Fifth set. Win or go home.
It was match point for Ball State Women’s Volleyball against Bowling Green in the 2021 Mid-American Conference Volleyball Championship match. Hundreds of fans hoist their “Chirp” hand sign in the air. A murmur whispers around Worthen Arena, awaiting the final play.
The Falcons’ serve flies over the net to the Cardinals.
Risi falls to her knees.
Bulmahn stomps her feet.
The players rush the court.
Ball State Women’s Volleyball wins the MAC title.
In a win-or-go home moment, the Cardinals extended their season and reveled in the win.
Joel Godett, Ball State director of broadcasting, exclaims “phenomenal” to fans listening and watching at home. Cardinal players embrace each other in joyous tears as a dogpile forms at center court. Talk of the celebratory locker room dance circle tradition bubbles around the players and coaches.
Players look with pride at the championship shirts being passed around, featuring the nine-letter word representing their season’s work: champions.
“It's kind of surreal in the moment,” freshman setter Megan Wielonski said. “We went into the locker room after, and we were like, 'Is this really happening?' It's just insane.”
Wielonski had one of the final serves of the match for the Cardinals and could feel the anticipation building around Worthen Arena.
“Going back to serve when [we were at] 13 [points], I went up there, and tears of joy were just already coming out … in that fifth set, the crowd really kind of just gave us that extra boost of energy that we needed just to push away with that win and pull through,” Wielonski said.
Junior outside hitter Natalie Risi was named the MAC tournament MVP, but her performance in the championship match solidified the award. Risi had a season-high 19 kills against Bowling Green and added 13 digs.
“Honestly, it was just such a team effort,” Risi said. “Even though maybe the numbers showed up on me, it was really due to all my other teammates, all the other hitters — driving opening shots for me and Megan trusting me and giving me great sets and the defenders calling shots.”
Risi shared the love and happiness that resonated around the locker room after the Cardinals’ eighth MAC title.
“Just so much joy, just knowing that we were able to go out there and do that with every single one of my best friends — I love every single girl out there,” Risi said. “Knowing that we were able to achieve that together was an awesome feeling.”
Despite taking Bowling Green to five sets and coming from behind in parts of the match, head coach Kelli Miller Phillips said she felt like the Cardinals’ identity came into play in the final match of the tournament.
“That's kind of been what we've done all year,” Phillips said. “Our team is about toughness and being mentally tough, staying the course, and that's what they did tonight. We knew it was going to be a battle — we absolutely knew we were going to have to battle and earn every single one of those [points]. And no matter what the score was, no matter what happened the point before, I felt like we reset and went again.”
The Cardinals’ championship win came one day after the death of Don Shondell, former head coach of Ball State Men’s Volleyball and 1983 inductee into the Ball State Athletics Hall of Fame.
“Dr. Don has done so much for volleyball at Ball State, in the Midwest and the whole country,” Phillips said. “He brought volleyball to the Midwest. He brought volleyball to Ball State, and his legacy will live on forever and ever.”
Shondell founded the men’s volleyball varsity program at Ball State in 1964 and was head coach for 34 seasons before his retirement in 1998. He co-founded the Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) and was inducted into the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in 1996. Shondell’s 769 career wins is the most by a Ball State coach in any sport.
Phillips felt like Shondell’s spirit was in Worthen Arena, cheering on “the volleyball capital of the world,” a famous expression used by Shondell to describe Muncie.
“He's truly going to be missed, but I know that he was looking down on us tonight and cheering for the Cards,” Phillips said.
This season, Ball State won an NCAA-leading 29 matches, added the program’s ninth-regular season championship to the trophy case, finished their MAC campaign with a 19th straight victory and booked a place in the NCAA Division I championship for the 10th time in program history.
However, the last milestone is the only focus for Ball State now.
“Oh, man, we're not done yet,” Phillips said. “It's huge for Ball State [and] for our program to be able to get into the NCAA tournament again, and we're going to enjoy every moment of that. We're going to be ready to battle again… we're looking forward to getting out there and showing what Ball State can do.”
It was announced Nov. 28 the Cardinals will be traveling to Louisville, Kentucky, Dec. 3 to face the University of Michigan in the round of 64 of the NCAA championship. Risi said going to the next level of competition on the national stage will not matter if Ball State sticks to its game plan of trusting the process.
“Just keep it us, because we’ve been successful, because we’ve trusted the process and remained calm and confident,” Risi said. “So, just keep it us and take that into NCAAs.”
While the championship victory is still a fresh memory for Ball State, the Cardinals believe there is much more they can bring to the national stage.
“It's kind of been our goal this whole season is to get a chance at the NCAA tournament,” Wielonski said. “I think the way we're playing right now is the highest level of volleyball that we've been playing all year, [and] it's the best way to go into the national tournament ... We're so happy to be able to get into the NCAA tournament.”