Cardinals storm back, fall just short at No. 9 Penn State

<p>&nbsp;Ball State men’s volleyball team exits the court for a break after the first period during the game against Sacred Heart on Jan. 19. The Cardinals won 3-2. <strong>Carlee Ellison, DN</strong></p>

 Ball State men’s volleyball team exits the court for a break after the first period during the game against Sacred Heart on Jan. 19. The Cardinals won 3-2. Carlee Ellison, DN

Ball State men’s volleyball had an opportunity to earn a huge road win after overcoming a big deficit in the fourth set, but couldn’t capitalize on its momentum in the final game. 

A 7-0 Penn State (4-2) run in the deciding set caused Ball State (4-5) to lose its third consecutive match by a 3-2 (21-25, 25-21, 19-25, 25-23, 10-15) margin.

“I thought our guys played well in moments,” head coach Joel Walton said. “We’re just struggling to sustain, through the course of the match, high-level play.”

The opening set was a battle. Penn State went on an early 5-1 run to give itself a 6-3 lead, but Ball State wouldn’t go away without a fight. Ball State won a couple of points back consecutively before the teams began to trade points until the score sat at 11-10 in favor of Penn State. A 3-0 run by the Nittany Lions put them on top by four points, forcing the Cardinals to use a timeout. From there, the Cardinals would be kept at arm’s length, getting as close as 23-21 before the Nittany Lions closed out the set by a score of 25-21. As a team, Penn State’s attack was on fire throughout the first set, finishing with a hitting percentage of .600 while Ball State finished at .333.

Ball State wasn’t discouraged after it dropped a close first set.

The Cardinals jumped out to a quick lead that got up to 12-8 through the first portion of the second set, but the Nittany Lions fought back and took a 16-15 lead down the stretch. Ball State’s momentum wouldn’t be shaken as the team went on a timely 3-0 run late to take control by a score of 23-20. Ball State went on and won the set 25-21 to even up the match score at 1-1. After a hot start in the first set, the Penn State offense stumbled a bit in the second, finishing with a hitting percentage of .190. Through two sets, sophomore outside attacker Blake Reardon and senior outside attacker Mitch Weiler led Ball State’s attack with seven kills apiece.

The third set was not as kind to Ball State.

Despite the back-and-forth action throughout the third set, Ball State committed numerous service errors. The serving woes prevented the Cardinals from ever taking control of the set. The teams still traded blows and the set never got too far out of reach for Ball State, but Penn State closed the set out with a 4-1 run to secure a 25-19 victory in set three. After two sets with hitting percentages over .225, Ball State’s percentage fell to .185 in the third set. Penn State got its hitting percentage up to .333 in set three after a sloppy second game.

Ball State had to dig deep to force a fifth set, and that’s exactly what it did.

Down four with its back against the wall, Ball State went on a huge 5-0 run to take the lead at 20-19 late in the set. Outside hitter Ben Chinnici looked like anything but a freshman when the pressure was on. He recorded two crucial kills and a service ace in the midst of the comeback. Ball State was able to come up big in the clutch and pull the match even at 2-2 with a 25-23 win in a must-win set.

“The one good sign that we had was, at least in game four, we were down and it was looking like the match was going to be over and our guys rallied and we were able to win that game,” Walton said. “It’s definitely a positive step, the fact that we made that run and our guys kept fighting.”

In the final set, Ball State couldn’t get much over the Penn State wall.

The Nittany Lions came up with three big blocks in the last set to halt any chance at momentum the Cardinals had in the fifth set. Jalen Penrose gave the Ball State defense a lot of problems, recording a trio of service aces in the midst of a 7-0 Penn State run. That run would be the deciding factor in the last set as Penn State went on to pick up a 15-10 victory, which closed out the match.

Walton addressed the team’s inability to stop Penrose in the final set, giving the match’s leader in kills and service aces some praise.

“Out of a guy that started out on fire tonight, we slowed down his offense, but he still did a good job for them behind the service line with six aces,” Walton said.

Three Cardinals finished with double digit kills. Sophomore outside attacker Matt Szews led the way with 11 of those kills, while Weiler and Reardon finished with 10 each and Weiler added 10 digs. Anthony Lebryk added seven kills and a team-leading .455 hitting percentage in the match. Ball State finished with 47 total errors, the glaring issue in the team's performance.

For Penn State, Jalen Penrose led the charge with 16 kills, six service aces and five digs. As a team, the Nittany Lions finished the match with a .303 hitting percentage.

Ball State will look to rebound quickly as the team will travel to Saint Francis Saturday for its second match in as many nights. That match is slated to start at 7 p.m.

Contact Nate Fields with comments at or on Twitter @NateNada.


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