Ball State was nearly perfect in its January home matches last season, logging three sweeps in four matchups. Tusculum was the lone team to compete with the Cardinals in the opening month, as the Pioneers extended the match into five sets before ultimately bowing out to the red and white.
Though Tusculum again spoiled the Cardinals’ hopes of an efficient sweep by snatching a set a year later, Ball State prevailed against the Pioneers (0-2) inside Worthen Arena Friday night. The 13th-ranked Cardinals recorded a 3-1 victory (25-16, 19-25, 25-22, 25-15) and tallied their fifth win of the young 2024 campaign.
“I still feel like we're learning what pieces we have and where those pieces fit the best,” Ball State head coach Donan Cruz said. “Overall, I just told the guys tonight that all I care about is how we respond.”
The Cardinals lone set loss came in the second frame, a set which saw Ball State trail for the entirety of the game and hit at a .161 clip. Although Tusculum controlled set two, its performance was isolated, as Ball State won the first, third and fourth sets by a combined 22-point margin.
Ball State’s Friday-night victory came on the heels of a sweep of No. 17 UC San Diego (UCSD) 24 hours prior, which featured a season-best kills mark (51). Though the Cardinals relied on a strong offensive effort to cruise past the Tritons, they benefited most from their defensive contributions against Tusculum.
The red and white defense logged a season-high total in digs (41) and registered a season-best seven total blocks. The Cardinals’ fine defensive effort limited Tusculum to a .155 hitting percentage.
Senior libero Lukas Pytlak, a veteran in the Cardinals back row, applauded the development of Ball State’s young defense.
“It starts in practice,” Pytlak said. “We make it clear during practice to trust one another. If one person gets hurt, or isn't having the best day, then you’ve got to trust the guy next to you.”
Ball State relied on a collective effort in the back row — with 11 players recording at least one dig and no player logging more than nine. Senior middle blocker Rodney Wallace and freshman setter Peter Zurawski paced the Cardinals block, rejecting three and two attacks, respectively.
Although Ball State’s hitters did not manufacture as efficient of a performance as they did against UCSD, they managed to produce 47 kills on their 118 total attacks, yielding a .203 hitting percentage.
Sophomore outside hitter Nathan Goh was the Cardinals’ top attacker, recording 11 kills at a .476 clip and hitting two service aces.
Zurawski directed Ball State’s offense in a starting capacity for just the second time in his collegiate career. The native of Oak Park, Illinois, recorded a career-high 38 assists, three kills and one ace in his third overall appearance in a Ball State uniform.
“It's an honor coming into a big program like this and starting,” Zurawksi said. “We have a bunch of young players, so I'm just trying to put my best foot forward out there every day and earn the spot.”
With some of its top contributors resting, a number of lesser-experienced Cardinals saw the rotation. Each of the seven members in the starting lineup did not start against UCSD the night before — a change of pace which Cruz values as he looks to develop Ball State’s underclassmen.
“We got to get them playing, but we’ve also got to trust them,” Cruz said.
Ball State (5-2) will return to Worthen Arena January 13 at 6 p.m. for another match against Tusculum. Though the second half of the Cardinals’ season series against the Pioneers will mark the red and white’s eighth match in 12 days, Cruz expects a focused effort from his team to close out the stretch of matches.
“We expect to win, and we expect to compete hard, and I thought at moments that's where we were struggling tonight,” Cruz said. “We weren't competing as aggressively.”
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