Worthen Arena will celebrate its 25th anniversary Saturday. In its first year, Ball State hosted the NCAA Men’s Volleyball National Championship. Emma Rogers // DN
Worthen Arena turns 25
Ball State didn’t even play in the biggest game of Worthen Arena's first season.
On Jan. 28, the Ball State men’s and women’s basketball teams will play a doubleheader to commemorate the arena’s 25th anniversary, but on April 25, 1992, men's volleyball was in the spotlight.
The NCAA picked Muncie, Indiana, to host the Men’s Volleyball National Championships, and 7,391 people showed up to watch Pepperdine beat Stanford for the title.
“Even though our team wasn’t in the championship, we were still going to have a full house of people here watching that event,” Ball State men’s volleyball coach Joel Walton said. "It was pretty special seeing 6 or 7,000 in here on back-to-back nights.”
Walton was an assistant coach back in 1992, and he played for Ball State from 1985 to 1988 under former head coach Don Shondell. At the time, the combined attendance of 13,102 between the semi-finals and finals was the second-most in men’s volleyball history, behind only the 1973 championship, when San Diego State won in its own arena.
The Cardinals hosted men’s volleyball championships before but the old arena, Irving Gymnasium, had less than half the capacity (4,200) of Worthen (11,500).
Until the end of basketball season, there wasn’t enough room on the court to practice in Irving Gymnasium, so they would set up a court on the narrow balconies, with the wall on one side and a curtain on the other.
“Sometimes coach would just have us play the ball off the wall because it continued rallies and we could play more volleyball that way,” Walton said. “But there was also a little bit of a fear factor with the curtains because it was basically a curtain and a railing, and then you’re falling off, down 20 to 30 feet into the main floor area.”
Ramon Avila, a professor of marketing, enlisted students to help sell tickets, radio and cable TV ads for the 1992 finals, but he’s also a former Cardinal. He played volleyball in Irving from 1975 to 1977.
“It was, uh, spartan, is probably the best word I could use,” Avila said. “When basketball season was over and we could move onto the main court, we thought we were in heaven.”
Once the team climbed down from the balconies after practice, it was time to shower and change. Next to what’s now the equipment check-out room on the first floor of the Jo Ann Gora Student Recreation and Wellness Center are a set of general-use locker rooms, but before Worthen was built it housed the men’s volleyball team — and everyone else on campus.
“We had kind of a corner in it,” Walton said. “So we would go there after practice, and we would have all of our lockers lined up in that space, but Professor Smith, Professor Jones, Professor Whoever could walk into the exact same locker room area.”
Walton was ready to leave the cramped quarters of Irving Gym when he graduated in 1988. He remembers walking with Shondell at one point that season, talking about the new arena. He had no idea he'd join Shondell's coaching staff just two short years later.
“Coach told me how excited he was that they were going to be building this new facility that would house men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s volleyball," Walton said. "I remember looking at coach going, ‘Coach, I’m graduating this year. What do I care?’”
Avila didn’t have to ask why he cared. The Muncie Northside graduate thought of his old friend, Marc Groves. The two played football together at Northside, and in 1972 the Indianapolis Star said Groves was Northside’s “No. 1 tackler.”
After high school, Avila came to Ball State and Groves joined the armed services. Avila said Groves was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the late '80s and returned to Muncie, where the two would spend time together. One of Groves’ favorite topics, Avila said, was Worthen Arena.
“He would take his wheelchair and go to the end of the road, just to watch them build the arena,” Avila said. “He and I would do things together, and I’ll never forget him saying to me, ‘I never thought Ball State would get an arena like that.”
Worthen Arena, which was called University Arena until 2000, still looks pretty new. In recent years, Ball State has added video boards, corner scoreboards and updated the floor and the lights.
“If we tell people it’s a 25-year-old space, they’re shocked," Walton said. "And that’s a real credit to the facilities people here on campus as well as just the overall staff and what they do to maintain all of the facilities on Ball State’s campus.”
It's now used as a recruiting tool as well.
“The parents, and the recruits, their eyes always get really big," Walton said. "The comments that follow are always that of what impression it makes on them and how impressive the facility really is.”
The arena is still hosting championships, too — the Indiana High School Athletic Association girls' volleyball championships have been played in Worthen every year since 2007. Avila's daughter, Kate, even played in the 2015 Indiana Class 3A championship with Yorktown.
Kate now plays for Ball State women's volleyball, and Ramon watches her in the same arena that hosted the national championship game his students sold tickets for.
“Unbelievable,” Ramon said. “Here we are 25 years later, so I’ve been able to see quite a bit of it. And I still think I’m young.”