Preparation proves key for Central Michigan in pivotal victory over Ball State

The CMU women's volleyball team shakes hands with Eastern Michigan after their 3-1 loss on Sept. 20 at McGuirk Arena.

Central Michigan’s volleyball team found itself down 23-20 in the third set of a huge match against Ball State in McGuirk Arena on Friday. 

With the two teams having split the first two sets, the winner of the third would possess the momentum heading into a critical final set. 

The Chippewas could've been nervous; they could've folded. 

They did neither because they had been in that exact situation all week long. 

Coach Mike Gawlik devised a drill that caused his team to practice playing from behind. With the team divided in half, the drill began with each team of the split-squad tied at 24. They then played to complete the match, with the winner earning a reward. 

The reward?

Whoever won got to start from behind.

Each win brought that team’s score down a point in the next game. 

"You're making it tougher to win the next game," Gawlik said.

The purpose of that drill was to practice rallying. It encouraged the team to remain confident, even in situations where they were down. Gawlik noted that it was important to practice coming from late deficits in ways that weren't necessarily negative. 

"A coaching buddy of mine and I were looking for ways to create scenarios to work on coming from behind without always saying, 'We're losing,'" Gawlik said.

The team is already reaping the benefits of this new scheme. 

Tracing back to the deficit on Friday, Gawlik called time out after a kill by Ball State's Natalie Risi. However, it wasn't the coach who did the talking. 

Junior defensive specialist Hannah Warners, who is currently out due to a concussion, took the reins of the huddle. She reminded the team of all the times they had collectively worked on situations similar to the one they were in at that moment.

"Hannah looked at our entire group and said, 'We did this yesterday, it's a simple game,' and we went out there with that mindset," said junior outside hitter Kalina Smith, who came out of the timeout and had two pivotal digs. "Hats off to coach."

Gawlik, meanwhile, tipped his proverbial cap to Warners. 

"Hats off to Hannah; I don't think that can be understated," Gawlik said. "That's a player who's not in uniform tonight but changing the focus of a group."

The coach implemented the drill, and the players remembered it. 

As a result, the Chippewas' execution was near flawless in the late stages of the third set. Smith had two kills, and CMU took care of business in the fourth set and finished off its 10th-straight win. 

What started as a simple drill in practice turned into unfailing late-match confidence. 

This Chippewa team knew they weren't out of anything until the scoreboard said so.

And it was all because of practice.