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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.
|Alyssa Rio is one of the upperclassmen who have flourished under Steve Shondell's tutelage.|
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."
|Shondell's focus on fundamentals is paying off for the Cardinals.|
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."
Several other regular-season champions are in a similar position as Ball State, while others know they must win their conference tournament to earn a spot in the 64-team NCAA tournament.
Since only four ranked teams -- No. 3 Hawaii, No. 12 Northern Iowa, No. 13 Dayton and No. 18 Cincinnati -- play in conference tournaments, the most interesting head-to-head battles will be between teams that are looking to maintain their positions in the RPI rankings.
There are 33 at-large spots in the NCAA tournament, so every team that gets knocked out of its conference tournament will be watching the other tournaments and hoping the teams near the top of the RPI claim the automatic bids.
Here is a brief look at four other conference tournaments and what makes their situation intriguing.Atlantic 10: If the tournament field were selected before this weekend, Saint Louis (No. 63 in the RPI) and Xavier (No. 68) would be squarely on the bubble. But with Dayton in the field, both teams have an opportunity to play their way into the NCAA tournament. If the seeding holds true, the A-10's second representative in the NCAA field could come down to the semifinal match between the third-seeded Billikens and the second-seeded Musketeers. The teams each won on their home court during the regular season, so the advantage goes to host Xavier.
Colonial: Despite having a 24-5 record and winning the regular-season title with a 13-1 record, Delaware is one of the conference champions that is in a must-win situation in order to advance to the NCAA tournament. The Blue Hens are No. 61 in the RPI and won't be moving up since the next highest Colonial Athletic Conference member is No. 2 seed James Madison at No. 87. Delaware has the advantage of playing host to the four-team CAA tournament on its Barbara Viera Court, where it is 13-0 this season.
Missouri Valley: The Valley may be the most competitive tournament of all, with four teams among the top 43 in the latest RPI rankings and six in the top 83. No. 12 Northern Iowa, the undefeated regular-season champion and tournament host, is safely in the NCAA tournament. Wichita State (No. 20) and Missouri State (29) are looking good with 20 victories, but don't want to take any chances. Creighton, Drake and Illinois State will need to win their way into the postseason.
Sun Belt: Middle Tennessee defeated Western Kentucky in the regular-season finale to win the Sun Belt conference title in a winner-take-all match and plays host to the conference tournament. The Blue Raiders and Hilltoppers finished 1-2 in the conference standings, are No. 30 and 36 in the latest RPI and each have 25 wins, credentials that should get both in the NCAA tournament, as long as they advance to Saturday's championship match.
Team of the week: New Mexico picked up a pair of crucial victories last week by sweeping then-No. 13 Colorado State and Wyoming in its final home matches of the regular season. The Lobos trailed 13-5 in the first set before storming back to defeat the Rams for just the second time in 31 meetings. New Mexico completed the weekend with a dominating three-set performance against the Cowgirls to extend its winning streak to seven matches. The Lobos, who improved to 18-8 overall and 10-3 in the Mountain West Conference, strengthened their chances of earning an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament, but still must play their next two matches on the road at third-place Utah on Thursday and at BYU on Saturday.
Rec Sweet Rec: Penn State used straight-set victories over Wisconsin and Illinois to move into a tie for first place atop the Big Ten standings with two weeks remaining in the regular season. The Nittany Lions improved to 23-4 and 13-3 while extending their current winning streak to 10 matches, during which they have won 30 of 33 sets. PSU also ran its winning streak at Rec Hall to a school-record 88 matches, one more than the previous mark that stretched from Nov. 25, 1995 to Sept. 29, 2000. If the Nittany Lions defeat Ohio State and Northwestern this week, they would tie Nebraska's record of 90 consecutive home-court victories. Penn State would then have an opportunity to set a new standard during the NCAA tournament.
The week ahead: First place in the Pac-10 and a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament will be up for grabs when Stanford visits Cal for the 72nd Big Spike on Friday night. The winner will take a one-match lead over its archrival with just one weekend remaining in the regular season. The Cardinal are attempting to win their fifth consecutive Pac-10 title while denying the Bears their first. Cal will attempt to sweep the season series for the first time since 1979, but will face a different Stanford team than the one it defeated Oct. 22 at Maples Pavilion. Since sophomore setter Karissa Cook returned to the lineup against Oregon on Oct. 29, the Cardinal have won six consecutive matches and 18 of 21 sets. On Sunday, Florida will put its perfect SEC record and No. 1 ranking on the line when the Gators visit LSU. Florida clinched at least a share of its 19th conference title by sweeping Alabama on Sunday and could win the outright title with a victory at Arkansas this Friday. The Tigers, who dropped a five-set decision at Kentucky on Sunday, are the defending SEC champions. LSU snapped the Gators' run of 18 consecutive conference championships.
Hawaii set a school record for consecutive sets won during last Sunday's victory at Nevada. The Rainbow Wahine have won 56 consecutive sets, surpassing the old mark of 54 established in 2002. Senior setter Bre Payton had 41 assists, 12 digs and 11 kills for her fifth triple-double of the season and the 12th of her career as Northern Iowa clinched the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title with a four-set win against Illinois State. Marshall senior setter Elizabeth Fleming dished out 36 assists during a three-set victory at Rice to become the third player in program history and eighth in C-USA history to reach the 5,000-assist mark. Senior Brooke Schumacher tallied 35 assists during a 3-1 victory against Southeast Missouri to break Jacksonville State's career record of 4,335 set by Emily Withers (2003-06). Schumacher finished the weekend with 4,367. Portland State's Whitney Phillips became the fourth active Big Sky player to pass the 1,000-kill mark when she put away 23 during the Vikings' five-set victory at Northern Colorado. Wyoming senior outside hitter Lauren Whitney became the 10th player in school history to reach the 1,000-kill mark when she had 11 during a four-set win at TCU. Senior setter Jessica Hellman became the third player in Air Force history to record 2,000 or more career assists when she had 45 against BYU on Nov. 13. The Horned Frogs' Irene Hester and Christy Hudson reached the 1,000-kill milestone against Wyoming. Hester had 16 to finish the match with 1,002, while Hudson added 10 to end the match with 1,006. Outside hitter Paige Penrod broke Bowling Green's freshman record for kills in a single season with 19 against Kent State. New Mexico senior setter Jade Michaelsen recorded career assist No. 4,000 and junior libero Allison Buck went over the 1,000-dig mark during a three-set victory over Wyoming.Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.