The Cardinals stumbled in the opening round of their final non-conference event Friday, as they fell 3-1 (25-16, 25-14, 23-25, 25-15) to Western Kentucky (8-4) – the host of this weekend’s Alyssa Cavanaugh Classic.
“I felt like we were doing some process [centered] things better,” Ball State head coach Kelli Miller Phillips said. “I know sometimes those don't necessarily add up to points, but they will eventually, and that's what we talked about.”
Miller Phillips underscored Ball State’s ball handling struggles in the setback, an issue which limited the Cardinals hitters to a 0.153 hitting percentage and resulted in a strong 0.333 clip for the Hilltoppers potent front row.
Due to Ball State’s passing woes and injuries, Miller Phillips altered the Cardinals’ back row rotation against the Hilltoppers. The Ball State head coach thrust sophomore Josie Bloom into the starting libero position for the first time of her young career, and gave sophomore Paige Busic her first starting nod of the year.
Miller Phillips said she was pleased with Bloom’s 10-dig debut start, complimenting her “digs on some really hard hit balls.”
In spite of Ball State’s out-of-sync ball handling, the Cardinals battled Western Kentucky – a program which is coming off a 29-win campaign in 2022 – admirably, especially en route to their third-set victory.
The red and white faced a 23-22 deficit late in the third set and were on the brink of defeat. However, the Cardinals rallied to win three-consecutive points to close out the frame, which fended off the sweep.
“I think it shows, even with our survival mode that we're in, we’ve still got great players and [we’re] able to pull out a set win,” Miller Phillips said. “I thought that was a really gutsy move by our group.”
Ball State’s third-frame triumph snapped Western Kentucky’s streak of two-straight 3-0 wins and prevented the Hilltoppers from tallying their sixth total sweep this season.
Playing key roles in Ball State’s lone set win were sophomore opposite Madison Buckley and redshirt freshman middle blocker Aniya Kennedy, each of whom provided critical offensive firepower down the stretch of the frame.
Buckley recorded a team-best 13 kills and added four blocks, while Kennedy notched ten kills and contributed four total blocks. Graduate student Marie Plitt enjoyed a strong outing alongside her frontcourt teammates, recording seven kills and a team-best six blocks.
The Friday matinee match also featured freshman middle blocker Camryn Wise’s debut in the red and white. The Wapahani High School graduate checked in midway through the third set and anchored the Cardinals’ front row for the remainder of the match, recording three total blocks and five kills on a 0.667 hitting percentage.
“I thought [Wise] did a really, really good job in a very high pressure situation, and [she] honestly just looked like she had done it 1000 times before,” Miller Phillips said. “She was not rattled; she came right in and played aggressive.”
The loss marked Ball State’s second-consecutive outing without senior middle blocker Lauren Gilliand, whose 1.35 kills per set and team-best 0.92 blocks per set have been sorely missed in the Cardinals rotation. Miller Phillips said Gilliand’s absence is a huge one, and expressed her hope for the four-year starter’s return prior to Mid-American Conference (MAC) play.
“Certainly, that would at least give us some more experience out on the floor and steady out what our lineup would be, once [Gilliand is] able to get back in there,” Miller Phillips said.
The Cardinals (2-8) look to end their losing skid at noon Sept. 16, against East Tennessee State (0-8). Ball State’s matchup with the Buccaneers will be its final match of the Alyssa Cavanaugh Classic as the red and white aren’t scheduled to play fellow MAC member Western Michigan, the fourth team in the tournament.
Miller Phillips said East Tennessee State’s winless record does not speak to the Buccaneers' ability, saying “they’re a super strong team that’s played a really tough schedule.”
“We are going to have to be ready and prepared to play a hard fought battle,” Miller Phillips said. “We’re gonna get back to the hotel, prepare again and be ready to end on a good note for this non-[conference].”