Trust the Process: Ball State Men’s Volleyball aims for a MIVA title in first year under new coaching staff

The Ball State Men's Volleyball team celebrates a point against George Mason University on Jan. 21, 2022, at Worthen Arena in Muncie, IN. The Cardinals won the match 3-0. Amber Pietz, DN
The Ball State Men's Volleyball team celebrates a point against George Mason University on Jan. 21, 2022, at Worthen Arena in Muncie, IN. The Cardinals won the match 3-0. Amber Pietz, DN

Some questions are easy to answer.

Who helps with travel?

Where’s the best place to grab a burger?

Where’s the bathroom?

Some questions take a little longer to reconcile.

What is this team going to play like? 

Where is this team going?

How are you going to leave a legacy on this program?

It has only been six months since Ball State Men’s Volleyball head coach Donan Cruz arrived in Muncie, Indiana, and the Cardinals are 3-0 to start the 2022 season.

However, everything is still new, and everyone is still settling. Some questions will have to wait to be fully answered.

Despite their short time together, though, the Cardinals have chosen their Everest: their 15th Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) Tournament championship.

Cruz said he knows beginning a new era will take time but believes the Cardinals can be successful during their first year with a new coaching staff and environment.

“It's going to be a process for us,” Cruz said. “A lot of learning is happening, but the guys embraced the coaching staff, and we've tried to do our best and make sure we're communicating with them on our objective.”

Cruz’s appointment follows the retirement of former head coach Joel Walton, who was at the helm for 23 seasons — accruing 403 wins, two MIVA Coach of the Year honors and a 2002 MIVA Tournament championship. This season, the Cardinals have an entirely new coaching staff, with assistant coaches Mike Iandolo and Christian Rupert joining Cruz for his first year in charge.

Senior outside attacker Nick Martinski (left), head coach Donan Cruz (center) and Angelos Mandilaris (right) celebrate a point against George Mason University on Jan. 21, 2022 at Worthen Arena in Muncie, IN. Amber Pietz, DN

“We’re very appreciative of what Joel and the old staff did for us,” senior outside attacker Kaleb Jenness said. “It’s great to have Donan here now with Mike and Christian. We're all just really excited to see what they can do and see how far we can go and what we can achieve.”

While only a month into the season, graduate student setter Quinn Isaacson said he’s seen reinvigorated energy in the Cardinals.

“You can already see it in the six months [of preseason],” Isaacson said. “I kind of wish I was here for a couple more years so I could really experience it.,” Isaacson said. “These young guys really get a cool little year out of it. It's a big change, and it's going to really help.”

In the preseason, the Cardinals looked to solidify their fundamentals in the gym and on the court, and Cruz said his staff wanted to focus their players on adapting to new aspects of training that he hopes will help the team recenter on its end goal.

 “One of the biggest things we try to emphasize in our gym is being open-minded to new concepts — that is for us, as a coaching staff, and for the guys, too,” Cruz said.

Jenness said the new coaching staff is focusing on emphasizing the fundamentals of the sport in the gym, focusing “more skillswise, instead of playing.”

After walking into a new gym full of new players on day one of preseason training and meeting his team for the first time in a training setting, Cruz said getting to know each player was the most important step in order to start on the right foot.

“It's really been about making sure that we have good connections with our guys, to know our team and understand how important relationships are with them and building them up,” Cruz said. “A lot of our initial time and practices have been about getting to know the group and the more we [can] trust one another.”

Isaacson is in a completely new set up in his fifth and final year with the team. In new surroundings, he said the Cardinals’ hunger to win and competitive nature in the gym will be key for success on the court.

“There have been some times throughout the last couple of years [when] we’ve played teams and we've wavered a little bit,” Isaacson said. “That isn't allowed in this gym … It's very competitive. It's a competitive gym every single day. We play to win and you can see that on the court.”

After finishing the 2021 regular season 11-8 (8-5 MIVA), the Cardinals lost to Lewis University, the eventual MIVA Tournament champion, in the 2021 MIVA Tournament semifinals April 17 and went unranked in National Volleyball Association (NVA)/American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) polls following a 15th place preseason ranking Dec. 20. 

“We’re focused,” Isaacson said. “We know there are some teams ahead of us that aren't as good as us — we know that for sure. But we’ve got to prove it. We haven't done anything [in the] last couple of years to really set that tone …We’ve got to find a way to really push through so we can prove that to everyone in the room.”

Despite a new coaching staff and a new generation for the Cardinals, their end goal remains the same: a MIVA title.

“We're very hungry, and we're fiery,” Jenness said. “We're ready to get some good wins this year, [and] we’re ready to see how far we go. We're going through [to] the MIVA finals.”

Contact Daniel Kehn with comments at daniel.kehn@bsu.edu or on Twitter @daniel_kehn.

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