Daniel Sipocz

Finally. That was the reaction of senior libero Alyssa Rio on Saturday after Ball State closed out its most successful regular season since 2002. The Ball State women's volleyball team had just put its stamp on a 24-4 (14-2 Mid-American Conference) record, completing a dream regular season no one expected.

"I don't see how anyone could have seen this coming," coach Steve Shondell said. "You're looking at a storybook season. You just have to take your hat off to the team chemistry."

Now that it's over, what's next? It's too early to start thinking about the NCAA Tournament. Ball State is still three wins away from clinching a guaranteed berth in the field of 64.

"We're finally winning. We're finally all confident," Rio said. "We finally have a crowd and the school behind us. We have students and teachers saying things to us about the volleyball team being good and that hasn't happened.

"This is why I came here."

For the first time in years, Ball State earned a first-round bye in the MAC Tournament. Instead of playing Tuesday night for the right to move on to the quarterfinals in Toledo, Ohio, the Cardinals will be watching and waiting to see who they will be playing next.

It will be either Toledo or Kent State.

"We're ready to take on anyone," Rio said. "We know anyone we're going to get is going to really try to beat us because we've got the No. 1 seed."

Watching the outcome of that match won't be the only thing Ball State will be doing. Ball State will be keeping a close eye on the RPI standings, hoping to continue to climb into the top-40 nationally to make their case for an at-large bid.

"Our résumé looks pretty good right now," Shondell said. "We're going into the MAC Tournament with a 10-game win streak in the toughest year for the MAC there's been. I would be terribly shocked if we were overlooked at this point."

The fact remains that Ball State has not locked up a bid yet. Despite the 10-game win streak to close out the season, a perfect 12-0 record at home, 7-1 record in five-set matches, only two conference losses and an RPI near 40, the Cardinals lack a big nonconference win.

An early season loss to Wright State also negatively affects Ball State. The Raiders have a 9-20 record and are in the 200s in the RPI. If not for that loss, Ball State would be solidly in the top 40 in the RPI.

For a mid-major program, the Cardinals have had a tremendous season. Only a handful of mid-major programs have done better. Northern Iowa, Dayton and Long Beach State are all ahead of Ball State in the RPI.

No matter how the rest of the season turns out, it has been a special season for Ball State.

"We expected big things, but we've done even more than anyone could have expected," senior walk-on middle blocker Alexis Shonkwiler said. "It's been an awesome experience. I hope we can finish the next couple weeks strong and get some things done."