The Ball State men’s volleyball team has one of its deepest rosters since 2002, and with that comes the opportunity to have an aggressive strategy come game time.
In matches, head coach Joel Walton is able to substitute players in and out depending on who he thinks is needed at any given time.
“If you don’t have depth, then what happens is when you replace a player with someone else, there tends to be a drop in your team’s performance,” Walton said. “Because we’ve had good depth this year and because we’ve got players who can come in and play at an equal or even better level sometimes, it again becomes an added pressure point for our opponents.”
Brendan Surane, a junior outside attacker, is in some ways at the core of that strategy.
Walton said Surane is one of the best players on the team because of his ability to play multiple positions.
Surane — on his second position switch in three years — has proven his versatility has become a driving force for the team.
“We’re still working to make Brendan a more confident passer, and that would allow us to play him more on the left, maybe bring someone else in on the right,” Walton said.
Surane has played three positions since arriving at Ball State: right-side, middle and left-side attacker. Walton has been able to put him wherever he is needed during matches this year, which helps increase the depth of the rest of the team.
“We’ve been throwing guys in and out of the lineup, and everyone has gone in and played well and done what was asked of them,” Surane said.
This depth has come in handy as the team has been winning some key matches. On Feb. 17, they took down two-time defending NCAA champions Loyola University. The following night, they beat defending Lewis who was the runner-up. Prior to that, Ball State took down No. 7 Ohio State on Feb. 6 in a five-set match at St. John Arena.
The Cardinals are currently first place in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, and remain the only undefeated team. Walton said if his team keeps winning, they will hold home-court advantage in the conference tournament.
Key aspects to the team's success has been the roster depth which should keep the team fresh in the 28-match season.
While this depth has proven to be successful this season, it can still be jarring for Surane and the rest of the team when they get pulled.
For most of their volleyball careers, being pulled out of a game meant you were doing something wrong or playing badly. Of course, that may still be the case sometimes, but more often than not, coaches are making the switches to put the best match-ups on the court.
Surane and senior Marcin Niemczewski have been taking turns on the right-side attack for the past few matches.
“Lately we’ve been playing well. So I think it’s a strategy. Maybe I’m a better attacker against this sort of blocker, or [Niemczewski] is a better blocker against this type of hitter,” Surane said. “It all depends on what’s going on during the match and how we can go in and out … Maybe if an outside is tearing us apart, we’ll put another right-side in.”
During Surane’s freshman year, when he was a right-side attacker, he was competing for playing time with Niemczewski. But the coaches saw the potential in both and wanted to find a way to get two of their best players on the court at the same time.
So in Surane’s sophomore season, Walton moved the 6'6" attacker to the middle after the team graduated two good middle attackers the previous season.
Surane was a middle attacker in high school, so Walton decided to try it out.
It took a while for him to get the timing of the position down, but working with then-sophomore setter Hiago Garchet the prior year made the transition easier.
Surane said he didn’t like playing middle as much as right-side or left-side because he didn't get as many swings.
“You don’t get set nearly as much [in the middle], so you have to make the most of every set you get,” he said. “If you mess up, it could hurt your numbers.”
Even so, he racked up 166 kills and 306 total attacks during the 2015 season, and had the highest attack percentage (.418) on the team.
This year, Surane got his wish and moved to the high-pressure position as a left side-attacker. There, he said, he has had to pass around half the balls served at the Cardinals, sometimes even more.
“It was just a lot of pressure to be under, to pass almost every ball and still try to hit high numbers,” he said.
So far this season, Surane has charted 142 kills and 343 total attacks for a .230 attack percentage.
When he first started playing on the left-side, Surane said he struggled a lot with passing. It wasn’t something he had to do much before, and he said he felt like the other team was picking on him because he hadn’t played the position before.
“It’s something I’m not really completely comfortable with, and once you get to a higher level, guys are hitting really hard, tough serves,” he said.
Walton said he has seen Surane playing tentatively this season because passing can be stressful for him.
“If you pass well, our team has a great variety of options of how to run plays, and if you don’t pass well, it’s harder to be successful, and you feel that very directly, especially if you’re not passing well,” Walton said.
Even so, Surane said he feels like he is improving his passing game.
“It’s still kind of a work in progress that will take a while, but I’m getting better every game,” he said.
Because he is versatile and excels at all three front-row positions, the setter has even more options, regardless of which position Surane is playing.
Surane said sometimes the team can run middle sets with him, which can give them an advantage.
“I’m faster and can throw the blockers off because they’re not expecting a middle set [to an left-side or right-side attacker],” he said.
This versatility from Surane, as well as the depth on the rest of the team, is markedly improving the team’s play.
Ball State is 12-3 after winning nine consecutive matches, and as since the remain undefeated in the MIVA, they come into each match with the same mindset.
“We’re coming in with the mentality that it’s not the same team and we can beat them and it shows,” Surane said. “We’re playing great defense, we’ve had great block touches, guys are going for every ball, and we’re not letting anything fall.”