Andrew Mishler

As a first-year head coach, Steve Shondell faced the monstrous challenge of taking over a Ball State team in turmoil following the resignation of Dave Boos and turning into a winner.

The current Ball State coach went above and beyond in answering that call, leading Ball State to a 24-5 overall record and a Mid-American Conference Championship season.

Now in his second season, leading Ball State to higher achievements doesn't look any easier for Shondell.

He has to deal with up to six other teams in the MAC that he says could potentially win the conference championship. He has to make up for the loss of his former star libero, Alyssa Rio. He also has to distribute playing time to a roster currently set at 18 players.

But in Shondell's opinion, all of that will come at an easier pace with one year of collegiate coaching under his belt.

"It makes all the difference in the world," he said. "I was actually able to sleep this summer."

But Shondell recognizes the competitive season that lies ahead for Ball State. With preseason practices now coming to a close, the Cardinals will turn their attention to a brutal non-conference schedule to open the season.

Trips to Big Ten powerhouses Purdue and Michigan State offer the biggest challenges as non-conference opponents. And it doesn't get any easier when conference play arrives at the end of September.

"The first month of school, we're away, and that's not going to be good for us," senior middle blocker Kelsey Brandl said. "It's going to be hard. Especially for a lot of the new kids, it's going be kind of a reality check. It's definitely different."

Ball State stood above the MAC during the regular season last year with a conference record of 14-2.

The departure of four seniors and the arrival of six new players, coupled with the steady improvement of other MAC teams like Ohio, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan, make it even tougher for Ball State to recapture last season's success.

It's up to the Cardinals to prove themselves once again in a conference full of teams gunning for the top spot.

"I really believe any one of the six teams could possibly win this league this year, and I'm dead serious about that," Shondell said. "I feel confident we can compete with everybody. It's hard to predict what might happen, but I feel we have the players to compete in the league, and that's what you want to have."

Kara Bates, a outside hitter transfer from Maryland, could be one of the players to help push the Cardinals to greater heights.

"The MAC is a great conference, and mid-west volleyball is always really good," Bates said. "I definitely have my work cut out for me with their two starters returning, but I'm excited and up for the challenge. I want to be a big impact on the program."

Losing to Toledo in the first round of the MAC Tournament in 2010 has only made Ball State set higher goals for 2011. With as talented as the team is, Brandl expects an NCAA tournament birth.

"We're going to have a lot of talent this year, and I'm excited to see how it develops. As the freshmen catch on and we start flying, going to scrimmages and practices are going to be battles. I can't wait."

Ball State's season starts on Friday, Aug. 26 in Worthen Arena against Loyola at 7 p.m.