Chippewas enter final weekend with chance to win MAC West Division title
At the beginning of the season, coach Mike Gawlik was asked if he thought his team could win the Mid-American Conference.
"I don't know," he replied.
Having reached the final weekend of the regular season, Gawlik has put the team in a position to secure the first regular season Mid-American Conference West Division championship for Central Michigan since 2003.
"It would be big for the program," he said. "Our goals for the year supersede that but you need to win the west before you can win the league."
To do so, the Chippewas will need to win at least one game throughout their two-game weekend slate. They travel to Toledo on Friday, then face Ball State the next night. The Cardinals are a game behind the Chippewas in the standings, so the conference title may be decided in Saturday's contest.
But before CMU can turn its attention to the contest that will decide the MAC West, it must first focus on the Rockets, who come into the matchup on a two-game winning streak. Their victories over Western Michigan and Northern Illinois last weekend were their first two conference triumphs of the season.
"Toledo's a team that's got a lot better," Gawlik said. "They went to a 6-2 exclusively and found two matches, so they're on the upswing."
When these two teams met back on Oct. 12, the Chippewas won the match at home in five sets. Sophomore outside hitter Savannah Thompson led the team in kills with 16, while junior middle blocker Lisbeth Rosario-Martinez contributed 15.
"We're expecting them to fight hard," said freshman outside hitter Anna Erickson of the Rockets.
"They've been gaining momentum," added redshirt freshman Lacey Juengel.
Toledo is led by senior middle blocker Zoe Birnbrich, who is 10th in the conference in hitting percentage at .323. Birnbirch had a match-high 18 kills in the first matchup between these two teams.
"Zoe Birnbrich is a pretty elite level player within this league," Gawlik said.
The match with the Rockets is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. Friday in Savage Arena.
A win over the Rockets and a loss by the Cardinals, would clinch the MAC West for CMU on Friday night. However, a Ball State victory would mean Saturday night's contest would be for the division title.
The Chippewas beat the Cardinals in four sets when the two teams met on Oct. 11. Four Chippewas had double-digit kills and they had 92 digs as a team.
The Cardinals are paced offensively by freshman outside hitter Natalie Risi, who is ninth in the conference in kills per set. Risi had just six kills the last time these two squads met up.
CMU's match against the Cardinals is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. Saturday in Worthen Arena.
Should the Chippewas sweep the weekend and win the MAC West outright, they would hold the No. 2 seed in next week's MAC Tournament and would play their first game Nov. 23 in Bowling Green, Ohio.
"You can't win the league before you win the West," Gawlik said. "It's not the end of the journey, but it's a step we'd like to take."