Under pioneering head coach Barbara Curcio, Ball State women’s volleyball took the court for the first time in 1972. Over the following decades, the Cardinals developed into one of the nation’s preeminent mid-major volleyball programs.
The rafters of Worthen Arena are evidence of the Cardinals’ ascension, with 10 MAC (Mid-American Conference) championship banners and 11 NCAA Tournament banners draped above the 11,000-seat facility.
On Friday evening, Ball State added another piece to its growing tradition. The Cardinals’ decisive 3-0 (25-21, 25-19, 25-16) victory over Central Michigan (6-8, 0-2 MAC) marked the program’s 1000th win in its 52-season history.
“You just don't have a lot of opportunities where you feel like you can be a part of something that's as special as a 1000th win for the program,” Cardinals head coach Kelli Miller Phillips said. “I just feel really blessed to be able to be in a position to be a part of one of those moments.”
Fifth-year middle blocker Marie Plitt echoed her coach's thoughts.
“It is such an accomplishment [for] all the people that have been involved in the past or have worked just as hard as we have to get this accomplishment,” Plitt said.
Miller Phillips is just the seventh coach to contribute to the milestone victory mark, succeeding Steve Shondell and Randy Lichfield – a legendary pair that combined for 492 wins across their 34 seasons in Muncie (proclaimed the “volleyball capital of the nation” by Shondell).
“The tradition and history for the coaches here at Ball State has been huge, and I think that's what Ball State has been known for for a really long time,” Miller Phillips said. “I'm just really honored to be one of those people that can continue that.”
In eight seasons at the helm, the Cardinals head coach has admirably followed her successful predecessors, as she has already captured two MAC Coach of the Year honors (2021 and 2022).
Miller Phillips, a Muncie native and a Muncie Central alumna, expressed her pride in leading her hometown program, to which she has long-standing ties.
“I am so incredibly fortunate to be able to coach where I grew up and in a community that means so much to me, with the support system that means so much to me,” Miller Phillips said. “I know I am a very, very blessed and fortunate person to have that opportunity that I do. I don't take that for granted.”
High-level coaching was just one component of Ball State’s climb to 1,000 wins, as generations of talent have donned the red and white. Sixty-five Cardinals volleyball standouts have earned All-MAC honors in the program’s history – a group to which Plitt and junior setter Megan Wielsonski belong.
Both of Ball State’s current stars highlighted their appreciation for the program and for those who laid the foundation for them.
“It's one of the reasons I chose Ball State because of the legacy, the girls here and the coaching staff, so it just means a ton,” Wielonski said.
Although the Cardinals coaches and players relished Friday’s historic victory, many around the program highlighted a deeper goal within the Ball State volleyball: to serve as an inspiration for young volleyball players.
“It's so exciting looking up in the crowd and [to see] them cheering us on,” Plitt said.
Friday’s match exemplified the program’s goal to empower the future, as local middle school volleyball teams greeted the Cardinals as they ran onto the court. After the match, the Cardinals signed autographs on the Worthen Arena concourse for young fans in attendance.
“We haven't really been able to do autographs for the past few years, so it's been really cool to be able to do that and talk to our younger kids in the Muncie community, and [to] be able to be that role model,” Wielonski said.
Though overshadowed by the record feat, Ball State’s win marked its third-straight victory after a slow 3-8 start to the 2023 campaign, and it provided a second conference victory. The Cardinals (5-8, 2-0 MAC) will take their momentum on the road, as they play matches against Eastern Michigan (2-12, 0-2 MAC) Friday, Sept. 29 and Saturday, Sept. 30.
Miller Phillips is looking to fend off complacency in the coming weeks, even as wins start to accumulate for the Cardinals.
“We got to make sure we keep doing the right things in the gym between now and then,” Miller Phillips said. “We can't be satisfied with just putting a win in the win column, but we have to make sure we're getting better.”