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How Central Michigan volleyball attributes success to sense of comfort, confidence with one another

Coach Gawlik poses with members of the volleyball team Oct. 2, 2019.

It’s late in the afternoon. 

Players begin to walk off the McGuirk Arena court after engaging in post-practice stretching and receiving a quick message from coach Mike Gawlik. Three Chippewa players remain in the gym, working on their serve receives and first pass. Their goal is to make an effective pass to an assistant coach.

The assistant sets the ball to Gawlik, who is partaking in the drill. 

And time after time, Gawlik casually drops the ball in against a makeshift defense. The two passes are fluid and Gawlik finishes it off each time. Low on flair, high on execution.

It's been that way all year long. 

Gawlik has his team off to an extremely fast start. Winners of nine in a row, the Central Michigan volleyball team currently stands at 16-2 and atop the Mid-American Conference. It’s their best start in recent memory, and based on the team’s influx of youth, it's safe to say there’s nowhere to go but up.

The sky is the limit. 

'A very positive culture'

When observing a Central Michigan volleyball practice, there are two major takeaways. The first is the obvious talent. The execution is never flawless but is often fabulous, the competition unparalleled with talent on both sides. 

The other is energy.

Each scrimmage is treated as a game. All twelve players on the court approach each opportunity with unmatched intensity, expecting their opponent’s best while giving their own. 

For all the competition, there is no negativity. Everyone is encouraging of one another in practice, which translates to the bench energy that can be seen in games. 

“People on the bench are still 100% for the people who are playing,” said Kalina Smith, a junior outside hitter who is third in the conference in kills. “It’s a very positive culture.”

“We have a really fun bench crew,” added senior libero Megan Kern. 

There are many antics to be seen on the CMU bench during games. The team has its rituals for a variety of exciting moments. 

On this 11 game winning streak, there have been plenty of things to celebrate. And on the rare occasion that someone makes a mistake, the criticism is always constructive.

“When someone says, ‘Hey you’ve got to be better,’ we respect that,” said Meg Sivertsen, a sophomore from Virginia Beach, Virginia.

“It’s positive, not negative,” Smith said.

Superb statistics

It’s rare to see an athlete win an award in back-to-back weeks in any sport, regardless of the competition level. It's even rarer at the Division I level.

The Chippewas have three players who have done it. 

The season is only halfway complete.

Already this season, Kern has won three straight Mid-American Conference West Division Defensive Player of the Week awards. Sophomore Kendall Braate and Junior Grace Butler have shared the Setter of the Week award three times and Kalina Smith, a junior outside hitter, has also won the Defensive Player of the Week. 

That’s not all. Sivertsen recently earned Offensive Player of the Week. Sophomore Maddie Whitfield, junior Lisbeth Rosario-Martinez, and Smith have each been named to an all-tournament team throughout the Chippewas’ various early season invitationals. 

Savannah Thompson, a sophomore who was an All-MAC Freshman a year ago, has put up huge numbers since returning from an injury. One can imagine she’ll soon be earning recognition as well.

Their statistics back up every award they’ve earned.

Rosario-Martinez is in the top 10 of the conference in service aces and Braate is 10th in assists. Kern is fourth in digs, while Smith is second in kills per game. Both Rosario-Martinez and Whitfield are top 10 in hitting percentage. 

It’s been a phenomenal start. 

At 6-0 in conference play, the future is bright. 

“It’s an exciting start,” Gawlik said. “I hope it translates to people coming out.”

Gawlik also noted that the team’s talent and style of play will be entertaining for those who decide to come out and watch his team play. 

With five home games remaining, there will be plenty of opportunities to watch a team that is currently at the top of the conference. 

This team features just one active senior, which means fans will also get a look at the future. 

‘Sprinkles are for winners’

“It’s an awesome product that we’re bringing to the forefront,” Gawlik said of his team. 

It starts at the top. 

Gawlik preaches sticking to the process and staying in the moment, never commenting on anything past the next match. It appears the process is starting to pay off in his fourth year. There have been many things to smile about, and most of that comes from winning. 

Each time the Chippewas sweep the weekend matches, they are treated to celebratory ice cream. It’s a chance for the team to both bond and celebrate. It’s called ‘sprinkles are for winners,' and with all the winning, it has quickly become a tradition.

"We've had our fair share of ice cream," said Gawlik of the tradition during his appearance on "The Coach Mac Show."

The Chippewas have swept four straight weekends. They'll look to make it five on the road this weekend, starting with a match at Bowling Green on Friday followed by a match at Miami (Ohio) on Sunday.