MAC’s Ball State riding high with balance, experience heading into NCAA tourney


Coach Kelli Miller Phillips of Ball State has had quite a year.

Her team just wrapped up the Mid-American Conference championship to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament. That came on the heels of a spring 2021 season that served as a “substitute” for a 2020 season interrupted by the pandemic.

And she did all of it while becoming a mom for the first time. She and husband, Justin, welcomed a girl in January.

“It has been a complete different feeling when it comes to coaching,” Miller Phillips said. “Now that I have my daughter, when I come home, it’s a wonderful feeling, and you kind of forget about the match. It puts it in such a different perspective.”

Miller Phillips also said she believes becoming a mother has led to better connections with her players. Perhaps that’s part of the reason the Cardinals will enter the NCAA Tournament as one of the nation’s hottest teams.

Ball State coach Kelli Phillips talks to her team during a timeout/Ball State photo

Ball State will take a 19-match winning streak into its first-round match with Michigan on Friday. Host Louisville, the overall No. 1 seed, faces Illinois-Chicago in the second match.

The second-round match could feature the Cardinals against the Cardinals. Facing unbeaten Louisville would be a daunting task, but Miller Phillips believes her team is better prepared for the NCAA experience this time around.

Ball State won the MAC title two years ago — its first conference title since 2002 — then promptly and unceremoniously was ushered out of the NCAA Tournament by No. 5 seed Nebraska. That, Miller Phillips said, will be invaluable.

“I definitely think the experience from doing it in 2019 helped me personally in how to approach it,” Miller Phillips said. “And our players, having gone through it, it allowed them to approach it in a much more relaxed and confident position.

“This time around, we’re like, ‘OK. We know what worked. We know what’s been successful for us.’ It felt more just part of the plan.”

An experienced core

Several players return from the 2019 team, including three juniors who are regular members of the rotation: Outside Natalie Risi, libero Maggie Huber, and middle Marie Plitt.

Plitt has 104 blocks, including 19 solo, and is averaging 2.42 kills per set. Sophomore Lauren Gilliland complements Plitt with 102 blocks, including 24 solo, and 1.98 kills per set.

Huber leads with 3.98 digs per set. Miller Phillips said Huber has “a knack for making emergency, game-saving plays.”

Risi, in addition to averaging 1.51 kills per set, averages 2.77 digs and is third on the team with 24 aces. She was named MVP of the MAC Tournament.

A couple of newcomers also have helped the Cardinals. Grad student Jaclyn Bulmahn, who spent her first four years at Valparaiso, leads the attack at 3.03 kills per set.

Making it all go is the MAC freshman of the year, Megan Wielonski. She averages nearly 11 assists per set and has 54 aces, which ties for ninth best in the country.

“Megan is a very smart volleyball player,” Miller Phillips said. “She’s somebody that can take on a lot of information very quickly and isn’t flustered by that. We’ve thrown a lot at her.

“And it helps that we have a really strong ball-control team. That allows her to kind of relax. She doesn’t have to worry about all the ‘what-ifs.’ We’re a pretty consistent passing team.”

Attacking with variety

Along with solid ball control, Ball State, Miller Phillips said, can spread the wealth to all of its hitters, making it difficult for defenses to know from which direction the attack is coming.

The Cardinals will need all that and more to make it through what shapes up as a brutal first two rounds. Miller Phillips insists that her team won’t be intimidated. The plan is simply to trust in the skills and attitudes that brought them to this point.

“I’m a very calm and routine kind of person,” she said. “We don’t want to do anything different than what we’ve been doing. We’re in the position we are in for a reason. So trusting that we are good enough with who we are and what we’ve been doing … just go out there and let it fly.

“And you’ve gotta have fun with it. It’s easy to be nervous and coming in here and over-thinking. There’s no value in that.”

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