Ball State and Bowling Green stepped onto the court inside Western Michigan’s University Arena on Saturday night for the nightcap of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament slate and a highly anticipated postseason rematch.
Leading into the 2023 campaign, the Cardinals and Falcons had met in three of the previous four MAC Tournaments, with Bowling Green most recently earning a win in last season’s championship match.
Ball State (16-14, 13-5 MAC) was unable to turn the tide in its budding volleyball rivalry, falling in a tight five-set match (25-21, 25-13, 26-28, 26-28, 14-16) to Bowling Green (18-12, 11-7 MAC) in the opening round of the postseason.
“I thought our group stayed the course and played as hard and as well as we’ve played in a really, really long time,” Ball State head coach Kelli Miller Phillips said. “We just came up two points short.”
In spite of the season-ending defeat, Miller Phillips left Kalamazoo, Michigan with an appreciation for the effort and resilience the Cardinals displayed throughout the 2023 campaign.
“I'm just really, really proud of how everyone found whatever their role is and whatever their niche was, and did all they could to be the best teammate they could for one another,” Miller Phillips said.
Ball State — a youthful team that often featured a pair of freshmen starters this season — encountered adversity early in the season, dropping eight of its first 10 matches against some of the nation’s stiffest non-conference competition (LSU, Creighton and Oklahoma among them).
After the Cardinals’ tenth match of the season in mid-September, the red and white found a spark. Over its remaining 20 matches, Ball State posted a 14-6 mark and earned a third-place finish in the conference.
Ball State overcame their early season obstacles without some of its key players due to injury. A lengthy list of critical injuries — which featured the likes of prolific middle blocker Lauren Gilliand, rising front row star Katie Egenolf and veteran hitter Addie Halverson — sidelined potential contributors and added another obstruction to Ball State’s path to earning a winning record.
The 2023 campaign also marked the final season for seven Cardinals seniors who posted accomplished careers during their time in Muncie.
Fifth-year middle blocker Marie Plitt headlined the class as the Loveland, Ohio, native is the only player in program history to earn five varsity letters. The front court star finished her career ranking first in sets played (552), and in the top five in kills (1,300) and total blocks (419) in Ball State women’s volleyball history.
Alongside Plitt, who earned First Team All-MAC honors this season, the 2023 season marked the end of Gilliand’s successful career in a Ball State uniform. The 6-foot-1 blocker was sidelined since September due to injury but still appears in the Cardinals record books, sitting at 15th in total blocks (319).
Libero Havyn Gates, who eclipsed the 1,000-kill mark earlier this season, and opposite hitter Cait Snyder, who earned All-MAC honors in 2022, add to the feats earned by the senior class. Defensive specialists Kate Vinson and Zoe Conway, and Halverson comprise the remainder of the senior core who played their final match Saturday.
Miller Phillips expressed that Ball State’s graduating senior class will not only be remembered for its on-court success, but also for its lasting off-court legacy of leadership.
“They’re great people, great teammates, people that gave their hearts for the team and for the program,” Miller Phillips said.
The 2023 season also provided Ball State’s youth with considerable playing time and experience, which could prove beneficial as the red and white look to fill holes left by the senior class’ departure.
Four of the Cardinals’ true freshmen saw the court this season, with middle blocker Camryn Wise seeing the most action. The Wapahani High School alumna filled the injured Gilliand’s shoes and earned All-MAC Freshman Team honors, as a result of her efforts.
A pair of underclassmen — redshirt freshman Aniya Kennedy and sophomore Madison Buckley — enjoyed breakout seasons in the front row, with each recording career-high kills marks. Kennedy was named MAC Freshman of the Year and earned First Team All-MAC honors for her efforts.
Junior setter Megan Wielonski, another First Team All-MAC honoree, will return for her senior year in 2024 as she looks to continue to climb the Ball State record books.
Junior defensive specialist Kendall Seimet, sophomore defensive specialist Paige Busick and sophomore defensive specialist Josie Bloom will also return to Muncie next season as pillars of the back row.
“The future is, certainly, bright,” Miller Phillips said. “They've learned a lot from those upperclassmen, and they're just going to continue to grow and continue to help build upon our tradition at Ball State.”
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