Ball State women's volleyball defeats Middle Tennessee State to advance in the 2023 NIVC

Ball State women's volleyball celebrate scoring a point against Toledo Oct. 17 at Worthen Arena. The Cardinals won 3-0 against the Rockets. Mya Cataline, DN
Ball State women's volleyball celebrate scoring a point against Toledo Oct. 17 at Worthen Arena. The Cardinals won 3-0 against the Rockets. Mya Cataline, DN

Twelve days ago, Ball State dropped an emotional five-set battle to Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament quarterfinals — coming up just two points shy of victory. The loss appeared to bring a crushing end to Ball State’s season and to the careers of its seven seniors.

However, the red and white’s selection to the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC) field — a 32-team postseason tournament similar to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in basketball — breathed new life into their 2023 campaign.

Ball State head coach Kelli Miller Phillips said her decision to accept the NIVC invitation centered around gaining postseason experience for the future and extending the seniors’ careers.

“There's no doubt we want to be competing in the NCAA tournament, but I told this group that playing in the NIVC tournament is a big deal,” Miller Phillips said.

In the first round of the NIVC slate Thursday night, Ball State defeated Middle Tennessee State, 3-1 (25-23, 25-17, 20-25, 30-28), on the Blue Raiders' home floor.

“What a match that was,” Miller Phillips said. “It was a very offensive battle. I feel like both teams played at a really high level with a lot of intensity, and it was a great atmosphere.”

The opening round clash pitted two of the top offensive teams in the NIVC field against one another. The Cardinals and Blue Raiders (20-10, 11-5 C-USA) each entered the match ranked in the top 75 nationally in both kills per set and hitting percentage, with Middle Tennessee State’s .305 hitting clip ranked fourth in the country.

Both teams played to the level of their lofty offensive marks Thursday night, with the Blue Raiders and Cardinals slamming 65 and 58 kills, respectively. Though Middle Tennessee State ended with an edge in box score, Ball State was the first team to strike offensively, which set the tone for the match.

The Cardinals commanded the offensive momentum in the opening two sets, claiming an edge over the highly touted Blue Raiders hitters in nearly every hitting statline in the early going. Ball State tallied 30 kills to Middle Tennessee State’s 25 in the first two frames, and the red and white even doubled their opponent’s hitting percentage in the first set.

“During sets one and two we had the matchups we were wanting, with Maddie Buckley on their big left side,” Miller Phillips said. “I thought that was a favorable matchup for us to be able to slow her down.”

Freshman outside hitter Kendall Barnes saves the ball from hitting the court against Northern Illinois Nov. 10 at Worthen Arena. Barnes had one dig in the game. Mya Cataline, DN

Ball State captured the opening games on the heels of its front court pedigree, but Middle Tennessee State’s offense came alive in the third set and put an end to the Cardinals’ momentum. The Blue Raiders posted 19 kills en route to their commanding 25-20 fourth-set lead and were positioned to claim the fourth frame, as they led 22-19 late in the game.

In spite of Middle Tennessee State’s lead and “hostile environment,” in the words of Miller Phillips, Ball State leaned on timely hitting to claim the fourth set (and match) in overtime points, 30-28.

“I just think that shows a lot of our team's resilience,” Miller Phillips said. 

Ball State’s defense tallied 44 digs and was key in silencing Middle Tennessee State’s front row early in the match. Fifth-year libero Havyn Gates recorded a team-best 12 digs and was followed by junior setter Megan Wielonski, who recorded 10. Wielonski’s mark lifted her into the 1,000-dig club, making her 21st player in program history to reach the milestone.

Wielonski also added 46 assists, three kills and four service aces, and she helped direct a Ball State offense which saw two players eclipse the double-digit kill mark. Freshman outside hitter Kendall Barnes recorded a career-best 17 kills at a .552 hitting percentage, and redshirt freshman outside hitter Aniya Kennedy logged 17 kills at a .371 clip.

Barnes, a product of Barlett, Tennessee, expressed her pride in posting a career-high night in her home state.

“Not only am I playing for myself, I'm playing for them, because without them I wouldn't be here,” Barnes said. “Just really grateful.”

Ball State’s blocking attack was also a key in its triumph as it provided a response to Middle Tennessee State’s surging offense late in the match. The Cardinals logged 10 total blocks, with freshman middle blocker Camryn Wise and sophomore outside hitter Madison Buckley each recording four blocks.

Miller Phillips underscored the Cardinals’ renewed confidence following Thursday night’s win, as they entered the match on a two-match losing skid to end the season.

“We've earned the right to be confident with the work that we put in, and by just playing with joy, we’ve seen the impact that makes and the results that come from it,” Miller Phillips said.

Advancing to the NIVC second round with its win, Ball State (17-14, 13-5 MAC) will take on Clemson (17-13, 8-10 ACC) at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1, inside Middle Tennessee State’s Alumni Memorial Gymnasium. The Tigers swept Eastern Kentucky in their opening round matchup, posting a .318 hitting percentage.

Contact Adam Altobella with comments on X @AltobellaAdam or via email at


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