Coach Steve Shondell envisioned a three-step process for taking Ball State back to the NCAA Tournament when he was hired in the spring.

The first step was winning the Mid-American Conference regular-season championship, a feat the women's volleyball team accomplished this season.

The next two steps will have to wait for 2011.

In a season where few expected 24 wins or a MAC championship, Ball State was left heartbroken and stunned after a loss to Toledo in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament.

"Everyone was right about us not winning the tournament after we won the regular season," junior middle blocker Kelsey Brandl said. "We need to get angrier next year."

Despite the loss in the quarterfinals, Ball State's season was not a failure. The Cardinals won the regular-season MAC championship for the first time since 2002. Ball State had a 24-5 record, beat traditional-MAC powers Western Michigan and Ohio and won two nonconference tournaments.

Ball State went from 153 in the final RPI standings last season to 51 before the start of the NCAA Tournament this season.

Senior defensive specialist Hannah Sullivan was glad her career ended on a high note despite the loss to Toledo.

"We had a lot of success this season and a conference championship that no one can take away from us," Sullivan said. "I won't let one loss ruin it for me. All the hard work we put in finally paid off in the end and was a great way to [end] my career."

The schedule, which made Ball State's record impressive, also ended any hope of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. The Cardinals were 1-2 against top-50 teams in the RPI and had a loss to No. 220 Wright State.

"We had a losing history to overcome," senior libero Alyssa Rio said. "It's hard for a growing program to overcome that. We overcame so much to win a regular-season MAC championship but weren't able to win the MAC Tournament."

Growing the program is another of Shondell's three steps. With a regular-season title under his belt, Shondell is ready to take the next step.

"Next year we will be as focused on winning the MAC Tournament as we were in winning the MAC regular-season championship this year," Shondell said. "We took a major step forward this year but still have to take another in winning the MAC Tournament to get back to the NCAA Tournament."

During the offseason, Ball State is left with a losing memory for two months before the spring season begins. This is difficult for Brandl and junior setter Brittany McGinnis to handle.

Even with two months off, Shondell has changed the culture. No longer is the team going to the gym for workouts in separate groups, as they did in previous years. The entire team is there together.

"I wish I could go back out on the court and play again," McGinnis said. "I don't want this short break. We're so angry about the way our season ended, it's even hard to talk about, but we're all in the gym together working to be ready for next year."