Ball State entered the 2024 campaign with a 15-6 overall record against McKendree, and a spurt of five-consecutive wins over the Bearcats, dating back to 2021. Cardinals head coach Donan Cruz was also previously undefeated against McKendree in his two seasons at the helm, but the unblemished record under his tenure came to an end Friday.
The 11th-ranked Cardinals dropped a three-set battle (28-30, 23-25, 21-25) to McKendree (5-4, 2-1 MIVA) inside the Bearcats’ Melvin Price Convocation Center. The loss not only brought Ball State’s winning ways against McKendree to a halt, but it also marked the red and white’s first setback of the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) this season.
“McKendree played a great match,” Cruz said. “I thought we were looking at the right things, and they did a good job of defending.”
The opening points of the contest foreshadowed where the momentum would reside for the majority of the match. McKendree built an 18-8 lead in the first set behind an admirable defensive effort and decisively commanded the momentum on its home court.
Although Ball State rallied to even set one at 23 points apiece, the Bearcats captured the opening frame 30-28 — tied for the highest-scoring set of the Cardinals’ season — and did not relent from that point.
McKendree benefited from timely hitting and a consistent defensive effort to down the Cardinals in tightly contested sets two (25-23) and three (25-21), a pair of games that saw the red and white hold the lead. During the third game, Ball State once led by five points, its largest advantage of the match.
“You feel for them because we were preparing, and we're playing to win, and we just know that quick shifts like that and marginal losses sting,” Cruz said. “We know we're capable, and I think we trust what we're doing.”
Neither team enjoyed a particularly strong offensive outing, with both teams hitting below .260 over the course of the match. With neither team shining offensively, McKendree’s defense proved to be the difference-maker, especially in the opening set. The Bearcats back row recorded 41 digs, which eclipsed its 9.28 digs per set mark (the second-best in the nation), and limited Ball State to a .180 hitting percentage.
McKendree’s defensive pressure yielded just 35 kills for Ball State, its fifth-lowest mark of the season. The Cardinals leader in kills per set, junior outside hitter Tinaishe Ndavazocheva, saw limited playing time after starting the match. Cruz attributed his decision to sideline the preseason All-MIVA hitter to his trust in sophomore outside hitter Ryan Bartz.
“We just didn't think Tinaishe was in a good rhythm tonight, and we've kind of been able to see that,” Cruz said. “We just thought it was a good change.”
With Ndavazocheva recording just four kills in his shortened outing, sophomore outside hitter Patrick Rogers paced the Cardinals with 12 kills. Bartz and freshman opposite hitter Braydon Savitski-Lynde tied for the second-highest mark, as they both slammed five kills.
Perhaps the lone bright spot in Ball State’s loss was its performance on the block. The Cardinals recorded 12 rejections, a season-best for three-set matches. Senior middle blocker Rodney Wallace led with 3.5 blocks, and Rogers followed close behind with 2.5 blocks.
Junior middle blocker Vanis Buckholz was absent from the strong outing on the block, as he missed his third-straight match due to a lingering knee injury. He did not travel with the team and will be unavailable in Ball State’s next match.
The Cardinals (8-7, 1-1 MIVA) will take on Lindenwood (3-6, 0-2 MIVA) Saturday at 8 p.m., as they look to add to their MIVA win column. The red and white have captured six consecutive victories over the Lions, with the last meeting (March 25, 2023) between the conference foes resulting in a 3-0 Ball State triumph.
“We went into this week understanding we had two matches,” Cruz said. “I think the biggest thing after a loss like that in three is being able to shake it off quickly.”
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