Due to the postponement of all Mid-American Conference fall sports, Ball State Women’s Volleyball won’t return to the court until next spring at the earliest. However, last season’s MAC Championship was the beginning of a new era for the Cardinals.
After winning its last six regular-season matches and defeating Bowling Green 3-2 in the 2019 Mid-American Conference Championship, the Cardinals fell to No. 5 Nebraska in the 2019 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship. Ball State scored first in each set but couldn’t close it out in a 3-0 loss.
Last offseason, the Cardinals said goodbye to four seniors: defensive specialist Kate Avila, setter Amber Seaman, middle blocker Sydnee VanBeek and outside hitter/defensive specialist Anna Jensen.
There’s no doubt Ball State will have a void to fill with the departure of last year’s leadership. Depending on whether the Cardinals hit the court next spring, they will only have two upperclassmen on their roster: junior defensive specialist Cathryn Starck and senior outside hitter Kia Holder.
Because Starck gained limited experience last season, competing in only 13 of the team’s 126 sets, does this create extra pressure on Holder as the team’s lone senior? Perhaps, but it’s worth noting she has an impressive young core surrounding her.
At setter, redshirt sophomore Esther Grussing is set to take the helm. In volleyball, quality setting is necessary for any team to generate attacks at the net. While Grussing doesn’t possess Seaman’s wealth of experience, she showed promise in 2019, ranking 10th in the MAC with a 7.40 assists/per set average.
Quite literally, Grussing “sets” up an exciting, youthful and above-average offense starting with sophomore outside hitter Natalie Risi — the 2019 MAC Freshman of the Year. She is supported by sophomores in opposite Allison Hamaker and outside hitter/opposite Natalie Mitchem — the former of whom earned MAC All-Freshman Team honors along with Risi.
The offensive potential doesn’t stop there. Sophomore middle blocker Marie Plitt — the sister of Ball State Football starting quarterback Drew Plitt — was also one of the team’s most exciting pieces on offense last season, recording 196 kills in 106 sets played.
Plitt also chipped in defensively, recording 58 blocks and 69 digs. She creates a formidable duo at middle blocker along with sophomore middle blocker/outside hitter MyKel Ivy. Furthermore, sophomore defensive specialist Maggie Huber is more than prepared to take Avila’s place full time, tallying double-digit digs in 24 matches last season.
Along with its returning sophomores, Ball State welcomes a freshman class that Prepvolleyball.com ranked as one of the top 100 in the country for the second consecutive season: defensive specialist Zoe Conway, defensive specialist/setter Kate Vinson, middle blocker Lauren Gilliland and outside hitter Cait Snyder.
With so much young talent, it would be disappointing not to see Ball State take the court at some point later this year. Of course, improved health and safety conditions remain the first and foremost priority for all student-athletes right now, but this is an up-and-coming squad with nothing to lose heading into 2021.
While last year’s season-ending loss to Nebraska may have been a tough pill to swallow for the Cardinals, it was an opportunity for this youthful squad to gain early experience at a major stage. Another MAC Championship should be the goal for Ball State, even with the uncertainty of fall sports moving forward.
Now, is the Cardinals’ lack of senior leadership an issue? Possibly, but based on last season’s results, the team’s plethora of underclassmen inherently creates less pressure for Holder, Starck and head coach Kelli Miller Phillips. There’s still room for growth, but Ball State showed much promise down the stretch after an 11-10 start last season.
The bottom line is, the Cardinals will be very fun and competitive for a while. Depending on whether Ball State hits the court next spring, don’t count back-to-back MAC championships out of the picture.