Undermanned Ball State men’s volleyball defeats No. 14 Lewis in five sets

<p>Graduate Student middle blocker Wil McPhillips spikes the ball against Purdue Fort Wayne March 23 at Gates Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. McPhillips scored seven points in the game. Mya Cataline, DN</p>

Graduate Student middle blocker Wil McPhillips spikes the ball against Purdue Fort Wayne March 23 at Gates Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. McPhillips scored seven points in the game. Mya Cataline, DN

Ball State men’s volleyball’s first trip to Chicago of the 2024 season came in mid-February when it took on Loyola Chicago in an early Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) clash. The Cardinals left the lakeside campus with just their second road win against the Ramblers in the rally scoring era, which dates back to 2001.

A little more than one month removed from its first (and successful) excursion to the area, Ball State returned to the greater Chicagoland region Thursday to battle another MIVA foe. The nationally ranked No. 12 Cardinals found another victorious result on the shores of Lake Michigan, as they defeated No. 14 Lewis (14-12, 7-6 MIVA) in five sets (19-25, 25-22, 25-21, 26-28, 15-13).

“It’s challenging to play on the road in these types of environments where there's a lot of high stakes on the line, and I thought our guys handled themselves in high pressure situations and executed when we needed it,” Ball State head coach Donan Cruz said. 

Ball State’s win extended its string of success in opening matches against MIVA opponents. The Cardinals have now won seven of eight initial meetings against conference foes this season.

The red and white’s triumph provided a much-needed conference win in the late stages of the regular season, but it did not begin with an ideal opening frame. Lewis cruised to a swift victory in set one, behind a dominant defensive effort. The Flyers recorded six blocks and limited Ball State’s offense to a .086 hitting percentage en route to their 25-19 first-set win.

The momentum firmly resided in the home team’s corner following a rocky opening set for Ball State, and it appeared that another Lewis set victory was imminent as the Flyers jumped out to a 4-0 advantage. Despite the Cardinals’ slow start to the second frame, they soon responded to the early adversity by rattling off a commanding mid-set scoring run.

After trailing 10-6 through the early stages of the second frame, Ball State rattled off a 11-4 scoring spurt that set the stage for the remainder of the frame. The Cardinals prevailed in a tightly contested set two, winning 25-22.

Cruz attributes the turnaround to the insertion of senior opposite hitter Dyer Ball into the starting lineup and the reliance on senior Lukas Pytlak as the primary libero.

“Dyer again came in and did a really good job of kind of studying us out on the right side of the court,” Cruz said. “I thought his presence really shifted the momentum for us.”

Following Ball State’s bounce-back victory in set two, Lewis began to unravel in the third frame. The Cardinals dominantly secured a third set in which it led for nearly the entirety, but a victorious Flyers’ push in the fourth frame sent the match to a decisive fifth set.

Though Lewis commanded an early two-point lead in set five, Ball State emerged victorious in the frame behind timely defensive efforts. The win marked the Cardinals’ third fifth-set victory in as many attempts this season.

“For our team, those are the matches we want to be in and come out on the winning end of because we're challenging ourselves to perform under immense pressure,” Cruz said.

At the core of the Cardinals’ turnaround was their offensive improvements. The opening set saw the red and white log some of their most bleak marks in MIVA play, as they recorded just nine kills and failed to eclipse the .100 hitting mark.

Ball State’s hitters flipped the narrative following its slow first set, recording 42 kills in the following three frames. Junior outside hitter Tinaishe Ndavazocheva was central to the turnaround, pacing the Cardinals’ offense with 23 kills at a .320 clip.

The red and white’s defense also provided timely bursts of scoring down the stretch of the match. Ball State’s block rejected 13 Lewis attacks, an effort led by senior middle blocker Rodney Wallace, who collected eight blocks in the win.

Though the Cardinals found the winning end of the MIVA battle, the odds were perhaps stacked against Ball State before first serve, as it entered the match without two of its foremost contributors.

The red and white traveled northward without sophomore outside hitter Patrick Rogers, whose ankle injury sustained against Ohio State on March 21 has rendered him unable to play on a short-term basis. Rogers’s absence marked the Cardinals’ second-consecutive match without their kills leader, and he was replaced by sophomore outside hitter Ryan Bartz against Lewis.

Ball State was not just undermanned on the outside, as junior middle blocker Vanis Buckholz did not see match action because of lingering lower-body injuries, but he did make the trip with the team. Fifth-year middle blocker Wil McPhillips earned the starting nod in place of Buckholz.

Cruz said that Buckholz could be available in the Cardinals’ next match, while Rogers could be out until the postseason as Ball State looks to “manage bodies.”

With just three matches remaining on the red and white’s regular season schedule, Ball State still remains atop the MIVA standings. The Cardinals hold a lead over Ohio State and Loyola Chicago, who are tied for second place with a 10-4 conference mark.

The Cardinals (18-8, 11-2 MIVA) will look to carry over the momentum gained from their Thursday-night triumph in the second match of their two-match season series against Lewis on Saturday afternoon. Ball State has completed eight two-match series so far in 2024, and has tallied a 6-2 record in the second half of such matchups.

“We're gonna have to be a little bit better coming out the gate in set one,” Cruz said. “I think we need to start a little bit more efficiently to put ourselves in a better situation to win that first set.” 

Contact Adam Altobella with comments on X @AltobellaAdam or via email at aaltobella@bsu.edu.


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