It just might be Ball State's year. Facing second-place Eastern Michigan on the road and making mistakes by the truck load, it appeared to be Eastern Michigan's night.
Somehow the Cardinals (21-4, 11-2) forced a fifth set and won 16-25, 25-22, 16-25, 25-23, 15-7. The win reduces Ball State's magic number to one for clinching a share of the Mid-American West Division championship.
"Very seldom do you get two games like we did in game one and three and find a way to win, but that's the story of the team," coach Steve Shondell said. "They refuse to give up. They take it one point at a time and find way to win five game matches.
"We beat a team that was on a mission tonight."
Eastern Michigan (22-8, 9-4) dominated the match statistically. The Eagles had more kills, digs, service aces, assists, serves, and a higher hitting percentage. In the end Ball State pulled out its seventh five-set win in eight tries.
The Eagles challenged the Cardinals with a tactic never utilized consistently this season. Eastern Michigan repeatedly served short, forcing players other than senior libero Alyssa Rio and freshman defensive specialist Catie Fredrich to receive serves.
"We came out flat in first game," freshman outside hitter Kylee Baker said. "We were flat entire game, but we pushed through and made the important plays to win."
The tactic succeeded in challenging Ball State. Eight total reception errors were recorded, giving Eastern Michigan an 8-2 service ace lead.
"They had some really close serves to the net," Rio said. "We weren't in mindset to attack those, but we picked up at the end to finish it."
Ironically, it was Ball State's second service ace of the night that clinched the match. Rio found the weak link in the defense to complete another Ball State comeback.
Baker and freshman outside hitter Whitney Heeres paced Ball State offensively. Baker finished with 16 kills and Heeres had 14. Baker also added 12 digs for her sixth career double-double. Junior middle blocker Kelsey Brandl added 13 kills.
Rachel Iaquaniello and Paige Roback, Eastern Michigan attackers, led all players with 18 kills each.
Rio, the reigning National Player of the Week, recorded 27 digs for Ball State. Junior defensive specialist Kaylee Schembra came off the bench, stabilizing the defense with 19 digs.
"We talked about how important defense is and that it wins championships," Shondell said. "We played great defense down the stretch, especially in games four and five. Then everything fell our way in game five."
Ball State hit .556 in the final set while Eastern Michigan limped to a .143 rate of success.
"We could have easily given up," Rio said. "The second game helped us hang in there and not give up. By the fifth game we were really determined.
"It wasn't pretty, but we won. First place is worth fighting for."
Ball State concludes the road portion of the 2010 season tonight against Central Michigan. A Ball State win clinches a share of the MAC West title for the first time since 2002.