Ball State has enjoyed a notable string of success against Mid-American Conference (MAC) West opponent Northern Illinois in recent seasons. In the past two campaigns, the Cardinals posted an unblemished 4-0 record over the rival Huskies and won 12 of 13 sets across that span.
The red and white extended their streak of recent triumphs Friday night, notching a 3-1 (25-17, 23-25, 25-15, 26-24) victory over Northern Illinois (8-20, 6-10 MAC) inside Worthen Arena.
“It felt back and forth,” Ball State head coach Kelli Miller Phillips said. “We weren't consistently in a great offensive rhythm all night, but we found a way in a couple of different tight sets to come out on top.”
The win was significant not only for Ball State’s positioning in the MAC standings — the Cardinals maintained their third overall seed with the victory — but also for fifth-year libero Havyn Gates’ career accomplishments.
Gates recorded her 1000th dig midway through the first set, making the Muncie native the 20th player to reach this milestone in program history.
“Not a lot of people get to dig up as many balls as I did this year,” Gates said. “It's just really cool to be able to get that accomplishment with the girls and my coaching staff that I have this year.”
Ball State’s history-making match opened with a strong first set effort.
“She wants to be involved in every play,” Miller Phillips said. “She's gonna do everything she can to throw her body and make plays. That's a really big accomplishment, and I’m proud of her for that, and hopefully there are many more digs to come.”
After falling to a 3-2 deficit early in the opening frame, the Cardinals gained the lead and never relinquished the advantage through the remainder of the frame — capturing the set, 25-17.
The red and white cruised to the first-set victory behind a stingy defensive showing. Ball State didn’t log a single ball handling error and held Northern Illinois’ front row to a .000 hitting percentage in the first game.
In spite of the Huskies’ first-set struggles, the visitors turned the tide in the following game by quickly building a commanding lead, which eventually swelled to eight points (16-8). Although Ball State recovered from its deficit to draw the set to a 23-23 score, Northern Illinois’ offense pulled through in the final points to capture the set, 25-23.
After a lapse in the second set, Ball State returned to its first-set form in the third and fourth frames. In the final pair of sets the Cardinals posted a fine offensive performance — logging 33 kills — and let go of the lead just twice.
“You’ve got to be able to play good enough to find ways to win even when you're not just completely running on all cylinders, and I thought it’s a credit to them to continue to find ways to step up when it was needed,” Miller Phillips said.
Ball State hitters logged 61 kills (the 18th consecutive match with over 40 kills) on a .264 hitting percentage. Fifth-year middle blocker Marie Plitt led the charge with 17 kills at an efficient .615 clip.
Freshman outside hitter Kendall Barnes tied for the Cardinals’ second-highest kill total (14), which marked a career-best for the 6-foot-1-inch front-row standout.
Barnes’ playing time has steadily increased throughout the season, and she is grateful for the continued trust earned from Miller Phillips and the Ball State coaching staff in her freshman campaign.
“I think trust is earned, and I've been working really, really hard and been getting after it in practice,” Barnes said. “So, I think that she’s seen that hard work, and now it's coming into fruition.”
Junior setter Megan Wielonski directed the Cardinals’ solid offensive night, recording 49 assists. The native of Mason, Ohio, also chipped in 10 digs and a service ace.
The Cardinals’ defense limited Northern Illinois to a .163 hitting percentage on the night and recorded 68 digs. Gates paced the back row in digs (21) and was followed by sophomore Kendall Seimet and senior Kate Vinson, who registered 13 and 11 digs, respectively.
The Friday-night contest also played host to the program’s annual Black Out night, which featured 703 Cardinals fans donning black apparel in Worthen Arena’s red seats. The match’s attendance figure marked the ninth time the program eclipsed the 700-fan mark this season.
Ball State (15-12, 12-4 MAC) will return to Worthen Arena at 6 p.m. Saturday for its home finale and Senior Day festivities. Seven seniors will be honored for their accomplishments following the Cardinals’ matchup with Northern Illinois.
“Every single time out here is a critical match and, obviously, tomorrow being senior night just adds an emotional layer,” Miller Phillips said. “But, the level of importance as far as the season goes, it's a pretty big one.”
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