Dunk contest, home runs, CPR practice: A night with Central Michigan volleyball's bench
The lights go out, the pregame video plays and the starters are announced.
As those six starters take the floor and the lights return, the remaining players on the Central Michigan volleyball team circle up.
Junior defensive specialist Hannah Warners has some words, and they disperse with a yell. The team members begin cheering for their on-court counterparts who are preparing to receive the opposing serve.
For as much noise as the starters have made for the Chippewas, a group that has been key to a 18-4 overall record on the season, the players comprising the bench make just as much.
“It’s just a huge support system for them (the starters),” Warners said. “We just give positive vibes all the time.”
In a matchup between the two top squads in the Mid-American Conference, with both teams leading their respective divisions, the players on the outside of the lines had just as big of an impact as those inside.
Here's what happened from the eyes of the players on the bench in an Oct. 25 game where the Chippewas earned a sweep of Akron.
Akron junior libero Taylor Sharrits serves first. She hits it over the net to Central Michigan sophomore outside hitter Savannah Thompson. Thompson passes to junior setter Grace Butler, who delivers a perfect set to sophomore middle blocker Maddie Whitfield.
Whitfield tips the ball into a gap in the Zips’ defense for the first score.
The textbook play from the Chippewa defense elicits a big reaction from the Chippewa bench.
Warners runs up and down the sideline, pretending to serve the rest of the team. The bench quickly feasts on their imaginary food before turning their attention to senior libero Megan Kern, who prepares to serve.
Kern’s serve goes unreturned, as the Zips’ kill attempt goes long.
The ball misses long – the bench loves it. On cue, the Chippewas begin swinging their arms in a pulling motion.
“Free Points!” each player on the bench repeats in unison.
Minutes later, the Chippewas capitalize on a scrambling Akron defense as junior outside hitter Megan Sivertsen delivers a kill. The lead is now 7-3
Redshirt freshman outside hitter Lacey Juengel loves it.
“Go get some Muggs,” she yells while laughing, referring to a nickname the team gave Sivertsen.
After Akron senior middle blocker Ashley Richardson drops a kill just inside the white line, the Chippewas answer when junior outside hitter Lisbeth Rosario-Martinez converts off an assist from sophomore setter Kendall Braate.
Juengel drops to the floor, pretending to be in cardiac arrest as the Chippewas begin arguably their most famous celebration.
After freshman outside hitter Anna Erickson tries to pump life back into Juengel's lifeless body, she calls in Warners.
Warners is an expert at this by now, and she wastes no time reviving Juengel, who struggles to keep a straight face.
The kill gives the Chippewas an 8-4 lead.
Akron mounts a rally, trimming their deficit 11-9. However, the Chippewas quickly make a run of their own. The run starts when Kern punches the ball to keep it alive, giving the Chippewas a chance to get a point. They convert. On the ensuing play, Kern dives to make a dig, and Akron’s return misses outside.
Juengel sprints out in front of her teammates, beckoning junior outside hitter Ara Wilson to join her. Wilson smiles as she steps into an imaginary batter’s box. Juengel’s imaginary pitch is right in her wheelhouse, and the entire bench can only imagine (literally) how far Wilson’s big swing sent the pitch.
The Chippewas stretch their lead to 17-10, as Akron gifts them with two points. First, junior setter Taylor Kuruzovich misses on a serve and then a return goes wide.
Each of the two errors is echoed by a chorus of Chippewas. With all of Akron’s struggles early on, it becomes a common theme.
Akron makes an error, and the Chippewa bench cheers, “Free points!”
Butler serves over the net. The Akron return is barely kept alive as Kern stumbles but digs it to junior outside hitter Kalina Smith. Smith gets the ball over, and Akron returns yet again. Though Akron’s junior right-side hitter Shelby Fulmer appears to put it in the perfect spot, Smith digs the ball off her shoulder as she falls to the court. Thompson drills the ball into a gap.
Point for Central Michigan.
Kern leaps into the air. The six on the floor surround Smith, with Thompson as the first to get there. Thompson, who plays with bundles of emotion, wastes no time celebrating with Smith, who made her kill possible.
After Richardson misses wide yet again, the Chippewas hold a 24-16 lead. Kern prepares to serve at set point.
The entire bench puts up their index finger in unison, and the student section is soon to follow.
Akron returns the serve, and the Chippewas finish the set with a kill from Rosario-Martinez off an assist from Butler.
Surprisingly, there is no special cheer. There is no ritual. A quick cheer comes from the bench and then in coach Mike Gawlik’s typical fashion, the squad jogs over to the other side.
It’s on to set two.
The Chippewas get back-to-back points to start the second set. After Akron knots it up, Central retakes the lead on a service error and adds another point on a kill by Erickson.
