Ball State men's volleyball head coach Joel Walton made one major point when describing the graduating seniors of this season's team.
"There are some big shoes to try and fill," Walton said of seniors such as setter Connor Gross and outside attacker Brendan Surane.
The Cardinals will be returning 12 of the 19 members of the 2016-17 roster with the addition of six incoming freshmen — three outside attackers, a setter and a libero. Walton said the key for the Cardinals to remain competitive in the future is to build on the experience many of the younger players received this season.
"We have a lot of guys that have started for us at various points in the season and that's a good nucleus to have," Walton said. "We also have guys that are excited for the chance to compete very stiffly to try and earn a starting job."
Outside Attackers — "Young but talented"
While the Cardinals will be losing four of their outside attackers from last season, there are two key members who will be returning: Blake Reardon and Matt Szews. Szews said it was important for the Cardinals to be able to have freshmen see a lot of playing time immediately this season.
"It's really important from the aspect of young guys getting used to the game," Szews said. "Being able to get in right away gives you an upper edge."
Both Szews and Reardon were able to have a solid impact right away — Szews led the team with 357 kills and also 39 service aces while Reardon was a spark plug for Ball State late in the season racking up 72 kills in just 34 sets.
"Blake was a competent and confident attacker and he's someone who wants the ball and will go up and take a big rip at it," Walton said. "Teams weren't really sure how to defend him and that worked to our advantage."
Along with senior outside attacker Mitch Weiler, the Cardinals will also bring in three incoming freshmen to compete for playing time at the outside attacker position: Ben Chinnici, Ryan Dorgan and Zach Nielsen.
"In that group of guys we're going to be very, very young," Walton said. "There's a lot of ability and talent in those outside attackers."
Middle Attackers — The Rise of Matt Walsh
Two of the seniors next season will be at the middle attacker position — one of whom is Matt Walsh. Walsh, who finished with an NCAA-high attack percentage of .449, was not only able to affect teams with his attack but also his blocking.
"He's able to get his hands across the net and above the net, which makes it hard to move a ball past him," Walton said. "A lot of times, he's touching the ball before the attackers are even able to make contact."
Walton also praised Walsh for his ability to affect an opposing team's middles and how they utilize them.
"He forces them into some places where they can make errors," Walton said. "You'll often see him make guys uncomfortable."
Ball State will also return two other middles who saw a significant amount of playing time this past season: Anthony Lebryk and Parker Swartz. Swartz, who had primarily seen playing time as just a server in the past, has now become one of the team's "best middle attackers," Walton said.
"His blocking has come along way," Walton said. "We were concerned about his ability to block against more physical middles but by the end of the year he was doing as good of a job blocking as anybody."
The Cardinals will also have three other players competing for playing time: Lemuel Turner, Nate Amos and incoming freshman Will Hippe. Walton said Turner is one of the most physical middles on the team's roster and he is excited for him to get a chance at some more playing time next season.
"There's a real physicality that we're excited to have Lem show more of," Walton said. "If he has to match up with middles and take away their shots, he's really good at it."
One of the most important parts of a middle attacker's game is being able to have a good connection with their setter — which Walton said Gross did a good job of this season.
"If you're gonna have that kind of offense to generate with your middle, it means that your setter is comfortable giving the ball to him at all times," Walton said. "With three setters vying for our starting spot, it could impact our middles ability to develop and gain a connection with a new setter.
Setters — A Three-Way Battle
With Gross graduating, the Cardinals will have three players competing for the starting setter position: Jake Romano, Courtland Scharenborg and incoming freshman Quinn Isaacson.
At this moment, Walton said Romano is currently the stronger blocker and server while Scharenborg is more of a "pure setter" in terms of accuracy on setting the ball but he's excited to see them both improve during the offseason.
"They're going to have to be able to build trust and confidence with their attackers," Walton said. "The great news for them is that they're going to have a stable of attackers around them that will be fun to work with."
Romano, who mostly saw action as a server this past season, is excited for the opportunity to compete for a starting spot next year.
"Competition is definitely the best way to push one another and make sure you're putting the best talent out there," Romano said. "It's important to make sure no one gets complacent."
Liberos — Personality Differences
This past season, Ball State saw a pretty even split in playing time between their two liberos, Nick Lavanchy and Adam Wessel. Lavanchy played in 68 sets while Wessell played in 69.
Wessel, who has the advantage of playing three years with the Ball State program, impressed Walton with how he finished the year strong including recording 16 digs in the loss against Ohio State in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association semifinals.
Wessel said he is embracing the competition between himself and the two other liberos going into this offseason.
"It's really close and it adds extra competition in practices," Wessel said. "I'm not afraid of it, I look forward to it."