By Dave Reed
Courtesy of ESPN.com
When Ball State wrapped up its first Mid-American Conference regular-season championship since 2002 last Thursday night by sweeping Toledo, it was fitting that match point was delivered by freshman outside hitter Kylee Baker.
After all, first-year members of the BSU volleyball program have played a major role in the team's return to prominence.
The Cardinals completed the regular season with a 24-4 overall record and a 14-2 mark in conference play after defeating Akron two nights later. That was an impressive season-long performance for a team that finished 2009 with a 7-9 conference record and was picked to finish fifth in the MAC's West Division in this year's preseason poll.
Most programs would never have expected such a dramatic turnaround for a team that had four first-year players in its primary rotation under a coach who was in his first collegiate season. But Steve Shondell is not your ordinary first-year coach.
The son of Ball State's legendary men's volleyball coach, Dr. Don Shondell, Steve was a three-year starter and helped the Cardinals finish third in the 1974 NCAA tournament. While serving as a volunteer assistant coach for seven seasons, BSU reached the tournament three times.
"When I took the job, I had no idea how we would do," Shondell said. "It's been beyond my wildest dreams. If you coach long enough, from time to time you just have one of those seasons where everything seems to fall into place. We're playing four freshmen right now and they've combined with our veteran players. It just worked out."
It wasn't a matter of if Ball State would win under Shondell, but rather a question of when.
For 34 seasons, Shondell coached the women's team at Burris Laboratory School in Muncie, where he posted a career record of 1183-95, won 21 state championships and earned a spot in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Two years before starting at Burris, he helped found the Munciana Volleyball Club.
Shondell helped build both programs into highly successful training grounds by teaching technique, and he used the same strategy to turn the Ball State program around after four consecutive losing seasons.
"I've always been a coach who has focused on basic fundamentals," he said. "The first thing I did when I got to Ball State last spring was work on basic fundamental techniques. The team responded very well to that. During the preseason, we continued where we left off."
Senior libero Alyssa Rio is a perfect example of a player thriving under Shondell. In a sport that comes down to serving and passing, Rio leads the nation averaging 5.88 digs per game and was successful on 445 of 470 reception attempts for a .947 percentage. Her current total of 623 is more than double her total from 2009.
The combination of Rio and junior setter Brittany McGinnis running the offense allowed Shondell to work the four freshmen -- Baker, middle blocker Mindy Marx, outside hitter Whitney Heeres and defensive specialist Catie Fredrich -- into the lineup without upsetting the team's chemistry.
Another reason Ball State was able to win the regular-season title and secure the top seed for this week's MAC tournament at SeaGate Center in Toledo, Ohio, was its ability to prevail in seven of eight five-set matches.
"Winning those five-set matches has really made a huge difference in our record," Shondell said. "We have confidence that we have done it, but you know that in a 15-point set anything can happen. We would certainly like to win in three or four sets, but if we get to a fifth set, we know we've had success in the past."
The Cardinals are three matches away from securing the program's eighth NCAA tournament appearance, its first in eight seasons. BSU had a bye in Tuesday night's opening round and plays No. 8 Toledo on Friday. But adding the tournament title to its list of accomplishments will not be easy, especially for such a young team.
This year's conference tournament may even be stronger than in 2008 when the MAC sent a record three teams to the NCAA tournament. Four teams have won at least 22 matches and six are among the top 86 in the latest RPI rankings -- Western Michigan (40), Ball State (45), Northern Illinois (58), Eastern Michigan (71), Central Michigan (79) and Ohio University (86).
"For a team to go in there and win three consecutive matches -- Friday, Saturday and Sunday -- without a day off, that's going to be tough for anybody to do," Shondell said. "It's really too bad it has to come down to winning three matches in three days against top-quality competition."
As long as Ball State does not fall in its quarterfinal match, it should be in a position to receive an at-large selection to the NCAA tournament even if it doesn't win the tournament title.
"We've played a really tough conference schedule and the league is as good top to bottom as it's ever been and I think the tournament is wide open this year," Shondell said. "We've won our last 10 matches, we've won 24 matches and we're in the top 50 in the RPI, so I feel like we've done about everything we could possibly do to receive an at-large bid this year."