Freshman defensive specialist Maggie Huber set it up, freshman outside hitter Natalie Mitchem hit it home and Ball State head coach Kelli Miller Phillips said, “Alright, let’s go.”
“I don’t really feel like we started the match at all with any kind of nerves or anxiety,” Miller Phillips said. “We wanted to go out and just play without fear and play with joy and confidence in who we were. That first point really gave us that additional confidence.”
The Cardinals had a 1-0 lead in the first set. They actually had a 1-0 lead in every set Friday. They just didn’t have the lead at the end of any of them. In its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011, Ball State (20-12, 11-5 MAC) fell in straight sets (25-13, 25-18, 25-10) to No. 5 Nebraska (26-4, 17-3 Big 10).
In each of the last four NCAA Tournaments, the Cornhuskers didn’t lose before the semi-finals, and they won two titles in that span. Throw in the fact that Nebraska has bigger, stronger players, and Miller Phillips said Friday’s outcome didn’t come as too much of a surprise.
“When you draw a team like Nebraska, you know that’s going to be a really tough battle,” Miller Phillips said. “I think our team and staff prepared to the very best that we could and competed as hard as we could. They were just better than us. We can hang our hats that we absolutely player our heart out on a team that was a really, really good team.”
Offensively, the Cardinals had 14 more attack errors, 22 fewer kills and a hitting percentage 415 points lower than the Cornhuskers.
The average height of Nebraska’s outside hitters and middle blockers is 6-foot-3. Ball State’s tallest player is an inch shorter. Miller Phillips said her team’s inexperience of playing opponents of that size played a large part in why it wasn’t able to get the offense going.
“They are a whole other level of anything we’ve faced in our league,” Miller Phillips said. “That’s not something that we’re used to seeing on a nightly basis. And I thought that really made the biggest difference. I thought we took good swings. I thought we ran a good offense, but their physicality blocking at the net was just something that was tough for us to overcome.”
Ball State’s season came to an end Friday, and so did the careers of four Cardinal seniors. They have all played and contributed in the majority of their matches dating back to freshman year.
Friday, three of them went out with a bang. Middle blocker Sydnee VanBeek led the team with eight kills, setter Amber Seaman had a team-leading 13 assists and defensive specialist Kate Avila recorded a team-best 10 digs.
Their performance on the court is one thing, but Miller Phillips said their impact runs far deeper.
“Their stats and all that talk for themselves,” Miller Phillips said. “But off the court in just their leadership, and how to be great teammates, how to work hard, how to do things the right way — they have played an enormous role, and I could not be more proud of them.”
The Cardinals had nine true freshmen this year — half their roster — and six of them played quality minutes this season. With all these young players learning from the four at the top, Miller Phillips said the seniors have paved the way for the future of the program.
“I think the future’s really bright. We talked about that in the locker room tonight,” Miller Phillips said. “Now we’ve got a taste of this and what it’s like to earn a bid into the NCAA Tournament. I think that’s just the beginning.”