A kill was sent over the net, directly at Ball State’s Nikki Box.

Seconds later, another one came, although it was to the defensive specialist’s left. After that, a third one came but this time, she was unable to recover.

Serve after serve and kill followed by kill all seemed to find their way to Box, who struggled to stay in position and react quickly.

IPFW was clearly feasting on the true freshman.

“Steve [Shondell] told me at the beginning of the game that they were going to go after me because I’m young,” Box said. “Knowing that somebody is targeting you can make you jumpy, so it’s really important to stay calm.”

Box graduated from Yorktown High School in the spring and immediately saw playing time as the season began. In her home opener in early September against IPFW, Box played all five sets.

As the only true freshman receiving playing time, Box struggled under the bright lights of Worthen Arena, looking overwhelmed and a step behind the opposition that was constantly hammering her with shots.

A green player, Box isn’t the first to feel the pressure of being constantly under attack.

Box spent her high school career playing with the same players, but at Ball State, she’s faced with learning how to play with an entirely new team.

All opponents are new and environments are harsher. Worst of all, Box said every team knows who the youngest player is and will target her non-stop, a tough situation for a player who is still getting up to speed.

Box said she didn’t expect the learning curve to be very sharp, thinking the pace of the game would be the same.

“Going to college, the game is just so much faster,” she said. “The ball comes at you so fast that you have to be even more ready than you already were.”

Since her match against IPFW, Box has seen her play improve while head coach Shondell has become more selective with the playing time she receives. On a team with five seniors and few injuries, Shondell has the luxury of letting Box learn through practice and not by playing in every game.

Instead, she gets to sit and learn behind senior Catie Fredrich, Ball State’s starting defensive specialist. Box said she mimics Fredrich, trying to get better every practice.

As the season progressed, Box looked more relaxed during games playing her reduced role. 

Shondell stood during practice, watching Box receive kills and dig them, mulling over his thoughts about the freshman. 

“It’s taken her a while to get comfortable with playing the college game,” he said. “But she’s the kind of player that when she’s on the court, you know you’ve got a great chance of winning.”

While playing defense, players have to stay low and steady, something Box said she’s working on.

It’s a different experience for Box, who said throughout her time at Yorktown that she could get away with having a higher posture because players weren’t at the same skill level.

She can’t get away with it anymore.

IPFW made that clear.