Instant contributor Lisbeth Rosario-Martinez's journey from Santo Domingo to Mount Pleasant
The ball made its way over the net.
Ball State put it in the air, preparing to send the ball back to the Chippewas.
The score was 25-24 in favor of Central Michigan in the third set of a pivotal matchup within the Mid-American Conference. The Chippewas needed just one point to take their second set victory of the night.
The Cardinals got the ball over the net, but it was soon set back.
Junior middle blocker Lisbeth Rosario-Martinez pushed the other way, finishing the set with a thunderous block. She was quickly surrounded by her teammates, who rushed to celebrate the big play.
The Chippewas went on to win the fourth set to finish the match, and Rosario-Martinez finished with 16 kills, but what happened after the game is just as important.
Martinez spoke to the media for the first time. While she was nervous and didn't say much, what she did say was extremely impactful.
"I just love the campus, the coaches, the players," she said. "I really like the team. I love them."
It’s just one example of the strides that the junior from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic has taken since leaving her home country’s national team two years ago. She’s grown not only as a player, but as a person.
Becoming a force on the court while quickly becoming a leader off it, she has quickly settled in with her new teammates in her first season with Central Michigan.
‘A great team player’
From 2013-17, Rosario-Martinez was a fixture within the Dominican Republic’s national team and developmental program. At that time, she was part of a team that finished 17th in the FIVB U18 World Championships in 2015, as well as a team that won the 2014 U18 NORCECA Championship.
After moving on from the national team and graduating from San Pablo Apostol, Rosario-Martinez found her way to Arizona Western Community College. She quickly integrated herself into the system and was excelling in no time.
“Lisbeth made her starting debut at a tournament in Las Vegas when our starting middle blocker was injured,” said coach Lorayne Chandler, who is in her fifth season with the Matadors. “She earned the role of starting middle blocker and never looked back.
“She killed it."
Rosario-Martinez spent one season with the Matadors, earning multiple player of the week accolades as well as earning a spot on the NJCAA D1 All-Region team. She led her team with 81 blocks, with 27 of them being solo blocks. Her 184 kills on the season ranked second on the team.
Chandler recalled Rosario-Martinez often wagging a finger as she recorded a big block.
Although her background was different from many of her teammates, Rosario-Martinez quickly asserted herself as a leader for Arizona Western.
“With her energetic personality she learned how to get a laugh out of her teammates even at the toughest times,” Chandler said.
Chandler also remembered Rosario-Martinez creating a catchphrase by humorously remarking, “it’s too early for this,” during early morning lifting sessions. The phrase caught on with her teammates, and soon the entire squad was using it naturally.
However, for all the volleyball success, what Chandler remembered most was her development.
Finding a new home
Rosario-Martinez knew very little English when she walked into Arizona Western. English was not her native language; therefore, it took some time for her to adjust. According to Chandler, she was timid about speaking to prospective coaches because of her uncertainty with the language.
“We coached her to ask for clarification and even told her to be brave and ask the coach to slow down if she could not understand everything they were saying to her,” Chandler said. “She was always so nervous about understanding four-year coaches.”
Toward the end of the volleyball season, it was time for Rosario-Martinez to begin looking for a new home. Her time was up at Arizona Western, and based on her talent, there was likely a spot for her at a four-year university.
The middle blocker was looking for a home.
Turns out, home was looking for a middle blocker.
Central Michigan coach Mike Gawlik and his assistant Matt DePauw were on the recruiting trail in search of a veteran presence when they came across Rosario-Martinez. They were intrigued by her savvy style of play, as well as her background with the Dominican Republic national team.
After the two parties engaged in multiple Skype calls, they agreed for Rosario-Martinez to come to Mount Pleasant for a visit.
When Rosario-Martinez visited Central Michigan, both Gawlik and Chandler hoped for the best. Gawlik was hoping she would be a good fit for his team, while Chandler was looking for a school that would take care of a player she cared so much about.
The result was a perfect match. The Chippewas willingly embraced her.
“Our athletes loved her,” Gawlik said of when Rosario-Martinez visited.
With Rosario-Martinez’s home being so far away, some difficulties were predictable. However, Gawlik noted that his players all embrace each other, so helping Rosario-Martinez adjust wasn't expected to be a problem.
Everyone wanted her to be a Chippewa.
When Chandler picked up her former middle blocker from the airport, Rosario-Martinez was armed with a smile and a story to tell.
“She was so excited to tell me all about the trip and the campus, as well as the coaches and the players,” Chandler said.
Chandler fondly remembers the next part, an example of a moment every coach hopes to experience with a player.
“Coach, you know what the best part was?” Chandler recalled Rosario-Martinez asking her. "I understood everything they told me, and I talked so good in English."
In just one year, she had come that far.
Heading to Central Michigan, her confidence mimicked the activity of the plane she had just exited.
It was skyrocketing.
“I’m so, so proud of her,” Chandler said.
'A very spontaneous, fun-spirited person'
Just the mention of Rosario-Martinez’s name brings out a smile in her teammates.
“We love Beba,” said junior outside hitter Kalina Smith, referring to a nickname the team has given her. “She’s a very spontaneous, fun-spirited person, which really adds to the dynamic of our team."
And it's not just Smith that speaks highly of the junior middle blocker.
“She’s such a good teammate,” said senior libero Megan Kern. “She gets along with everyone and works really, really hard.”
Rosario-Martinez wasted no time becoming a factor in the Chippewa attack. She immediately jumped into the starting lineup as a middle blocker to give her team consistency night in and night out.
In the win over Ball State, her 16 kills were a career-high mark. It was a big night for the entire team, as the win gave them a two-game lead in the MAC West Division.
But the step she took after the game was just as big.
Rosario-Martinez stepped into the media room, and almost immediately stepped back out. In what was an understandably uncomfortable situation for her, she almost didn’t speak to the media.
However, at the encouragement of Gawlik and Smith, Rosario-Martinez eventually sat down at the media table. Again, it wasn't much, but she spoke fluently and confidently.
It was impressive.
She has been splendid in every way since donning the maroon and gold, providing the veteran presence a young Chippewa team needs. Gawlik considers himself fortunate to have her on the roster.
“She’s a really great addition to our program,” he said. “She gives us some experience that we needed for this year.”
With the Chippewas at top of the MAC standings, its safe to say Rosario-Martinez has exerted an influence on the rest of her team to this point of the season.
The game of volleyball has taken her through two countries, languages and cultures. It's an experience that most can only dream of. She’s done all of this before her 21st birthday.
Rosario-Martinez is currently thousands of miles from where her volleyball journey began.
The emotions hit her quickly during her visit, but she knew right away she belonged as a Chippewa.
It was about more than just volleyball.
"I felt like I was at home," Rosario-Martinez said, "with my family."