Holder’s efforts, Grussing’s consistency highlight Ball State in back-to-back sweeps of Buffalo

<p>Ball State junior outside hitter Kia Holder talks with freshman middle blocker Marie Plitt before the next serve Nov. 16, 2019, in John E. Worthen Arena. The Cardinal's next game will be in Bowling Green, Ohio during the MAC volleyball championship. <strong>Eric Pritchett, DN</strong></p>

Ball State junior outside hitter Kia Holder talks with freshman middle blocker Marie Plitt before the next serve Nov. 16, 2019, in John E. Worthen Arena. The Cardinal's next game will be in Bowling Green, Ohio during the MAC volleyball championship. Eric Pritchett, DN

More than a year since winning the 2019 Mid-American Conference Title, Ball State Women’s Volleyball (4-0 MAC) hasn’t missed a beat through its first four matches of its delayed 2021 season. 

After notching back-to-back wins Jan. 22-23 against Akron at Worthen Arena, the Cardinals extended their win streak against conference opponents to 14 games against the Bulls (0-4 MAC) Jan. 28-29 in Ball State’s first trip to Buffalo since October 2018. The Cardinals swept the Bulls in both matches and won each set by no less than a seven-point margin.

Riding its best start since 2011 — when the team won its first nine matches — interim head coach Fritz Rosenberg attributed the importance of fundamentals and quality practice in helping the Cardinals reach the consistency they are experiencing right now. 

“It starts every day at practice, being consistent with our skills and mindset,” Rosenberg said. “It kind of translates over to the court when it’s time to play.”

Throughout both matches, Ball State outhit Buffalo .331 to .094. Senior outside hitter Kia Holder drove the team’s offense, notching a combined 21 kills — 14 of them coming in Friday’s win. She has now recorded double-digit kills in three of Ball State’s first four matches this season.

One of just two upperclassmen on Ball State’s roster, Rosenberg said Holder’s performances against the Bulls were testaments to her work ethic and dedication on the court. 

“[Holder’s] always ready,” Rosenberg said. “I think we kind of leaned on her a little bit more [Friday] than [Thursday], but she was in a good rhythm, so we just kind of kept going her way. We all have trust in her every day in practice and on the court, so it’s very valuable to have that on your side of the court.” 

Starting her season five months later than usual, Holder said, the team’s delayed start has made her appreciate this season more from a playing standpoint.   

“We all love being around each other and getting to gel on the court,” Holder said. “I think that just adds to how well we’ve been playing.”

In Thursday’s sweep (25-18, 25-14, 25-16) sophomore outside hitter/opposite Natalie Mitchem led the Cardinals’ offense with 10 kills and a career-high .500 hitting percentage. Sophomore outside hitter Natalie Risi made contributions on both sides of the ball, notching nine kills along with seven digs.

“I think it was mostly a team effort,” Risi said of Thursday’s win. “We were really taking care of the serves [Buffalo] was giving us, and we were also putting on some serves toward them, which set us up for success after they sent a hit over.”

Ball State carried its momentum into Friday. The Cardinals took set one 25-11, ending the set on a 12-2 run. With the exception of scoring the first point in set two, Buffalo never took the lead throughout the match. Ball State hung on, taking sets two and three with scores of 25-15 for the sweep.   

Redshirt sophomore setter Esther Grussing tallied a combined 35 assists in both matches after recording just six last weekend against the Zips. Along with freshman defensive specialist/setter Kate Vinson, Rosenberg credited Grussing and his team’s serving in generating effective offense over both matches.

“Having [Grussing] back on the court allows us to play a little bit of a different lineup,” Rosenberg said. “She kind of keeps the team pretty calm and puts up a good rhythm for our hitters. She played a little bit last year for us as well, so a little bit of experience in the setting department is always nice for us to have.” 

Pleased with his team’s start, Rosenberg said, he knows there are still areas of improvement moving forward. However, he remains hopeful as Ball State continues its journey for a second consecutive conference title.

“The hope is that we’re not playing our best volleyball now — in January,” Rosenberg said. “There’s always places we could get better. [Friday’s] task, we accomplished, and we’ll deal with next week’s task when we get there.” 

Ball State returns to action Feb. 4-5 against Toledo, concluding a four-match road trip.

Contact Connor Smith with comments at cnsmith@bsu.edu or on Twitter @cnsmith_19.

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