Mike Gawlik talks expectations, focus and 'blazing their own path' as volleyball prepares for season

The Central Michigan volleyball team celebrates a point gained against opponent Penn State at McGuirk Arena Saturday, Oct. 5.

In the 2019 season, volleyball head coach Mike Gawlik led CMU's volleyball team to the top of the Mid-American Conference West Division and to the semifinal of the MAC tournament championship. 

This year, he hopes to lead the Chippewas to the title. 

When the MAC postponed the fall season due to COVID-19 in August, there were a lot of uncertainties on what would happen in the spring. However, Gawlik and his team flipped those uncertainties into positive outlooks -- more time to practice, more time to prepare and more time to play together. 

That extra time is looking to pay off. After not having played real opponents in fourteen months, the Chippewas' volleyball team are excited to open the season. 

“It hasn’t been without its challenges and it hasn’t been without its bumps along the way, but we’re really excited to finally compete against somebody else," Gawlik said. "Though this season will look different for everybody, they’re going to give a trophy out at the end of the year. ... We want to fight for it."

Getting back in the gym

Shortly after the MAC announced the postponement of fall sports, athletic administrators at CMU were doing as much as possible to get teams back to practice. Until that point, Gawlik and his staff worked through the restrictions. 

The team held meetings over Zoom to maintain the bond, and, as soon as they were allowed to, the team was practicing outside before finally being able to return indoors.  

Gawlik said that as everyone got familiar with and used to the slight change of environment, the focus was ready to begin shifting from adjusting to COVID-19 safety to learning how to improve and push to be even better than they were before, especially with the time missed. 

"We’re just trying to remind them (players) of where we ended, what our goals were, how we felt when we exceled and how we felt in that moment when we fell short, and use both of them as motivation to say, 'Let’s get back to work,'" Gawlik said. 

Handling expectations

CMU stood out as a strong team and added a lot of experience to their reputation after the 2019 season, where they won the MAC West Division for the first time in over 15 years -- a huge goal of Gawlik and his team's.

This season, they plan to push beyond and win the MAC Tournament as well as the regular season. However, there will be no nonconference matches, making for a more intense campaign. 

Gawlik said that the team that plays the most consistently will be the team that sits at the top, which does not mean that perfection is necessary, but teams should respond to playing poorly the same as they do when playing well.

"I try to make sure that our team understand that there’s no way we go where we say we want to go without having expectations put on us," Gawlik said. "This is what we signed up for and this is what we want. We’re going to take a deep breath, and when our heart beats a little faster we’re going to take that deep breath, slow it down, and we’re going to do it anyway."

Lessons learned 

Gawlik and his team had a remarkable season in 2019, where they managed to hold a 12-game winning streak in the middle of the season until they took a 3-2 loss against Miami. 

Despite going 21-9 overall and Gawlik being named MAC Coach of the Year, Gawlik said there are always lessons to learn. 

This season, Gawlik is placing a larger emphasis on focus. Despite being picked first in the MAC West Division poll, the result is going to be what matters the most to the team's reputation, not the prediction. 

CMU will continue its practice of staying in the moment to maintain focus. The Chippewas would discuss the game and team they were going to face off against, and viewed the game as a chance to go "1-0." 

Though the strategy worked at the beginning of the season, the team took a bit of a stumble and lost sight of it late in the season. 

"I thought we got too caught up in what we were hoping, that other teams might clear a path for us instead of blazing our own path, we didn’t need anybody’s help -- and lesson learned," Gawlik said. "I think we’re going to be better served because of that."

Season opener

CMU is set to open the season at 1 p.m. Friday against Ohio in Athens. 

The Bobcats were selected to finish third in the MAC East and swept the match over CMU at home last season. Ohio then later lost in the MAC Tournament quarterfinals against Ball State.

Gawlik said Ohio is one of the stronger teams, similar to his team, and is excited to open the season against the Bobcats. He said the Chippewas are not miles ahead of anyone in the league, rather, are amongst several teams that show equal strength. 

"I feel like right off the bat we are playing a tough team on their home floor and we haven’t played in fourteen months, but neither have they," Gawlik said. "The team that handles that the best is going to put themselves in a real good spot."

Here is the entire schedule for CMU's volleyball team:

Jan. 22-23 -- at Ohio
Jan. 28-29 -- KENT STATE
Feb. 11-12 -- at Western Michigan
Feb. 18-19 -- at Buffalo
Feb. 25-26 -- AKRON
March 4-5 -- BOWLING GREEN
March 12-13 -- at Toledo
March 19-20 -- at Ball State
March 23 -- at Eastern Michigan
March 26-27 -- MIAMI (OHIO)