A new regime: Ball State Men’s Volleyball’s first-year coaches prepare to lead program in a fresh direction

<p>The Ball State men’s volleyball team stand for the national anthem before a game against Ohio State Feb 27, 2021, in John E. Worthen Arena. The Cardinals lost 3-2 to the Buckeyes. <strong>Rylan Capper, DN</strong></p>

The Ball State men’s volleyball team stand for the national anthem before a game against Ohio State Feb 27, 2021, in John E. Worthen Arena. The Cardinals lost 3-2 to the Buckeyes. Rylan Capper, DN

After taking over for former head coach Joel Walton, who spent 23 years at the helm, head coach Donan Cruz comes to Ball State after winning two NAIA Men’s Volleyball championships during his tenure at Grand View University.

While they’ve never coached together, Ball State Men’s Volleyball’s three new coaches share a collective goal: to win.

Taking over for former head coach Joel Walton, who spent 23 years at the helm of the Cardinals, first-year head coach Donan Cruz comes to Ball State after spending 10 years leading Grand View University Men’s Volleyball. During his tenure with the Vikings, Cruz led the program to two National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics men’s volleyball titles.

“In terms of my role, taking over the program has been nothing but great,” Cruz said. “I've been doing a lot of preparation for the upcoming season, and, with the timing of it, we really had to dive head in.” 

Along with Cruz, the Cardinals welcome two new assistant coaches, Christian Rupert and Mike Iandolo. During the interview process, Cruz said, he thought each candidate embodied the leadership characteristics needed to mentor student-athletes. 

Rupert, a 2018 graduate of Brigham Young University, played professional volleyball in Croatia for Mladost Ribola Kaštela after competing as a middle blocker for the Cougars from 2015-18.

After serving as an assistant coach for Princeton University during the 2020-21 season, Rupert joined Cruz’s staff after engaging with him during an Amateur Athletic Union tournament in Kansas City, Missouri, this past summer. He said he is ecstatic to bring his knowledge to the Cardinals.

“Not too long ago, I was in their footsteps,” Rupert said. “I feel like my ability to relate and convey messages and information is super important. I think it goes under the radar, for us and the staff. We really value forming those relationships with connections. At the end of the day, that's kind of what will make the players be able to trust that you know best.” 

Like Rupert, Iandolo joined Cruz’s staff after connecting with him at an AAU tournament. Iandolo, a 2010 graduate of Lewis University, was a two-time All-Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association First Team selection during his playing career as a setter for the Flyers from 2007-10. 

After spending the last three seasons as head coach of the University of Charleston, Iandolo said he is ready for a different level of competition at Ball State.

“I really believed in what we were doing and building in Charleston,” Iandolo said. “But when you get to this level of a school and program, it's a different story. Once [Cruz and I] started talking, we realized we're very similar in a lot of things, especially when it comes to how we connect with people and how we build relationships and what's important in terms of volleyball.”

Senior setter Quinn Isaacson sets the ball March 27, 2021, in John E. Worthen Arena. The Cardinals lost the the Ramblers 3-1. Jaden Whiteman, DN

Iandolo has only been around the team for a few weeks but said he is excited about what the Cardinals could become by the time the season begins in January. 

“There’s a lot of potential,” Iandolo said. “They're very physical —  they play very scrappy and play really good defense. I think we're positioned to challenge even more for the title this year than [we] did last year, and I think that is exciting.”

Graduate student setter Quinn Isaacson said he has been impressed with his new coaches since first meeting them.

“The first meeting we had with the whole staff, they said, ‘We will win,’” Isaacson said. “They made that clear. They said we have too strong of a team to not be successful and win a championship, especially the MIVA.”

Ball State has not won the MIVA title since 2002. However, under the new coaching staff, Isaacson said he believes the Cardinals have the foundation to capture a championship.

“When you get into that championship game, both teams are legit,” Isaacson said. “It's going to come down to who's experienced, who wants it more and who's more disciplined. So, our big goal is to get there because we think we can get there and take care of business.”

Isaacson said he is eager to learn under Iandolo, who excelled at his position during his collegiate playing career. Iandolo ranks first in career assists per set (12.2) and second in career assists (3,389) and service aces (101) in Lewis Men’s Volleyball program history.

“I know [Iandolo] has a lot of experience when it comes to this game,” Isaacson said, “especially in the setter position, which is really nice to kind of pick his brain. More than anything, it's just getting to learn from him and how he used to think when he would play and kind of correlating that into my game.”

Despite falling to Lewis in the semifinals of last year’s MIVA Tournament, Cruz said he believes the Cardinals displayed positive traits to build off of heading into this season. With the right player development, Cruz said, he and his staff believe the Cardinals are close to becoming a championship-caliber team.

“The concept of winning for us is really just about being able to set goals and how we prepare and plan to reach those goals,” Cruz said. “How we're going to get there is a piece that involves mentoring, development and having opportunities to build relationships with our team and staff. If you have those points of emphasis, you are going to get to that end goal.”

Contact Charleston Bowles with comments at clbowles@bsu.edu or on Twitter @cbowles01.

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