TOLEDO, Ohio — Just like that it was over.
The dream season abruptly ended without the happily ever after. All that was left were tears, disappointment and disbelief.
Hope of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament all but gone. No Mid-American Conference Tournament championship. All of it ruined seemingly without a whimper from the Ball State women's volleyball team in a 28-26, 25-19, 25-21 loss to Toledo on Friday.
As Toledo knocked Ball State on its heels Friday night in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament, there was a sense of desperation. It came from the Rockets, not the Cardinals. Toledo played for its life. It showed.
"I told the team we needed to match their energy because we weren't doing that," coach Steve Shondell said. "We had to pick up the intensity, and we didn't do that until the third set. By then it was too late."
Toledo dominated the match, out-hitting, out-blocking, out-hustling and making big plays. The Cardinals looked like the No. 8 seed, not the top seed. They were often out of position to make plays, hit into blocks and made mental errors not seen since early in the season.
It was a much different match than the one at Worthen Arena just a week ago, when the Cardinals swept the Rockets to clinch the MAC regular-season championship.
"We made some adjustments and shored up a few areas," Toledo coach Greg Smith said. "It's been a weird tournament with so many upsets. We never thought we'd be able to win a match like this in three sets, but you never know what's going to happen in a tournament like this."
Toledo was eliminated by Northern Illinois on Saturday in the tournament semifinals.
In Friday's match, frustration built on the floor and on the bench for the Cardinals. Nothing was going right. Ball State never exploded. If anything, Ball State lacked emotion.
Players have not been made available by the athletics department since the loss.
Junior middle blocker Kelsey Brandl took the team on her back late, trying to spark an unlikely comeback by smashing kills with impressive velocity. It wasn't enough.
"Our focus wasn't on ruining the great season Ball State had," Smith said. "It's either you or them in this one-and-done environment, and we didn't want it to be us."
Instead of the expected win against a team Ball State had lost to just four times in program history, Ball State ended up with a bus ride back to Muncie thinking about what went wrong.
"You can't let one loss set you back," Shondell said. "Any loss in the postseason is disappointing, but it's a part of athletics."
Now Ball State has to wait to see if the NCAA Selection Committee will take an impressive regular season into account for one of the 33 at-large spots in the NCAA Tournament. The answer will come Sunday at 3 p.m.