One of the many great stories on this Chippewa volleyball squad is that of senior middle blocker Jayla Wesley. Though Wesley may never again compete in a match for the Chippewas due to an ACL injury, that hasn’t put a damper on her spirits in even the slightest fashion.
After the freshman Erickson gets the kill, Wesley slaps her hand against the clipboard she holds, yelling, “Let’s go!”
Akron rallies to tie the game at six before Sivertsen breaks the tie with a kill.
Warners is again at the center of this celebration. She yells, “Tick, Tick,” before the rest of the squad gives a thunderous, “Boom!”
Rosario-Martinez gives the Chippewas three-straight points from the service line, the last of which is a service ace.
The Chippewa bench welcomes the free points.
During a timeout, the video board shows a video of Whitfield singing. Almost right on cue, Whitfield delivers a block. She then comes out and is showered with applause from her teammates.
Warners yells, “Yeah, Maddie.”
“Let’s Go!” adds Juengel.
Richardson delivers a kill for the Zips to cut the lead to 13-10. However, Rosario-Martinez delivers a kill on their ensuing receive that can be best described as demoralizing.
Rosario-Martinez turns her head as soon as she makes contact. The ball itself moves as if it has been shot out of a cannon, going over the net and straight to the floor. The junior middle blocker can do nothing but smile, and one can even see a twinge of empathy on her face for the Akron player that nearly took the ball to the face.
Meanwhile, Juengel goes down in anticipation of the CPR celebration. However, the rest of the bench is in awe. Multiple players drop to a knee, and Juengel is left out to dry.
Junior outside hitter Ara Wilson holds her hand over her mouth in shock.
A block by Erickson puts the Chippewas within one point of taking set two. It’s Whitfield who delivers, and the Chippewas take the set by a final of 25-18.
The kill by Whitfield elicits a moderate reaction. However, coach Gawlik has taught his players better than to spend too much time celebrating a second set victory.
“I always tell them we’re not here to win two sets, we’re here to win three,” Gawlik said.
Before the third set begins, there are more bench shenanigans.
Sophomore outside hitter Sierra Gray engages in a shadow boxing match with Juengel. Gray knocks Juengel down with a vicious right hook, but Juengel gets back up and throws a haymaker. Freshman middle blocker Korie Otto steps in and stops the fight.
“They provide an energy that keeps the crowd involved, and our students involved,” Gawlik said of his bench. “Even in our bench game, we were pretty effective tonight.”
After a kill by Smith early in the set, Warners imaginarily feeds everyone yet again. The Chippewas get out to a commanding lead before a controversial play occurs. Tom Hanna, the coach of the Zips, calls for a challenge.
The Chippewa bench takes advantage of the free time.
The players on the bench quickly form two lines with an alley down the center. One player serves as the hoop, and four Chippewas begin to partake in a dunk contest. Using an imaginary ball, each player takes turns slamming one home.
First up is Wesley, who goes through the legs.
Next is freshman defensive specialist Kasey Firestone, who connects with a spinning slam.
Following her is Ara Wilson, who enlists the help of freshman Ashley Alford – who is redshirting this season – and leaps over her.
Juengel rounds out the contest by completing a dunk while holding her hand over her eyes.
After a Rosario-Martinez kill is challenged and upheld, Hanna is unhappy with the call and continues to argue it.
Gawlik implores the referees to continue with the game.
Eventually, all is sorted out and the game continues. Gawlik takes a time-out to chat with his players. After the timeout, Sivertsen connects and scores for the Chippewas.
Gawlik shows emotion with a fist-pump. Warners is yet again successful in her resuscitation of Juengel. The kill pushes the score to 17-9.
It’s all Chippewas.
A service ace by Butler gives Central Michigan a 23-11 lead, causing Wesley to run up and down the sideline, high-fiving each member of the coaching staff as well as every player.
“We encouraged her to find a role and still have a voice,” Gawlik said of Wesley. “To say that she hasn’t played any part in us having a good start would be doing her a disservice.”
After Whitfield gets a kill to make it 24-12, the index fingers go up yet again. Everyone in the arena knows that a three-set sweep of Akron is at stake, and McGuirk Arena buzzes with energy. After the Zips get a point, Smith ends it with a kill of her own.
The Chippewas sweep the match.
It was a balanced effort, as no Chippewa had double-digit kills, while only two had double-digit digs.
The balance wasn’t just on the court. Each player on the roster had an impact in the victory, and whether or not that shows up in the stat sheet isn’t up to them.
“You’re not afraid to make mistakes when you know that everyone’s supporting you,” Braate said of the bench after the game. “You know that if you do make a mistake they’ll just pick you up.”
“When the bench makes me laugh, it puts me in a way better mood and helps me to relax,” Butler added.
After the game, Gawlik described the win as “fun volleyball.”
He couldn’t have put it any better.