Daniel Sipocz

Three seasons ago, Ball State women's volleyball hit rock bottom. The Cardinals set a program record for losses with a disastrous 5-25 season, including an NCAA-leading seven five-set losses.

So when Ball State hired Steve Shondell to resurrect a once proud and successful women's volleyball program after one of the worst stretches in program history, hopes were high. They had to be.

Expectations were made even higher on Shondell's first day in April. He said losing seasons were unacceptable and this season would be successful.

Shondell's team backed up his words. Ball State clinched at least a share of the Mid-American Conference regular season championship for the first time since 2002 with Saturday's win at Central Michigan.

"It's amazing that we've accomplished so much this year," senior defensive specialist Karin Caudill said. "It's amazing that we've turned it all around. We went from 5-25 to 22-4 in my time. It's a big, big change and the perfect way to end my career."

The win also clinched a first-round bye in the MAC Tournament for Ball State. A win in either of its final two games, both at home, would clinch the top seed in the tournament.

"It's been a dream season," Shondell said. "The girls have done everything I've asked them to do."

No one really knew what to expect this season, including Shondell. He had coached Burris Laboratory School the past 34 years.

Multiple players were plagued by injuries last season. Some missed significant time. Staying healthy was a significant concern for Shondell and his staff.

The other concern was the blending of youth and experience. Five freshmen, all of whom were ranked among the top-250 recruits in the country by prepvolleyball.com, joined the roster. The potential for disaster was present if chemistry didn't develop.

Somehow Shondell got freshmen to play like veterans and the veterans to take their game to new levels. Junior middle blocker Kelsey Brandl credits Shondell for his passion and the positive atmosphere for the comeback, but she also recognized former Ball State coach Dave Boos' role in the resurgence.

"This is such a big turnaround for our program," Brandl said. "Dave doesn't get the credit for it, but he brought the players in. Steve came in, brought in new techniques and turned it the rest of the way around. We've definitely bought into his system."

Shondell's system is deeply based in fundamentals, defense, work ethic and a positive atmosphere.

"He asks us to play with passion," Brandl said. "The whole ‘one point at a time thing' is his, too. Every little thing he says has a positive impact. It'd be hard not to buy into his system."

Ball State (22-4, 12-2 MAC) has surpassed even Shondell's expectations. The first-year coach said he didn't expect a MAC championship of any kind when he became the head coach in April.

"I'm really happy for the university," he said. "Being as passionate about Ball State as I have been my entire life it's great that we get to raise a banner in the rafters at Worthen Arena for first time since 2002.

"It's a great honor to bring that back and restore the tradition Ball State built in the '90s."

An at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament still seems out of reach for the Cardinals, who were 49th in last week's RPI. This places the importance on winning the MAC Tournament to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Even with all the accomplishments, Ball State isn't content with 22 wins. The team realizes there's still two regular season matches and the MAC Tournament in front of them.

"We're all excited, but it's something we can't let go to our heads," senior libero Alyssa Rio said. "We obviously want to keep going. We have to keep beating teams."