The Volleydons finished 13-13 last year with a starting lineup loaded with first-year starters. Six of the seven are back, and all-conference player Elon Fyfield is also returning after sitting out last year with a knee injury.
The season starts Friday with four exhibition matches at the UCSB Invitational in Santa Barbara, Calif. The first regular-season match will be played Saturday in California, and the home schedule opens Jan.10 against Sacred Heart.
"We have a very cohesive group who have bought into the work ethic that we've tried to put into them and we have some experience,'' Ball said. "We beat some good teams last year, Ball State, Ohio State, Loyola, Lewis and Penn State, with that really young bunch. This group has another year of experience and they are stronger and faster. I'm not sure we're big enough and that might be the biggest concern I have.''
With Fyfield starting at opposite, that means sophomore Andy Sellan moves to strengthen the outside hitting position. All-conference player Eddie Rivera also returns outside, with Bryan Saunders in the middle with setter Omar Rivera. Luis Bertran will play libero along with J.W. Kieckhefer.
Kieckhefer, Fyfield and Eddie Rivera are the only seniors, and Ball said junior Omar Rivera has improved tremendously at setter.
IPFW has been picked to finish fifth in the Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association by the league's coaches. Loyola is a heavy favorite to return to the NCAA Tournament which it hosts this year.
"The only problem is I'm not sure how we ended up there because we had a really good fall. Ball State, Lewis, Ohio State and Loyola, they all know that we're going to be right there, so we're not going to sneak up on those people,'' Ball said. "We're going to be as difficult to play as anybody else in the league, I'll tell you that right now.''
Ball also likes his depth with players Nick Smalter, Ramon Burgos, Kevin Villela and freshman setter Scott McNerney. He also has a transfer student coming in the second semester who will challenge for a starting spot in the middle. His hope is to use that depth to spell his starters and keep them fresh for the end of the season. He also wants to take it easy on Fyfield's knee early.
"We can play with anybody in this league because we're balanced, we have a great attitude, an improved work ethic, we're athletic...,'' Ball said. "I have no reason to think we can't hang with anybody. That bunch last year did, and now they're all still here and a year older.''
If they are that good, the coach may stick around a few more years.
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IPFW key home matches
(first serve 7 p.m.)
Jan. 31 Ball State
Feb. 20 Lewis
March 5 Ohio State
March 29 Loyola