Advancing to the NCAA Tournament is not out of the question. Or at least it shouldn’t be for the Ball State men’s volleyball team.

A recruitment class featuring seven players, along with the addition of a second full-time assistant head coach will help to strengthen an already successful program.

There is no guarantee of improvement though. Coach Joel Walton said despite the team’s strength on paper, there are holes to be filled.

“Our challenges next year are that we graduate Jamion Hartley and Greg Herceg,” he said. “These guys were producing probably about 60 percent of our team’s offense. We’ve got to find arms whether it’s from our returning players or our recruits to replace those two players.”

Recruits will play a major part in the team’s success next season. It’s a group large in numbers and ability alike.

“We have a class of seven players coming to Ball State that are all big and very physical guys,” Walton said. “This is big. Seven is a big class, and the talent level that we’ve got in the players that are coming in is also very big.”

Two of the seven players, Alex Pia out of Georgia and Brendan Surane of Illinois, were named to Volleyball Magazine’s Fab 50 – a list of the countries’ top 50 high school recruits as voted on by NCAA Division I and II head coaches.

Pia, a 6-foot-6 middle blocker, played with the U.S. National Team this summer. His competition included the best players from countries such as Russia, Brazil, Korea, Poland and Egypt.

Walton said the experience will be good for Pia as a person, and even better for his future as a collegiate men’s volleyball player.

“He’s truly one of the best players in this country at his age level, and playing against some of the best players in the world,” he said. “It should lessen, but I don’t think it will completely alleviate, the fact that he’s going to be a freshman this year. He’s going to be stepping on the court with our team against a very competitive conference. It’s hopefully a set of experiences that he can lean on in some of our more intense competitive situations next year.”

The smallest of the seven recruits measures up at 6-foot-3, while the biggest is 6-foot-8. Walton said the physical size of this group will be critical in keeping his team competitive.

“It’s not just about being quick and explosive,” he said. “Having height with an athletic base is just a huge advantage, because we’re trying to play as high over our net as possible. Having guys who are able to jump-touch 11 feet or higher [is] kind of what’s required to be able to keep up with the best teams in the country.”

All-Americans Kevin Owen and Matt Leske return to anchor the defense. Both of the middle attackers recorded more than 125 blocks in their most recent campaign.

The pair led Ball State to a 21-6 overall record, with a 9-5 mark in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association.

Owens said neither his own, nor the team’s past success will change his work ethic. It’s all about improvement.

“My goal is just to get better, and practice every day,” Owens said. “Maybe that could lead to another All-American honor, but I always just push myself to be better than my competition. [Being an All-American] is not going to change how hard I work. I’m always trying to get better.”

Walton believes that new resources, such as the addition of a second paid assistant coach, will help his team to move forward with a mindset similar to Owens.  

“We’re very excited about these opportunities and maximizing what resources we have,” he said. “We’re really just taking advantage, because we’ve been very good for a period of time at winning with less. We’re at a point now where our resources are much more similar to our opponents.”

Walton said when he joined the team in 1990-91, Ball State’s was one of the few programs that had both a full-time assistant and head coach.

“We had been one of the leaders in our league, and recently have fallen somewhat behind,” he said. “So I’m looking forward to now having the additional resource of myself and two other people working full-time so our program can be the best it can possibly be.”

More man-power means responsibilities such as recruiting would be shared, making the entire process run more smoothly.

Not that Walton is worried about the direction of Ball State’s recruiting.

He said this season’s success with recruits will allow his team to not only pursue its perennial goal of winning the MIVA Tournament, but advance deep into the NCAA Tournament as well.