• Upperclassmen bring leadership to 2014 men’s volleyball team
• Team opens against 2013 national champion
• David Ryan Vander Meer changed position to libero

When the Ball State men’s volleyball head coach Joel Walton thought of leadership, his mind immediately went to senior Kevin Owens.

Seconds later, Walton jumped to senior Graham McIlvaine.

Just a few moments after that, junior Shane Witmer entered the conversation as a person Walton thinks has emerged as a leader.

Ball State could have an excess of leadership, a problem coaches love to have.

“We’ve got so many guys who have the ability to lead,” Walton said. “Owens is a natural leader, primarily because of his calm demeanor and demands respect, rather he earns respect because he’s so consistent in every aspect of his life.”

The middle attacker was recently named a 2014 Second Team All-American along with teammate Matt Leske. Last season, Owens posted 191 kills and hit .402 while having 21 solo blocks and 104 assisted blocks, which helped his team average 3.05 blocks per game, the highest in the country.

Owens’ 6’9” frame along with his 38” vertical makes him a matchup nightmare for opponents, something Walton said he wants to take advantage of all season.

The Cardinals will need everything he can bring when the team opens the season Jan. 4 at home against national champion UC-Irvine. The visitors bring Collin Mehring, a middle attacker who finished with 188 kills, hit .500 and was named to the All-NCAA Tournament team.

While Owens carries a quiet confidence about him, starting setter McIlvaine plays with a different manner.

“When our team is playing well, sometimes it’s Graham who’s leading us emotionally,” Walton said. “He loves to compete in some of the biggest situations.”

Walton described him as a player who wears his emotions on his sleeve throughout matches. He said he wants the senior to work on balancing the “peaks and valleys” he feels during matches and show more consistency, whether Ball State is playing a powerhouse like UC-Irvine or an opponent who has struggled like Quincy.

McIlvaine has the experience coaches desire when looking for leaders. He appeared in 74 sets last season and amassed a team-high 712 assists and finished second in digs with 161. Walton lauded his defensive ability around the net as well, as McIlvaine had 48 combined solo and assisted blocks.

As seniors, Owens and McIlvaine are naturally looking to assume leadership positions, but Witmer, a junior, also jumped out to Walton.

“Shane’s a guy that our players just love being around,” Walton said. “He doesn’t seek attention, and yet the guys seem to listen to him. … He’s usually the guy with a comment that will crack up the entire room.”

An offensive attacker, Witmer will see a larger role this season. He faded to Ball State’s third offensive weapon last season because the primary targets were Jamion Hartley and Greg
Herceg. Both have graduated, leaving a hole in the offense that Walton said could be difficult to replace.

After Hartley and Herceg, Witmer was third on the team in attack attempts with 461 and should see a noticeable increase in volume.

It may be what’s inside that’s impressed his head coach even more.

“He’s got a personality that really binds our group together,” Walton said.

However, there are still spots up for grabs, he added.

David Ryan Vander Meer has switched to libero, a position that’s empty after Tommy Rouse graduated. Vander Meer won’t be the only one vying for the spot, though, as outside attacker
Larry Wrather, who missed last season with a shoulder injury, could also wind up as the team’s starting libero.

The potential position changes will require confidence in Walton’s system, and he said it was a blessing that his team bought into it last season.

“We have a group of guys who put the team first,” he said. “The mentality was from last season that’s carried into this season is, ‘If coach says this is the best things for the team, then I’m buying in,’ and that attitude became infectious.”

He said attitude starts from the top of the team: the upperclassmen who become examples for younger players.

Upperclassmen like Owens, McIlvaine and Witmer.