Friday night’s battle of the two top-ranked teams in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) West division lived up to its pregame anticipation. The first match of the weekend series between Ball State and Western Michigan was tight all evening, yielding 25 ties, eight lead changes and one set that was extended to overtime points.
On the heels of a strong defensive effort, Western Michigan (24-2, 14-0 MAC) handed Ball State a 3-1 loss (27-29, 25-21, 25-21, 25-19) inside the Broncos’ University Arena.
“I thought we definitely had some moments of looking really good,” Ball State head coach Kelli Miller Phillips said. “Once it got to that 20-point mark is where I felt like we really struggled because I think we were right with them almost every set right around 20 or even had the lead and just couldn't finish it off.”
Ball State defeated Western Michigan in each of the last four meetings between the programs, and though the Broncos returned a similar roster this season, Miller Phillips said the brown and gold’s growth and chemistry have led to their undefeated conference mark.
“Just having that kind of experience and that kind of chemistry that's been developed for three and four years together — I think that's probably one of the biggest factors,” Miller Phillips said.
The Cardinals’ lone set victory came in the first frame, though the red and white trudged through a slow start en route to their triumph. Ball State dropped to a 1-5 deficit early in the first game and trailed through the late stages of the set, ultimately facing a 21-14 score.
Though momentum was in its opponent’s corner, Ball State climbed out of its deficit, thanks to a strong hitting effort led by redshirt freshman opposite-hitter Aniya Kennedy. The Cardinals closed out the first set on a 15-6 burst, claiming the set, 29-27.
“That was a great start,” Miller Phillips said. “I was hoping to build a little bit more momentum than what happened off of that first one, but that shows that we're right there with it and what we're capable of doing.”
Western Michigan turned the tide in the following sets, capturing the decisive three frames in succession. Ball State, however, saw a number of opportunities to pull ahead of the MAC-leading Broncos.
In particular, the Cardinals were well-positioned to win the third set, holding onto a late 21-18 lead before falling victim to a 7-0 Western Michigan scoring run.
Despite its setback, Ball State still fared better in its loss to the Broncos than many of its MAC peers. With the Cardinals’ first-frame victory, they became just the fifth team to snatch a set from Western Michigan through its 14 conference matches this season.
A stingy Western Michigan defense, which dug up 87 Ball State attack attempts, held the Cardinals to a pedestrian .199 hitting percentage. Though Ball State was less efficient in the front row, they still managed to record 60 kills — the third-highest mark this season.
Kennedy led all hitters with a 25-kill outburst (tied for a career-best) on a .231 hitting percentage. Fifth-year middle blocker Marie Plitt and sophomore opposite Madison Buckley each recorded nine kills.
Junior setter Megan Wielonski posted a full stat line in the offense-centered outing, recording 49 assists and 11 digs. With her admirable effort, the Mason, Ohio, native logged her 13th double-double of the season.
Ball State’s back row also shined in the tight loss, recording 72 digs on the night — the team’s second-highest total of the MAC season. Fifth-year libero Havyn Gates led the charge with 20 digs and was followed by a trio of Cardinals (Wielonski, senior Kate Vinson and sophomore Paige Busick) who each logged 11.
In spite of the loss, Ball State (14-11, 11-3 MAC) retains a firm footing as the second-place team in the MAC West division, clinging to a three-match advantage over third-ranked Toledo. The Cardinals will look to climb the division standings at 3 p.m. tomorrow when they square off against Western Michigan in the second match of the two-game road slate.
Miller Phillips said the Cardinals will thoroughly study film ahead of tomorrow’s match and highlighted her focus on capitalizing in late-match scenarios.
“We were right there,” Miller Phillips said. “You’ve just got to sense when you have opportunities, and we let him sneak away from us tonight.”
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