With the 2023 season underway, the NIVC looks at some of the programs off to a notable start as we track the depth and competitive excellence found throughout D-I volleyball.
by Kyle Koso
Kelli Phillips thought she’d get a useful look at her Ball State volleyball program with a tough set of matches early in the 2023 season.
She ended up seeing how her roster looked adorned with crutches, slings, casts and on a constant search for ibuprofen.
A sobering cycle of injuries and other impediments prevented the Cardinals from fielding the lineup Phillips envisioned as the season began, with an 0-7 stretch through the first half of September threatening to dampen the mood around a squad that has been a mid-major standout for years. But life is starting to look more normal for Ball State as it rides a five-match winning streak (now 4-0 in the Mid-American Conference, 7-8 overall) ahead of matches this weekend at Miami of Ohio (0-4. 4-12) and Bowling Green (1-3, 7-8).
“When we made that original schedule, we were a much different team than we are now. Three likely starters are out for the year; that changes things, not having the same lineup twice in nonconference,” said Phillips, in her eighth year as BSU head coach and who has guided the Cardinals to the NCAA Tournament in three of the past four seasons. “But we’ve done a good job. We are super young in a lot of positions, and that was combined with a tough schedule where no one let us off the hook. A lot of people had to play different roles than how they trained all spring, but that’s literally part of the deal. Every season, it’s the job of players and coaches to do whatever we can to make the best situation possible.”
When injuries mount, it’s not just the physical absence of talent that can affect teams – it’s an emotional challenge as well, especially when experienced athletes familiar with the approach Phillips wants are simply not around anymore. But with the established vibe of a squad that will fight to every finish, Ball State still has designs on a league title.
“It’ll be a challenge managing bodies, but what’s crazy is I still feel we’re position to win the league with the people we have. That’s kept them optimistic, because they see the potential,” said Phillips, whose teams went 24-9 last year and a remarkable 30-4 in 2021.
While Ball State tackles all the variables and surprises that have marked 2023, there’s a definite source of gravity and stability in the form of junior setter Megan Wielonski, a preseason all-MAC Western Division selection who was fourth and second in the nation in assists the past two campaigns. Comfortably on track to finish her career as the No. 2 assist leader in program history, Wielonski has proven comfortable with the weight of her responsibilities, which go beyond just steering the ball around and keeping hitters happy.
“There’s an increase in the amount of leadership I’m asking from her. Especially in light of how young we are, the (vocal leader) jump is the biggest thing I’ve asked for,” Phillips said. “I mean, set the ball wherever you want, but how do we keep the passers calm, who have never been in that position. In her evolution, we’ve talked that she has to be a great setter even if the ball-control isn’t putting it on your head every time. That’s the mark of a great setter. She has secondary skills that also make a big impact – her service pressure, her defensive pressure, and her blocking has improved enormously.”
Wielonski is supported a couple of older players, fifth-year stalwarts Marie Plitt (124 kills) and Havyn Gates (team-high 219 digs), while fresh-faced contributions come from redshirt freshman Aniya Kennedy (155 kills), sophomore Madison Buckley (131 kills) and freshman DS/libero Paige Busick, who has helped the team on the back row after the graduation of stalwart defender Maggie Huber.
They didn’t get there as planned, but the Cardinals are approaching the territory where Phillips might agree some familiar strengths are kicking in.
“It starts with ball control, from a serve-receive standpoint as well as being able to control hard-hit balls. Part 2 is getting our middles involved a lot and not just relying on one or two pin attackers,” she said. “We have to be balanced, and you need ball control to do that. And related to the injuries we had – we have to have all five attackers capable of scoring, not just someone taking 70 swings a night. That’s when we are clicking well. The other piece is volleyball IQ – competing, having a passion to do what we’re doing, not have to pull teeth to have self-discipline.
“We’ll need to get better handling that first ball, and I’m pretty black-and-white with the time, this won’t be a shock to anybody – we’ve got to have Maddie Buckley scoring more points consistently. She’s very capable, super physical, her net presence as a blocker has helped the group. She’s put a ton of work into it, and all of this will be a huge factor toward the end of the year.”
ON THE NIVC – Phillips coached Ball State when the Cardinals played in the 2018 NIVC, and here’s her take on the usefulness of the event: “I felt like it was a really good opportunity at the time; we were a group still finding a way to win in the postseason. We were still in evolution to get to be an NCAA Tournament team, and that’s the goal to be one of that 64. But that’s just 64 of us. The NIVC helps push the game further so a student-athlete can play in the postseason and have that game experience which will help in future years. Those are things that can’t be replicated in practice, and the NIVC gave us the experience to grow and learn from and continue to evolve. It was a great thing for our program to be a part of.”