Kills: Matt Szews (16)
Digs: Jake Romano (13)
Assists: Jake Romano (44)
What’s better than beating one top 10 team? Beating two in as many nights.
Ball State men’s volleyball was able to finish off a weekend of upsets with a 3-1 (34-32, 20-25, 25-23, 25-21) statement win over No. 6 Loyola-Chicago (10-3, 3-1 MIVA).
Despite Loyola’s multiple attempts to fight its way back into the match, Ball State (7-7, 2-2 MIVA) was able to stem the tide every time and pick up another much-needed win against a Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association foe.
“We had to be ready to race with them,” head coach Joel Walton said. “Our offense had to work at a certain level if we were going to be able to win games and win the match.”
A first set for the ages saw both teams scrapping and clawing for points throughout. Loyola jumped out to a 3-0 lead but couldn’t get Ball State to go away. The Ramblers looked to be in control of the set, leading for most of the way. The Ramblers’ largest lead reached five at 22-17 down the stretch. Ball State responded with a 7-2 run to force overtime at 24 apiece. From there, neither team was going down without a fight. A Matt Szews kill sparked a roar from the crowd and sealed the set with a score of 34-32 in favor of the hosts. Senior outside attacker Mitch Weiler and Szews led the charge for the Cardinals with six kills each. Ball State totaled 19 kills and a .405 hitting percentage in the set.
Game two started with the same theme as the first.
Loyola was able to build a slight lead at the beginning of the set, but this time Ball State was unable to overcome the slow start. With the score tied at 10, Loyola rattled off a 7-2 run and took control of the set. The Cardinals pulled within two on multiple occasions but never got closer. A Garrett Zolg service ace completed the win for Loyola, knotting the match up at one set apiece. Through two sets, Szews led the Cardinals with 11 kills on a .500 hitting percentage. Sophomore setter Jake Romano had 24 assists and nine digs at the half, which both led the team. Ball State tallied a .304 hitting percentage and 33 team kills through the first two games.
“When we passed well, I thought our offense was able to do what we wanted to do,” Walton said. “There was a moment in game two where we got a little tentative with our passing, so we challenged the guys in the locker room to stay aggressive and understand that’s really what was going to be the difference.”
Ball State held a consistent lead in set three.
Loyola led early by a score of 3-2, but Ball State rattled off a couple of points in a row and never trailed again in the set. Despite the consistent lead, Ball State never led by more than three points during the third game. Still, the Cardinals were able to keep the Ramblers at an arm’s length throughout. Both teams traded blows back and forth before Ball State was able to put away the visitors with a Matt Szews kill. Ball State totaled 16 kills in the third game. Through three sets, Szews and sophomore outside attacker Blake Reardon led the team in kills with 14 and 12, respectively. Romano led the team in both assists and digs with 37 and 11 through the first three games.
“My guys are real confident right now,” Romano said. “To be able to keep those guys going and really feeling good about themselves is really what’s key to our effectiveness.”
The final set was another close battle.
Loyola captured the first two points of the set, but Ball State responded with a quick 4-0 run to take an early lead. After the initial scoring spurts, the Ramblers gathered some momentum with a 4-0 run of their own to push the score to 13-9 in their favor. The Cardinals would respond with a spirited 8-4 run to pull the momentum away from the No. 6 team in the nation. A 3-0 scoring run by the hosts would push them ahead with the score at 23-19. With the crowd energized and on its feet, a Loyola attacking error sealed the deal and completed the upset for Ball State.
“We’ve been working on a number of things the past couple weeks, and we’ve seen improvement on certain parts of our game in a couple of matches prior to this weekend,” Szews said. “Starting with [the win over Lewis] and tonight, these are two matches that felt like everything we’ve been working on has kind of come together. It’s definitely a good confidence boost.”
Romano knew that a win against a top team can’t be undervalued.
“It really puts into perspective that all the hard work is really starting to pay off for us,” Romano said. “When we work hard all week and really pay attention to the small details, once game time comes, it’s basically natural for us.”
Overall, Szews led the team in kills with 16 on a .324 hitting percentage. Romano played his usual roll of floor general. The sophomore setter finished the night with 44 assists and 13 digs, which both led the team. Weiler added 14 kills and a dozen digs in a solid all-around match. Reardon tallied 14 kills of his own. Ball State finished with 61 team kills and a .291 hitting percentage on the night.
“These matches at home were huge,” Walton said. “It does feel like our guys are starting to live up to what their potential and ability is. It doesn’t get any easier. The way our schedule is this year we’re just basically going from one tough opponent to the next, so what we want to do is keep building on this but realize we’re not yet where want to be and that there’s still a lot more work to do.”
Next up, Ball State will hit the road again for its next next seven matches, starting with a trip to Quincy on Friday, Feb. 23. The match is scheduled to start at 7 p.m.