Ball State Men's Volleyball (23-3, 12-2 MIVA) has played the University of Hawai'i (25-5, 7-3 BWC) twice already this season, running out winners Jan. 29 (3-0) and Jan. 31 (3-2). In less than 24 hours the Cardinals will play the Rainbow Warriors for the third time in 2022, this time with a trip to the National Championship match on the line.
"We're excited," head coach Donan Cruz said. "...Just excited for the opportunity for the guys to get this chance to play at this stage, at this level and represent the university in the right way."
The Rainbow Warriors defeated North Greenville (21-5, 12-2 CC) in three sets (25-15, 25-17 and 25-16) during their opening round match to advance to the semifinal.
"We're just gonna continue our game, playing our side of the net [and] just focusing on things we can control," senior outside attacker Kaleb Jenness said. "Nothing really new I would say, but it's the same stage we've been on. Like Quinn said, [it's a] big arena, a lot of fans. Especially when you're playing Hawaii, you're gonna have a lot of fans so we're just excited for this opportunity and we're ready to get going."
Ball State arrived in Los Angeles Monday and spent time between practice and film sessions visiting iconic California locations like In-N-Out and the Santa Monica Pier.
"I think it's really nice to be able to relax a little bit," graduate student setter Quinn Isaacson said. "You know, you're here, you get to experience the moment [and] you want to experience everything on and off the court. But you know, at the end of the day, we know what our job here to do is. So, you know, you get to enjoy that on the first day and then I think the second day rolls around and then you kind of click into go time and I know obviously we didn't have a practice in the main gym yesterday, but that was the start of our process to get ready for Hawaii."
Following the Cardinal's success on the court in Cruz's first year in charge, he was named the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) April 15 and, most recently, name the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Coach of the Year May 3.
"From a personal standpoint, you know, it is a great honor because it's voted on by your peers and to be able to think that the colleagues and coaches that I work alongside have voted for me to be recognized is humbling and it's great," Cruz said. "But also just, you know, really good inspiration for people that want to get into coaching and kind of stick to the path of committing themselves... I've just been blessed to have a great supporting group and great people around me. I really think that recognition is a reflection of the people I work with, the team that I coach and the organization at Ball state that they've given me."
Isaacson said that Cruz has brought a mellowness to Ball State and allowed the players to operate well under pressure, along with wearing sandals in the cold Midwest weather, of course.
"Just being able to calm us down in big moments," Isaacson said. "I think [it's] something we've struggled with in the past. When the moment got big I think we let it get to us and he's done a really good job, as well as other things, just really helped us out in building up our confidence. I think that's what we've lacked the last couple years is just confidence in each other and ourselves"
For the first time in 20 years, the Cardinals will take the court in the NCAA tournament, a fact that is still sinking in for Isaacson.
"I don't think it will until probably a week after this whole season ends," Isaacson said. "But the one thing we keep finding ourselves doing is just like looking at each other and just realizing where we're at. Like it's really cool, really special. This is something I've obviously been thinking about, especially being here for the last five years...We've probably had like two times this year where we looked at each other like 'yeah we're the No. 2 seed right now, we're one game away from a national championship and then playing for it all.' So I won't get over it for a while."
The first serve of the NCAA Tournament semifinal between Ball State and the University of Hawai'i is set for 10:30 p.m. ET May 5.