Ohio (18-9, 12-4 Mid-American Conference) played its best match of the year at the perfect time. Not only did it snap Ball State's (21-7, 13-3 MAC) 13-match winning streak to pull within one match of first place in the conference, but Ohio did it with relative ease.
The Bobcats wasted no time setting the tone for the match. After taking a slight lead to start set one, the Bobcats went on a 9-1 scoring run to take a 17-8 lead.
The Bobcats knew they needed a few players to step up to beat a team as good as the Cardinals, and Olivia Margolies stepped up in a huge way. Margolies had five kills in the first half of the set one alone. The Bobcats increased their lead to 10 before the Cardinals went on a 9-3 scoring run to cut the Bobcat lead to four. Caitlin O'Farrell made short work of the Cardinals' comeback, and had a set winning kill to snap the Cardinals' 13-set winning streak.
Ohio looked just as sharp early in set two. An Elizabeth Hoerlein kill put Ohio up 4-2, but its lead didn't last long. Ball State finally matched the intensity that Ohio was playing with. Marie Plitt led Ball State on a 5-1 scoring run to help it take a lead in set two. The lead would go back and forth until Kristy Frank and Margolies combined for four kills in five plays to give Ohio a 16-13 lead.
The Cardinals proved that they were in first place in the MAC for a reason. With their backs against the wall, the Cardinals mounted a comeback to go in front 21-20 late in set two. An error by the Cardinals helped the Bobcats retake the lead, but the Cardinals would prevail in set two 26-24 to tie the match.
Through the first 10 points of the third set, the Cardinals handed the Bobcats some adversity. A Cait Snyder kill cut the Bobcat lead to one. In the face of adversity, the Bobcats increased their tempo and energy to gain an advantage in the match. They scored four straight points to take a five point lead, and Frank had two kills in three plays to get the Bobcats closer to victory.
The Bobcats served the ball with purpose all night, and their aggressive approach to serving paid off when Sam Steele had two service aces late in the third set. The Cardinals didn't threaten the Bobcats' lead, and O'Farrell finished the set with back-to-back kills to give the Bobcats a 25-15 win.
Ohio coach Geoff Carlston said that strong serves were a point of emphasis in practice.
"We've actually been practicing it for the last two or three weeks," Carlston said. "Early on (in the season) we were doing OK, but statistically we are not stressing teams out with our serves. We just broke it down, and worked on some technique which was kind of weird for me, but I'm really glad we did because it has made our serving better."
Even after a strong start from the Bobcats in the fourth set, it seemed as though it was only a matter of time before the Cardinals made a push to make the match interesting. That moment never came, the Bobcat's urgency never ceased regardless of the score.
O'Farrell's relentless offensive attack put the Bobcats up 16-6, and after the Cardinals scored three-straight points, O'Farrell kept the Cardinals at bay with another kill.
Going against a team playing with as much determination as the Bobcats did had to feel like swimming upstream, and after yet another O'Farrell kill, the Cardinals were drowning. Anna Kharchynska ended the the fifth set at 25-17 and simultaneously ended the Cardinals' 13-match winning streak with a kill.
The Bobcats had many key contributors Friday, but the leader on offense was O'Farrell, who had 14 kills. Caroline Clippard had 12 kills, and Margolies finished with 11 kills. Steele and Maci Watrous were fantastic defensively, and Parker Kwiatkowski had 13 digs and 28 assists.
Carlston was pleased with the way his team played in the upset.
"I'm just really proud of our team," Carlston said. "We've grown a lot, and they hadn't lost in two months, so I thought we played a really good gameplan. The setters did a really good job distributing, and they are one of the best defensive teams in the country and we out dug them by 14."
With the win on Friday, the Bobcats officially punched their ticket to the MAC Tournament. In addition, the Bobcats are now only one match away from first place in the MAC.
Although Ohio's win over Ball State was valuable, it still needs some help to get the conference one seed. Bowling Green was able to comeback from a two sets deficit to beat Buffalo in five sets Friday.
Because of Bowling Green's win over Buffalo, Ohio will need to win its last two matches. It will also need Bowling Green to lose its last two matches. It will be difficult for that to fall Ohio's way, but because the tournament's second seed is given a first round bye, Ohio's second match against Ball State will have huge implications.
Margolies knows that the MAC Tournament is looming, but the senior also knows the importance of staying in the moment.
"We're aware of what place we're in and what can happen, but I think it's just about keeping our focus on each game," Margolies said. "I think that's what's going to help us move forward."
Regardless of the MAC Tournament implications, the Bobcats' dominant win over first place Ball State proved that at their best, they are as good as any team in the MAC.