In the annals of Worthen Arena, the home of the IHSAA Girls Volleyball State Finals, Kelli Miller Phillips donned a black zip-up jacket with the iconic ‘Dancing Charlie’ logo near the right shoulder.
Below the mascot read the phrase “Ball State Tradition” in red lettering. Although she’s heading into her eighth season at the helm of Ball State Women’s Volleyball, Miller Phillips has known the legacy of volleyball at the university and the city surrounding it for her entire life.
A graduate of Muncie Central High School, the two-time reigning Mid-American Conference (MAC) Coach of the Year has guided the Cardinals to two conference titles and the program’s third-ever NCAA Tournament match win in 2021. Along with success, Miller Phillips wants to maintain that “Ball State Tradition” by instilling the same passion in the athletes who take the hardwood.
“Looking up into the stands and seeing the Muncie community here, it's just amazing to play in front of them,” graduate student Marie Plitt said. “You want to do well because you want to show your support and love for this town.”
Throughout her four seasons as a Cardinal, Plitt has been named to the All-MAC First Team twice as a middle blocker, succeeding in her quest to represent Ball State well and playing no small part in the success of the program as of late. However, after a triumphant 2021 season saw Ball State win the MAC Championship Tournament and a First Round NCAA Tournament match, many Cardinals experienced the feeling of losing a match on the big stage for the first time in 2022.
Ball State made it to the MAC Championship Tournament final for the second year in a row but fell to Bowling Green in five sets. The Cardinals made it to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row but were swept by Marquette in three sets.
Despite finishing as regular season MAC champions and losing less than 10 matches over the course of a 31-game season, Ball State comes into the 2023 season with a simple motto: “Stay Hungry.”
“We want to win, we want to feel that experience again, but those losses are definitely fueling the hunger,” senior outside hitter Cait Snyder said.
The Cardinals graduated five seniors from 2022, including All-MAC Second Team opposite Natalie Mitchem and starting libero Maggie Huber. Rather than recruiting to fill those positions lost, Miller Phillips said she went after athletes who fit into Ball State’s identity.
Plitt said she feels this ‘culture-first’ approach helps the transition from offseason to season feel more seamless, something Wielonski attested to first-hand.
“When I was a freshman, everyone just embraced all the new girls, and I think that's just something so special about this program,” Wielonski said. “It's so easy to just come in, be yourself and everyone accepts who you are.”
Wielonski, Plitt and Snyder all experienced personal success last season in the form of All-MAC First Team honors, and Wielonski even took home the MAC Setter of the Year award. But after letting the highs and lows sit for an offseason, the upperclassmen plan to not only use those feelings as a motivator but as a teaching experience for those in the program who haven’t felt both sides.
“We don't get to those key wins without the process every day,” Snyder said. “That's what we talk about, focusing on those little details and really making sure we build upon the details to get us to the key moments in the key places in those big games.”
While not content with purely participating in big games, Miller Phillips echoed Snyder’s thoughts on the importance of the process it takes to get there. Rather than results, the Purdue alumna wants Ball State to focus on improving each day, both as players and individuals.
“You cannot totally base your success on the win or loss of those specific matches,” Miller Phillips said “I think we really put an emphasis on the process every day of putting yourself in that position. We have a really good respect for what it takes.”
Chief among the goals Ball State has for the upcoming season is to stay true to its identity. Miller Phillips said the Cardinals want to maintain their status as the top ball control team in the MAC and continue to put an emphasis on the staples of the program: serving, passing and defense.
“Our goals aren't changing, they're getting higher,” Miller Phillips said.
Although the Cardinals are driven towards reclaiming the MAC Championship and advancing to the NCAA Tournament like in their 2021 season, Miller Phillips said she doesn’t feel there is any added pressure on them to do so.
“You want that taste of victory, you want the joy of being able to celebrate and hoist that trophy come tournament time, of course, you want to win, and that's going to be a little bit of motivation, but I don't think that's our end all be all,” Miller Phillips said. “We just want to be our best.”
In the end, while being the best means championships, it also means representing the Red, White and Black and the 765.
“You're just playing for so much more,” Wielonski said. “You're playing for those little girls who play in Munciana, you're playing for your family, you're playing for the school [and] you're playing for your teammates.”