to happen when I was here. I knew that we would keep getting better, but I definitely didn't imagine this in my time here."

As Brandl went on to say, though, Shondell has turned out to be a great college coach, molding Ball State into a winner again.

The work is not over by any means, either. Ball State needs a strong showing in the MAC Tournament this weekend if it wants to earn an NCAA Tournament bid, because I still don't think the Cardinals are quite in yet.

I think it's a "no" if they are upset in the quarter or semifinals.

If they lose in the finals, that's the tough call. I keep going back to the 2006-07 Ball State women's basketball team, which lost the MAC Tournament finals to finish with a 24-6 record. That team did not have a signature win — a victory over another likely tournament team — to point to and neither does this team.

It's not a perfect analogy. The basketball Cardinals were clearly the second-best team in the conference, while the volleyball Cardinals are the class of the MAC this season.

There are other factors in play as well. Plenty of other teams "on the bubble" will try to make their case in conference tournaments, too. Perhaps the Cardinals will get some help if those other squads stumble early.

We've been through this scenario before, though. As a mid-major program, Ball State isn't going to get a gift from a selection committee.

The only way to eliminate all the speculation is to win the conference, which is going to take a focused effort for all three games.

The Cardinals came out slow Saturday against the Zips and lost the first set. They can't afford to dig themselves into a hole during the tournament, when Ball State will be facing Toledo in the Rockets' home gym (my projected quarterfinals match-up) or one of the top teams in the conference in the later rounds.

"I think it's really important," Rio said on avoiding a slow start. "Teams are way more motivated. It's a chance for teams to redeem themselves, and they get a second chance at trying to beat the teams they lost to.

"We're not going to get those missed serves in clutch times. We're not going to get so lucky. We've really got to focus on starting off strong."

Ball State has four days to get ready to make one more run. Let's see if Shondell can complete his magical debut.