Setter Connor Gross and middle attacker Alex Pia attempt to block a hit against George Mason on Jan. 26 in John E. Worthen Arena. Ball State won the match 3-1, improving their record to 7-1. Emma Rogers // DN File
Consistent Culture: Ball State men's volleyball attracts fans, recruits
Students funnel their way down Worthen Arena’s aisles to get close to the action, as they watch what senior middle attacker Alex Pia describes as “a bunch of 6-foot-6-inch or taller dudes jumping 38 inches off the court and having fun in the process.”
Ball State men’s volleyball currently ranks third in the country for average attendance, with an average of 1,425. Brigham Young University and Hawaii are the only two other programs that even average 1,000.
Men’s volleyball has a long, rich tradition in Muncie, and head coach Joel Walton has been a part of the program since beginning his playing career as a setter in 1985. When Walton took over as head coach in 1999, he became only the second head coach in the program’s history.
Average attendance for NCAA Men's Volleyball:
- BYU — 3,243
- Hawaii — 3,087
- Ball State — 1,425
- Ohio State — 977
- UCLA — 907
But the sport was popular in East Central Indiana long before Walton was head coach, and before Worthen Arena opened in 1992. The Cardinals used to pack a place called Irving Gymnasium — especially against high-profile teams like Ohio State.
“I’ve seen pictures that [former head coach] Don Shondell had in his office of those Ohio State matches, and they would easily put 4 to 5,000 people in Irving,” Walton said. “You could tell by the number of people in the stands that those were really significant events.”
Don Shondell founded the men’s volleyball program at Ball State in 1959 and was the head coach for 35 years, from 1963 until 1998. Shondell’s Cardinals won 20 Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association titles and appeared in 13 NCAA Tournaments.
“I think one thing that has lent itself to the program being so connected to the school is that anyone who’s ever played volleyball at Ball State has played for Don Shondell or myself,” Walton said. “For 55 seasons we’ve had two coaches — you just don’t see that in college athletics.”
Steve Shondell, one of Don Shondell's sons, is the Cardinals’ current PA announcer and former Ball State men’s volleyball player and women’s volleyball coach. He said the current atmosphere is just as his playing days in Irving were.
“The crowds have been really consistent throughout the course of time, over 50 years,” Steve said. “I think it became really popular because of the early success that we were able to have.”
Other than BYU’s Smith Fieldhouse and Hawaii’s Stan Sheriff Center, Walton said there isn’t a venue like Worthen Arena anywhere in men’s volleyball.
“It’s a unique environment, and one that people really come to appreciate because they are coming to see great volleyball, but it’s more than just a volleyball match,” Walton said. “People aren’t just sitting on their hands, they’re actively involved, they’re clapping or maybe they’re even singing along to a Neil Diamond song.”
Worthen Arena’s “rockin’” atmosphere, as Walton describes it, also draws in recruits from all over the country.
“I think that Joel [Walton] and his coaching staff are using that because now you’re starting to get some of the nation’s top recruits such as Matt Szews and Matt Walsh,” Steve said.
Alex Pia, the first-ever player from Georgia to play Division I men’s volleyball, said the environment was a major factor in his decision to play for Ball State.
“I visited a good number of schools when I was being recruited and I really just liked the guys here the most,” Pia said. “We’re such a close group and the culture we have with our team, we’re a family basically.”
Edgardo Cartagena, a senior outside attacker, transferred to Ball State after Pacific’s men’s volleyball program was disbanded.
“When I came here and saw the support and love from everyone in the community, and how people want to talk to you about your season,” Cartagena said. “It’s just a very big difference here to what it was over there.”
The Cardinals make a conscious effort to build relationships with the community. Don used to order Walton to hand out posters with the team’s schedule to help advertise the team’s games.
“[Don] would look at me and say, ‘You need to get these posters out in the community,’” Walton said. “I figured out that there was only one of me, but 20 guys that weren’t doing anything that week other than training for a few hours.”
Now the head coach, Walton has turned it into an annual tradition. He’ll send players to distribute posters at local businesses and on campus. Walton says this face-to-face interaction between the players and the community brings more attention to the program.
“Our athletes will walk in and meet with a business and talk to them,” Walton said. “It’s not just somebody from the marketing staff or the athletic department, and I think that’s impactful.”
Pia said the players get a little annoyed with their unofficial public relations role, but they understand its importance.
“Sometimes we kind of complain about it because we’re tired from practice,” Pia said. “But Joel is definitely right about going out and being personal with people in the community because it shows our thanks and appreciation for the people of Muncie, everyone on campus that we play for.”
The men’s volleyball team might not get the same attention of a football or men’s basketball program, but Walton said the experience and competition the players get by playing for Ball State’s men’s volleyball program is hard to find.