Junior opposite hitter Aaron Hernandez has been a member of two Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) regular season championship teams during his time in Muncie and even helped the Cardinals reach the NCAA Tournament during his freshman season. However, the last memory of his sophomore year wasn’t one he’d like to remember.
More than 3,000 fans filed into Worthen Arena last April for the MIVA tournament championship between the hosting Ball State Cardinals and the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Though the Cardinals captured wins in 14 of their previous 16 home matches, Ohio State rallied before Ball State’s largest crowd of the season to secure the tournament title — ending the Cardinals’ postseason aspirations on their home court.
Ball State’s 20-win 2023 campaign concluded in bitter fashion, but last season’s close has not hampered the Cardinals’ outlook this winter. Hernandez, a Fishers, Indiana, native said the standard has not changed.
“Our goal is to win the national championship,” Hernandez said. “We have all the pieces that we can put together, and I think we can do it. We believe in ourselves, and we believe in each other.”
The Cardinals — who were ranked 11th in the first American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) preseason poll this season — will journey toward playoff success without a trio that was integral to the team’s accomplishments last season: All-MIVA honorees Kaleb Jenness, Felix Egharevba and David Flores.
Despite the program’s losses, third-year head coach Donan Cruz underscored his confidence in the players who will be called to fill larger roles in 2024.
“Anytime you lose really good players, as a coach, you're always trying to figure out who's gonna step in,” Cruz said. “We've had a lot of time to try to sift through that in the fall, and I feel good.”
Cruz identified sophomore setter Griffin Satterfield as a player poised for a breakout season, as he takes on primary setting duties this year. The 6'7" native of Camano Island, Washington, saw action in just two matches in his freshman campaign as he played behind Flores and Jakub Wiercinski — a pair that combined for more than 88 percent of the Cardinals' total assists in 2023.
After the opening week of the campaign, Satterfield has already eclipsed his playing time from last season. In his starting debut against Wabash Jan. 2, he recorded a career-best 31 assists and earned the title of “player of the game” from Cruz for his performance.
Satterfield attributed his confidence to run Ball State’s offense in his first season in the starting rotation to the guidance from upperclassmen.
“[Flores] was honestly like a dad figure to me — him and then our other setter, Jakub,” Satterfield said. “Last year was a nice skill-building year. I just looked at them, and they taught me how to do stuff.”
Graduate student middle blocker Wil McPhillips said the transition to hitting Satterfield’s sets has been smooth for him and his fellow attackers.
“It's good to play with Griff,” McPhillips said. “He's been on the team for a minute now, and it's great for him to get a chance to step up and be that guy because he's been working. It's not been too hard to gel with him.”
Cruz and his coaching staff welcomed nine newcomers to the program this season — two transfers and seven freshmen — to help fill the void left by recent departures. With seven of these players seeing action in the team’s opening matches, Cruz said he has been especially pleased with the early contributions from freshman libero Cameron Gray and sophomore outside hitter Patrick Rogers.
Gray appeared in two of the Cardinals’ first three matches, leading the team in digs (14) across that span. The 6’0” freshman played outside hitter prior to his arrival in Muncie, but has made a full transition to back row play.
“Transitioning to libero has taught me a lot, so trusting [Cruz] and the coaching staff has brought me to where I am now,” Gray said.
Rogers made an immediate impact in Ball State’s offense after arriving from St. Francis, Brooklyn, where he averaged 3.84 kills per set last year — which ranked ninth in the nation — and earned Freshman All-American honors from “Off The Block,” a national media outlet covering collegiate men’s volleyball. The 6’7” attacker paced the Cardinals with 10 kills in their win against Thomas More Jan. 3, and saw action in Ball State’s opener against Wabash.
“I really love how Pat Rogers played,” Cruz said of Rogers’ opening week.
Although more than one-third of Ball State’s 2024 roster is new to the program, a number of returners will look to anchor a Cardinals team that is inexperienced in some areas.
Junior outside hitter Tinaishe Ndavazocheva enters the season as the lone Cardinal to earn Preseason All-MIVA honors after posting one of the top offensive ledgers in the country last season. The 6’6” hitter recorded 3.60 kills per set in 2023 (the 6th-highest mark in the MIVA) at an efficient .328 hitting percentage.
In addition to Ndavazocheva, the Cardinals’ front row will benefit from the return of senior opposite Dyer Ball, junior middle blocker Vanis Buckholz and sophomore middle blocker Eyal Rawitz.
Ball and Buckholz each earned the most starts of their careers last season and posted the finest statistical marks, as a result. The left-handed Ball earned 154 kills (third best on the team) and 42 total blocks, while Buckholz recorded 143 kills and the nation’s sixth-best mark in blocks per set (1.096).
Rawitz was limited to just four matches last season due to injury. The 6’6” blocker displayed potential in his shortened freshman campaign, however, hitting at a .364 clip.
Sophomore opposite Keau Thompson, senior outside attacker Trevor Phillips and McPhillips should also see considerable playing time in the rotation, as they combined for 129 kills in 2023.
Cruz said the Cardinals will run a similar offensive system as it has in recent seasons, highlighting his intent to develop a high-tempo attack.
The libero position will likely be shared between Gray and senior Lukas Pytlak. Although Pytlak appeared in more sets (102) than any other Cardinal last season and is more experienced, Cruz said both defenders will likely see action in 2024.
Cruz cited the program’s strong schedule, which features eight teams ranked in the AVCA poll, as a key to preparing the Cardinals for postseason play. In addition to scheduling matches against ranked opponents, the Cardinals’ lead mentor also highlighted the importance of enduring challenging road trips — like the squad’s trip to BYU over the first weekend of the season.
“We’ve got to be prepared to be thrown curveballs all the time,” Cruz said. “In the postseason, you might play on the road, and you’re guaranteed to play on the road in the national championship. So, for us to be going through the process of waking up early and getting on the road is a good routine for our guys.”
With the start of MIVA play looming Feb. 1, Hernandez and McPhillips — two players who have been around some of the most distinguished teams in program history — said the new-look Cardinals will need to find consistency and lean on its chemistry, in order to achieve their goals.
“We really just have to stay consistent,” Hernandez said. “With other teams, we've had star players like Quinn Isaacson and Kaleb Jenness. For this team, I feel like we are closer than the past years. So, our unity and how we gel together are gonna propel us a lot further.”
McPhillips echoed Hernandez’s insight, adding the phrase “playing in May” — which is often mentioned by Ball State players and coaches.
“It comes down to playing consistent, and keeping our low end as high as we can, because we’ve got some high-level players,” McPhillips said. “We’ve just got to take care of the simple things, and I think that'll get us to playing in May like we want to.”