Fourteen years ago, I was confident that I would be covering Ball State that season in the NCAA Tournament.
It was my second year covering the team for campus newspaper The Ball State Daily News and everything was going right for the Cardinals. The team behind outside attackers Patrick Durbin and Todd Chamberlain had rebounded from an early season losing streak and went on an 11-match winning streak that featured back-to-back home victories against UCLA.
Then along came Ohio State.
The Buckeyes beat the Cardinals in the final week of the regular season to gain home court advantage in the conference tournament. It then held Ball State to a .053 attack percentage in the MIVA Tournament finals to end the Cardinals’ season, and dash the dream of a 21-year-old reporter to fly to California during finals week to cover his school in the NCAA Tournament.
That 2008 season was still magical for me. There was everything from reporting on historic upsets to driving 10 hours with my girlfriend (now wife) to cover Ball State playing a regular season match against No. 1 Penn State.
However, I was left wondering what it would have been like to cover Ball State when it was on the biggest stage college men’s volleyball had to offer.
Ball State will play Hawai’i in the NCAA Tournament semifinals on Thursday, and I now get to live out that dream I had as an idealistic, socially awkward 21 year old.
It’s been a long, and at times painful, road for Ball State to return to its first NCAA Tournament in 20 years.
There were years when Ball State would almost pull off a conference tournament upset only to have an inopportune attack error or blow a lead in the fifth game. There would be other years when the Cardinals were simply overpowered by better MIVA teams and making the NCAA Tournament felt as unlikely as going your entire time as a Ball State student without getting a parking ticket.
All of that changed this year.
Setter Quinn Isaacson returned for a graduate season and has guided a rejuvenated Ball State offense to the nation’s third-best attack percentage at .350. The Cardinals entered this year having never hit more than .300 in a season since 2004.
Outside attacker Kaleb Jenness continued the Ball State tradition of hidden gems developing into some of the best college players in the Midwest. Jenness arrived to Ball State as a beach volleyball player from South Carolina and now four years later is the MIVA Player of the Year and second in the nation averaging 4.71 kills per game.
Opposite Angelos Mandilaris returned to the court after missing the entire 2021 season with an injury and lived up to hype surrounding the graduate transfer who was a three-time ConfCarolinas Offensive Player of the Year with Barton. Mandilaris is eighth in the country with a 4.19 kills per game average and has more than a .300 attack percentage for the fourth time in his career.
All of this success comes at a time when Ball State continues to celebrate and mourn the passing of Don Shondell, who died in November at 92 years old. The program founder’s and Hall of Fame coach guided the Cardinals to 14 NCAA Tournament appearances and was the catalyst for growing men’s volleyball in the Midwest.
For all of Shondell’s success, the Cardinals were never able to get beyond the NCAA Tournament semifinals and reach the finals. The team now has an opportunity to achieve that milestone if it can beat the defending NCAA champions Hawai’i.
One thing, though, is clear regardless of the outcome of this semifinal match – Ball State is back.
Back is the confidence and swagger of a program that dubbed itself the “Volleyball Capital of the Midwest.”
Back is the belief that Ball State’s best team is now and not one from the 1970s or 1990s.
Back is the optimism from fans and alumni that Ball State can beat any team in the nation.
And back on press row will be a now 35-year-old, and still socially awkward, reporter who will get to live out a dream of covering in the NCAA Tournament the program that made him fall in love with the sport of men’s volleyball.