By ending 2012 with a 14-12 overall record and 5-7 conference record, the Ball State men’s volleyball team extended its fall from being one of the elite programs in the country that began after the 2002 season.

Ball State’s 2013 season appeared to be headed in the same direction when the leader of Ball State’s mild offensive potency, senior outside attacker Larry Wrather, was given a medical redshirt after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff.

Outside of losing Wrather, the Cardinals look like the same team on paper.

After matches, trainers come hauling more bags of ice than they can carry, giving three alone to Hartley for both his knees and swinging shoulder, all Ball State looks like is a year older. But watching Hartley sky above the net for a kill and Rouse spend more time on the ground diving for balls than on his feet, Ball State looks like an entirely different team.

Wrather led Ball State’s offense that floundered around the bottom of the MIVA, hitting .203 with 226 kills. That number accounted for 20 percent of Ball State’s offense, and was the only player with more than 200 kills.

Without any significant roster overturn, coach Joel Walton knew it would be a team effort to replace Wrather and get his team in a position to compete with the upper echelon MIVA.

“Over the fall we work on our passing, getting the ball to our setter, and giving him as many options as possible,” Walton said.

MIVA coaches voted the Cardinals to finish fifth in the conference in the 2013 preseason poll. Even in January, Walton stressed the amount of parity and exuded an almost un-entitled sense of confidence.

“We’ve been a middle of the pack team for the past couple seasons, but after playing everybody in the preseason I think we stack up better than that,” Walton said.

After winning the first eight games of the season, the Cardinals were the last unbeaten team in Division I-II and were on the cusp of the team’s first national ranking in two years.

However, the first eight wins came against teams that scrounged together a 17-35 record at that point in the season. 

Once Ball State got into conference play, its artificial success was exposed as eight wins against lesser quality opponents. 

The Cardinals got away with their plug and chug method of starting outside attackers and back row players against more feeble teams, but the method was struck down by solid, competitive teams. To this point in the season, seniors Greg Herceg and Tommy Rouse and juniors Matt Leske and Kevin Owens were main stays, anchoring the team. But the other three starters, and the rotations after that were subject to change match-by-match.

Ball State dropped its next five matches and only managed to win two sets through the two-week losing streak.

Throughout the losing streak, the Cardinals seemed stagnant on offense, baffled on defense and complacent as a whole. There were too many questions, and everyone was looking for answers.

“We have to find something ... Somebody needs to step up,” Heceg said after the loss to IPFW. 

After Ball State was swept by Loyola for its fifth straight loss, the Cardinals returned to Muncie beleaguered and in an all-to familiar spot in the lower half of the MIVA standings.  

This started a two-week break before Ball State’s next match, but it was not a moratorium in any sense. 

While most Ball State students packed-up and headed to sunny shores and drunken debauchery for Spring Break, the volleyball team reinvented itself.

Senior Jamion Hartley, who has always shown flashes of brilliance but lacked consistency, was inserted into the lineup in an effort for more offense.

It would seem that any endeavor to help the team would be appreciated, but the addition of Hartley moved the one constant offensive threat Ball State had, Herceg, to the other side of the court.

Herceg was third in the nation with 4.21 kills per set at the time, but graciously bounced to the other side of the court.

“Greg giving up his spot that he earned says a lot about him,” Walton said. “For Greg to make that a positive, when it could have hurt the team... you can’t say enough.”

Sophomore Shane Witmer stepped in to take on the full-time role in the back row. Suddenly the Cardinals were revamped and ready to start the second half of their season.

The rejuvenated Cardinals earned their first victory in more than a month after beating Sacred Heart in a clean sweep. The real test, though, lay in the match the next day against then-No. 10 Penn State Nitany Lions.

Ball State swept Penn State, the first win over a ranked team in a year. Suddenly another winning streak was started and the confidence was back.

“This is how we play,” Graham McIlvaine said. “This is how we know we can play every time we step out onto the court.”

Ball State began playing a fever pitch, getting revenge against conference teams the team had lost to earlier in the season. The Cardinals vigor even garnered a crowd of 2,562 to watch it knock off then-No. 8 Ohio State in straight sets, and helped it earn a No. 15 ranking. 

The wins kept coming as Ball State found itself with a 10-match winning streak going into the final weekend of the regular season.

The two teams vying for the top-seed in the MIVA tournament were set to come into to Worthen Arena, the same two teams that handled Ball State like a junior varsity team seven weeks ago.

Ball State exacted revenged, beating both then-No. 9 Lewis and then-No. 11 Loyola in four sets.

Now as Ball State enters the MIVA tournament as the third seed with first round home court advantage, the personnel on the court has changed, but the roster really hasn’t.

Going into the conference tournament on its longest winning streak since 1982, Ball State isn’t sneaking up on anybody, but that’s OK with Walton.

“You better be ready for us because we’re ready for you,” Walton said. “We’re a team that nobody wants to run into right now.”