Three hundred and twenty-one days.
It had been exactly 321 days since Ball State last stepped on the court against an opponent that was not its own players.
After finishing 2020 with a three-game win streak, it would have been understandable if the Cardinals would have had trouble sustaining last season’s momentum after the long wait period.
That did not happen, though. Despite falling in the first match of the weekend to No. 13 George Mason in a tightly-contested, five-set match Friday, the Cardinals came back Saturday looking for a win and picked up their first of 2021.
“I think it was very important for our guys’ confidence,” head coach Joel Walton said of Saturday’s win. “To get a win on the road against a team that is nationally ranked — both of those things are important to our guys.”
Friday’s match was tough to swallow for Cardinal fans. Despite the first set, which the Patriots took 25-19, each set that followed ended in a score of just a two-point difference. Ball State won sets two and four (25-23, 29-27), but it was the third set that irked Walton.
“[Friday] was frustrating because we lost and came up a couple of points short,” Walton said. “Our biggest frustration last night was being up by eight points and letting that slip away.”
The Cardinals held a 21-13 lead in set three Friday before George Mason went on a 10-0 run and ultimately won the set 25-23, forcing the Cardinals to play from behind in the fourth. The Patriots won the fifth and decisive set 17-15.
Another factor playing into the Cardinals’ loss was the 29 errors they committed. Twenty-three of those came from service errors alone.
“If you’re serving one ace to every error, that’s a pretty good ratio,” Walton said. “[Friday], we had five aces, but we had all of those errors that hurt us.”
Graduate student outside attacker Blake Reardon was one of nine Cardinals to struggle with serving, finishing with five service errors and 17 total in match one.
“I was really excited to be out there, so I would just blame the errors on the first-game jitters,” Reardon said.
It was the first season-opening loss for Ball State since 2016, when they fell 3-0 to Stanford at home. To avoid starting the season 0-2 for the first time since 2009, the Cardinals needed to come back and defeat George Mason Saturday.
And they did.
Friday’s loss was the third match in a row the two teams had taken a match to five sets. But after the mistakes made in that match, the Cardinals came firing on all cylinders and left the Recreation Athletic Complex earlier than usual with a 3-1 (25-22, 22-25, 26-24, 25-22) victory.
Walton said he made several adjustments for the second match against the Patriots, including changing formations to the way George Mason attacks. He also played different personnel that didn’t get much playing time in 2020, including sophomore outside attacker Bryce Behrendt, senior libero Colin Ensalaco and junior outside attacker Nick Martinski. He said they all contributed in the match at one time or another.
Reardon finished with 49 kills over both matches. Senior setter Quinn Isaacson was responsible for many of those assists to Reardon, finishing with 102.
“Quinn and I and all the other guys on the floor are talking constantly in between plays and during plays to allow us to readjust the whole time,” Reardon said. “Generally, the more we talk, the more successful we are.”
The win moved the Cardinals to 1-1, giving them momentum going into next weekend’s two-match slate against Lincoln Memorial University.
“Going out there and competing is not a feeling you can get anywhere else doing anything,” Reardon said. “Even with all of the restrictions, the balls and everything else we have to do differently, when you’re out there playing, it all feels the same.”
The Cardinals will face the Railsplitters Jan. 28-29 in Worthen Arena — an opponent Ball State didn’t get a chance to play against last season after COVID-19 cut its 2020 campaign short.