Volleyball clinches share of division title with come-from-behind victory over Toledo

Junior middle blocker Lisbeth Rosario-Martinez goes up for an attack against Penn State in McGuirk Arena Saturday, Oct. 5.

A year after finishing with a 7-21 record on the season, the Central Michigan volleyball team has clinched at least a share of the Mid-American Conference West Division championship. 

The Chippewas rode a balanced attack, one that saw three players have double-digit kills, to a comeback victory on the road over Toledo. 

After dropping the third set, 25-16, Central Michigan won the fourth and fifth sets to take the match and a share of their first division title since 2003. 

"Going from being picked fourth in the West to clinching a share of the title is rewarding," said coach Mike Gawlik, who is in his fourth year with the program. "We're not done yet."

Junior middle blocker Lisbeth Rosario-Martinez contributed a match-high 15 kills while her sophomore positional counterpart Maddie Whitfield had 14. Junior outside hitter Kalina Smith had 12 kills but hit just .038. 

"They were driving hard to be a constant threat," Gawlik said. "Our middles were crushing it tonight."

The Chippewas hit just .118 as a team Friday night, their second-lowest percentage on the season. However, their 97 digs as a team made up for the struggles. Senior libero Megan Kern had 24 while sophomore Savannah Thompson tied her career-high with 23. 

"They set the tone with their grit on the defensive side of the ball," Gawlik said. "It wasn't just the quantity of their digs, but the quality that put us in a position to counter-attack."

Sophomore setter Kendall Braate returned from injury and made an impact, contributing a team-high 24 assists while also pitching in 14 digs. Her setting counterpart, junior Grace Butler, had 22 assists and 11 digs. Butler had two kills while Braate had just one. 

"Kendall opens up opportunities for a few people to get on the court to help us out in the 6-2 offense," Gawlik said of Braate. "It was good to get her back."

Central Michigan also got a spark from its bench, as junior outside hitter Megan Sivertsen contributed six kills while sophomore outside hitter Sierra Gray contributed four. 

Defensively, the Chippewas were led by Whitfield's three blocks. CMU limited Toledo to just a .174 hitting percentage. While senior middle blocker Zoe Birnbrich and redshirt freshman outside hitter Liz Beasley hit above .400, the Rockets did not have another hitter above .250. 

The Chippewas have a chance to clinch the MAC West outright when they square off with Ball State on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Cardinals defeated Eastern Michigan, 3-1, and remain one game back in the standings heading into the final game of the regular season.

"I think they bring some really good balance and have been playing really well as of late," Gawlik said of the Cardinals. "We need to be ready for a street fight."

Should the Chippewas win Saturday, they would need a Miami (Ohio) loss to clinch the No. 1 seed heading into the MAC Tournament next week in Bowling Green, Ohio. 

Should Miami wins its final match at home against Western Michigan, the Chippewas would clinch the No. 2 seed with a win.