Senior middle attacker Matt Walsh prepares to serve the ball to Lewis University during a match on Feb. 16 in John E. Worthen Arena. Madeline Grosh, DN
No. 11 Ball State returns to conference schedule with matches against No. 15 Fort Wayne
Fresh off a four-match West Coast trip in which it went 2-2, No. 11 Ball State men's volleyball will dive back into Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association competition with a pair of matches against No. 15 Fort Wayne (15-5, 3-3 MIVA).
Ball State (11-9, 4-2 MIVA) started its trip on a high note, sweeping UC San Diego and picking up its first road win over a ranked opponent by knocking off then No. 14 Concordia Irvine in four sets.
After building its winning streak to six matches, Ball State dropped its next two matches against then No. 3 UC Irvine and then No. 14 UC Santa Barbara in straight sets.
"I think our guys really fought hard for those first two wins, and any time you're on the road and in somebody else's gym, and they're in their environment, there's a distinct advantage to the team that's playing at home, so I'm pleased with how that trip started out," head coach Joel Walton said. "I am disappointed that we weren't able to play better against both UC Irvine and Santa Barbara. Both of those teams played very well against us, and unfortunately our team just wasn't at its best either of those two nights.
"It's hard to just be out there on the road and sleeping in hotels and traveling the way that we did to put your team in position where they can step on the court and play their best."
Fort Wayne made the same West Coast trip as Ball State but played one fewer match. During that stretch, Fort Wayne was able to pick up a big win against UC Irvine in a five-set match and defeat Concordia Irvine in straight sets, so Walton knows the challenge that lies ahead for his team.
"[Fort Wayne is] a really good team," Walton said. "Their season has had some really significant wins. ... Their team has been racking up a lot of victories, compared to fewer losses than what we have, so they're playing very well and confidently. ... There are just a lot of pieces with that Fort Wayne team that have allowed them to play well this year, and it's going to be a critical match for us in the conference standings, and we're going to have to battle like that on Wednesday to come out on top."
This season has been full of challenges for Ball State, and this week's matches against Fort Wayne will pose new ones for a team just three days removed from a 10-day, four-match road trip on the other side of the country. The Cardinals have to get back in the swing of conference action after breaking from that portion of their schedule for the aforementioned trip, something that is uncommon in most sports.
"It's honestly not the kind of schedule that I want," Walton said. "On the men's side of the game, we're so engrained to having – especially in the Midwest and on the East Coast – spring break time where teams have typically played non-conference competition. ... The spring break part of the schedule has thrown in a wrinkle for us that we haven't been able to get away from.
"... There is a challenge. There have been years where our team hasn't been healthy, so we've used some of the matches we've played over spring break to rest guys and to get our team healthy. This year that wasn't the case, so I'm glad for that. I'm glad that our team is as healthy as we've been all season long. ... Coming out of it, I think our staff agrees that a 10-day road trip where we're away from campus and away from our routines is really difficult, and I'm not sure that we will ever take on that challenge again with our team. That's a tough hurdle to overcome."
The hurdles keep coming for the 11th-ranked Cardinals. The team's matches against Fort Wayne will be its 11th and 12th matches against ranked opponents this season, which accounts for over half of its total matches.
Fort Wayne's Pelegrin Vargas leads the MIVA in total kills with 271, while Michael Keegan ranks 18th nationally with 9.67 assists per set.
For Ball State, 6-foot-11 Matt Walsh is 10th in the nation in blocks per set with 1.118 and 14th in the country with a .391 hitting percentage. As a team, Ball State leads the nation in digs per set with 10.3.
The first match at Fort Wayne is set to start on Wednesday at 7 p.m. Ball State will host Fort Wayne Saturday at 7:30 p.m.