After Loyola Chicago’s Ryan McElligott missed his service attempt, Ball State took a 24-21 lead in the second frame, prompting Cardinals fans to lift up from their seats for the impending set point.
The Cardinals were unable to capitalize on their first, second and third game points, however, erasing their late advantage. With the score evened at 24, fans lowered back into their seats, and tension reigned over Worthen Arena.
The 815 onlookers’ spirits were not down long, as junior outside hitter Tinaishe Ndavazocheva responded by uncorking two straight kills to capture set two for the red and white.
Ball State’s emotional rally in the second set proved to be critical Thursday night, as it set the foundation for the 15th-ranked Cardinals win (23-25, 26-24, 27-25, 25-23) over No. 11 Loyola Chicago (5-6, 0-1 MIVA) in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) opener.
“The guys earned it,” head coach Donan Cruz said. “You’ve got to practice and compete in practice how you want to play, and I thought that was the biggest thing for our guys. They came in all week. They worked hard.”
The Cardinals’ victory in a tight second set was not an isolated occurrence in their triumph over the Ramblers. The two perennial MIVA powers battled to double overtime in the third frame, which Ball State claimed, 27-25. Then, in the decisive fourth set, Ball State won two straight points to win the frame after the score was knotted at 23 apiece.
“Loyola was out-stating us through two and a half sets, and then we really turned it around, and I’m just happy for the guys that they had their opportunity and then took advantage of it,” Cruz said.
Ball State’s late-set pedigree comes after dropping two sets within four points in its last match against Hawaii on Jan. 28. Sophomore outside hitter Patrick Rogers expressed the Cardinals’ satisfaction in closing out close sets Thursday, after close losses against the Rainbow Warriors.
“It's a great feeling, and I think we really stayed together as a team,” Rogers said. “That's what made us finish those sets when those sets were close.”
In addition to the red and white’s ability to close out tightly contested sets, Ball State’s win was built on its service advantage and timely offensive contributions.
Not only were the Cardinals’ three service aces two more than Loyola Chicago’s mark, but the red and white also minimized their errors. Ball State logged 13 missed serves, while their opponents committed 22 errors.
Ball State’s offense was also at the backbone of its win, as the red and white hitters recorded 60 kills at a .285 hitting percentage. Ndavazocheva paced the Cardinals with 19 kills, and he was followed by freshman opposite hitter Braydon Savitski-Lynde and Rogers, who each logged 14 kills.
Ndavazocehva attributed the Cardinals’ improved offensive efforts to an increased focus on the connection between hitter and setter.
“This whole week, we worked hard to make sure that the connection was good,” Ndavazocheva said. “We want them to expose some other mistakes, not the mistakes that we’ve been exposed for before.”
The Cardinals also earned four points off blocks, an effort led by Rogers, who rejected 1.5 Ramblers attacks.
Notably absent from Ball State’s block was junior middle blocker Vanis Buckholz, who has earned a starting nod in each of the Cardinals’ matches against ranked opponents this season. Cruz said that Bukholz is battling a minor knee injury and that his status to return is on a day-to-day basis.
“It's a long season, and we all know that sometimes it's just a battle of attrition,” Cruz said. “Keeping our guys healthy is important.”
Senior middle blocker Rodney Wallace started in Buckholz’s absence, after not seeing the court in over two weeks. The Maryland Heights, Missouri, native recorded two kills and one block in his return to action.
The win moved Ball State to 1-0 in MIVA play for the fifth time in the last six seasons, and it marked the Cardinals’ first victory over an opponent ranked inside the top 15 — a feat that they were unable to accomplish in their first five attempts this year.
“We've been battling, and all of our fans understand that could go either way, and it just hasn't been in our favor,” Cruz said. “To finally get it, it's like cutting off some of the tension that's been in the group for those moments.”
After opening its conference season with a victory, Ball State (8-5, 1-0 MIVA) will return to non-league play Friday night, when the Cardinals host No. 8 Penn State (6-2) in the red and white’s final non-MIVA match of 2024. The Nittany Lions are coming off a pair of wins against then first-ranked Ohio State on Jan. 25 and Jan. 28.
Ndavazocheva emphasized the importance of Ball State’s win over Loyola Chicago as the Cardinals prepare to take on another highly ranked opponent.
“Going into tonight, I was like ‘we need to win tonight for us to win tomorrow,’” Ndavazocheva said. “I think today's game is gonna contribute a lot to tomorrow's game.”
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