Ball State senior Matt Walsh jumps to spike the ball to score a point during the fourth period against Sacred Heart on Jan. 19. The Cardinals won 3-2. Carlee Ellison, DN
Conference play has arrived as Ball State travels to No. 5 Ohio State, McKendree
Another week, another match against a top 10 team for Ball State men’s volleyball.
After splitting its matches in last week’s action, Ball State (5-5) will visit the fifth ranked Ohio State Buckeyes (7-2) Thursday, Feb. 8, followed by a trip to McKendree (3-6) Saturday, Feb. 10 to close out the weekend.
Ball State’s match against No. 5 Ohio State will be the team’s fourth outing against a top 10 opponent this season.
Head coach Joel Walton knows the team will have to keep grinding to maintain the momentum of its first road win last weekend.
“The focus [in practice] has been good,” Walton said. “I think our guys understand that the way our schedule works this season is we go from one challenge to the next. We have a very difficult schedule and there aren’t any nights that we can afford to be ill-prepared or unfocused.”
Walton knows that slowing down Nicolas Szerszen, the 2016 American Volleyball Coaches Association Player of the Year, will be one of the keys to victory for the Cardinals. The senior outside hitter comes into the match ranked eighth in the nation in kills per set with 3.71.
“There aren’t a lot of players that we play against who have the ability to take a match over, but he’s one of those guys,” Walton said.
Although Szerszen is eighth in the country in kills per set, he doesn’t lead Ohio State in that category. That honor belongs to a freshman. 6-foot-10 Jake Hanes is ranked fourth nationally with 3.96 kills per set.
Despite the danger presented by Szerszen and Hanes, Ball State has some solid players of its own.
Senior middle attacker Matt Walsh enters the match as the nation’s 10th leading blocker, rejecting 1.128 attempts per set. Walsh also leads the team with a hitting percentage of .383, which is tied for 15th in the country. Collectively, Ball State ranks fourth in the nation with 2.59 blocks per set.
Another Cardinal to watch is sophomore Blake Reardon. The outside attacker has tallied double figure kills in each of the last four matches, posting a season-high 15 in last weekend’s four-set victory at Saint Francis.
After struggling with their serve last weekend, Walton knows the Cardinals will need to be efficient behind the service line to keep Ohio State out of a comfortable offense. Walton said Ball State has been working on technical things such as improving its toss and making more consistent contact on serves.
The Cardinals and Buckeyes are no strangers to each other. Ball State leads the all-time series 104-97-1, with Ohio State winning the last four meetings.
“We just have to be tenacious in the backcourt,” Walton said. “Balls can’t fall without great effort. We want to make them feel like shots that they’ve been hitting for kills are now getting played by our defense.”
Although McKendree isn’t ranked in the top 10 like Ohio State, Walton knows the team’s second match of the weekend will be anything but easy.
“McKendree is no cakewalk on Saturday night,” Walton said. “We’ve struggled at their place the last couple of years, including a loss at their place last season.”
Senior middle blocker Brendan Schmidt enters the weekend for McKendree ranked in the top 20 nationally in three different categories. He is fifth in hitting percentage (.459), 13th in blocks (1.107 per set) and 17th in service aces per set (.464).
Ball State’s match at Ohio State is slated to start at 7 p.m. on Thursday. Saturday’s match at McKendree is also scheduled for 7 p.m.