As the end of the regular season draws nearer, No. 11 Ball State men’s volleyball (13-9, 6-2 MIVA) prepares for two critical road matches against No. 6 Loyola-Chicago (17-4, 7-1 MIVA) and No. 10 Lewis (14-8, 5-3 MIVA).
With Loyola-Chicago, Ohio State and Ball State all in a logjam near the top of the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association rankings, picking up wins this weekend could be crucial in creating a bit of separation and putting Ball State in position to seize the top seed in the conference tournament.
“It’s a weekend that’s going to determine where our seed is going into the conference tournament, and we need to be aware of that, but we can’t be overcome by that,” head coach Joel Walton said. “Whatever our guys are going to achieve as far as our place in the conference tournament is going to be greatly determined by how we play at Lewis and Loyola. Those are just two very critical matches.”
Having picked up a pair of decisive wins against both Lewis and Loyola-Chicago in Worthen Arena earlier in the season, Walton wants his team to approach the match with some excitement as it tries to win another pair against its rivals in Illinois.
“Our team has played confidently against Lewis and Loyola this entire season, even going back into some of our preseason matches,” Walton said. “We need to continue that type of effort and have the knowledge in our mind that we can do the things against those two teams to be successful, but we still have to step on the court and be able to execute those skills and play at a high enough level to make those things happen.
“It’s not going to be easy, but it’s a challenge I think our guys should be looking forward to. We’ve put together a nice body of work this season, and these could be two pretty incredible matches if we can go up there and steal a match or two.”
Loyola-Chicago has been the hotter team out of Ball State’s next two opponents. The Ramblers have won seven of their last eight matches after falling to the Cardinals, including four wins in straight sets.
Lewis has been up and down since facing Ball State. The 10th-ranked Flyers have gone 6-4 since losing to the Cardinals, including three losses in their last four matches.
In the home matches against Lewis and Loyola-Chicago last month, the visitors were doing a bit of jawing toward Ball State, which the team handled well. Going on the road to play the two teams this time could bring much of the same, but the players are showing some excitement for the lively environment.
“I think the competition with both teams will be really good,” sophomore outside attacker Matt Szews said. “The environment — although it might be hostile up in Chicago — is going to be a great environment to play in. I think it’ll be a lot of fun, especially if we get wins it’ll be even more fun, but I’m looking forward to [this week].”
Along with Szews finding his form again recently after leading the team in kills last weekend against No. 15 Fort Wayne, sophomore setter Jake Romano has played some of his best volleyball as of late, and he knows going on the road against top-tier teams will challenge the team, but he isn’t afraid of the competition.
“We know it’s been tough,” Romano said. “Teams in the past have had a really hard time winning in that environment, but with us building our confidence now, beating them at home was huge, and we know that we can go in there and do the exact same thing. If we can serve and pass the way that we did [at home], there’s not an opponent out there that can stop us.”
If Ball State can do those things and pick up a pair of wins, it’ll leave the weekend in a three-way tie for the top seed in the MIVA at the very least. Doing so would allow the Cardinals to control their own destiny in regard to claiming home-court advantage in the conference tournament, and with Ball State holding a 7-2 record at home vs. just a 6-6 record on the road, having the tournament go through Worthen Arena could be a valuable advantage for the 11th-ranked team in the nation.
Ball State’s matchup against Loyola-Chicago is set for Thursday at 9 p.m. The match at Lewis is slated for Saturday at 8 p.m.