MUNCIE -- He's sitting in the small locker room, elbows resting on knees as he rubs the dome of his head in his hands. Maybe the answers will come to mind if he pushes hard enough.
Just as he did when he started 33 years ago, Arnie Ball takes losses hard. His IPFW men's volleyball team lost to Ball State 25-21, 25-17, 25-20 on Saturday in the quarterfinals of the Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association Tournament, and frankly, it wasn't that close.
Just like they did during the entire regular season, the Volleydons would look good in spurts. They'd fall behind early, usually because of their own mistakes, rally in the middle to tie the score and then fall apart at the end when it mattered. They played just good enough to hang in, but Ball State was just good enough to not make the key mistakes to let them all the way back to have a chance at winning.
"They are better than us, how's that?'' Ball said. "The team that I had show up tonight is the same team that I saw in Quincy, Ill. They served the ball real well, I thought. We couldn't serve and our setting was awful.''
Despite beating five ranked teams during the season, the Volleydons finish 13-13 because they also lost to some pretty bad teams. They showed potential but no consistency. Because the No. 9-ranked Cardinals had won 12 matches in a row, IPFW faced no pressure from expectations, but then the Volleydons played like they didn't expect to win.
"There needs to be some more consistency,'' Ball said. "We played some really good volleyball matches and beat some very good teams, and then you come out and play like this. To Ball State's credit, they are playing some really good volleyball right now, and good for them. Their setter sets a nice ball where you can hit it, and they dig a lot of balls. I was most impressed with their serving. They only made two or three service errors, and most of them were in the court with some authority.''
IPFW hit very few of those. Setter Omar Rivera sprayed the ball everywhere but where his hitters were hoping for. They showed so little confidence in him they were running under the sets and then jumping, often leaning back or swinging their arms wide to reach the ball. That meant they had no power and no precision, allowing the Ball State defense to dig them easily and transition into quick offense.
Opposite Andy Sellen hit his first ball of the night into the bottom of the net and finished with eight kills and 11 errors. Eddie Rivera gave IPFW a chance to rally in the third with three great serves, but then he killed the comeback by hitting his next serve out of play.
The Volleydons didn't make any defensive plays, either, finishing with nine fewer blocks and 10 fewer digs than the Cardinals.
What needs to change next year, Ball is asked.
"Maybe to retire,'' he said.
Is this it?
"I'll know before very long.''
If it is, then Ball will finish with 535 wins and 401 losses, six trips to the NCAA Final Four and countless lives influenced for the better.
Then again, the fire in his belly may have been dimly lit after Saturday's disappointment, but it was still there.
"We won 13 matches, we beat some really good teams that we had absolutely no business beating,'' he said. "I really thought we were in a good frame of mind. Once we get down, we have nothing that can bring us back.
It's just hard to imagine his final match being an effort like that.
"We beat some awful good teams,'' he said. "I don't know if we can beat some good teams like that or not. A lot of it depends on recruiting in the next month.''
Losses like Saturday night, and the way he handles them, probably mean Ball's retirement is getting closer, but it's probably not here yet. When it's suggested he could take time off and go play some more golf, Ball said not yet. He can still practice next week and some of his younger kids need extra work to get better.