All about depth: Where CMU volleyball stands at halfway point of season

CMU's volleyball team huddles around head coach Mike Gawlik during the team's Jan. 29 game against Kent State in McGuirk Arena.

CMU's volleyball team reached the halfway point of its 22-game Mid-American Conference season with a five-set victory against Akron on Feb. 25 in McGuirk Arena.

The Chippewas currently own a 7-5 after sweeping the series against Akron on Feb. 25-26 and sit in second place behind Western Michigan (7-5) in the MAC West standings. 

In the 2019 season, the Chippewas finished 11-5 in the MAC, winning the MAC West Division title for the second time in history. CMU went onto the MAC Tournament and in the semifinal to Bowling Green. 

When the season started, everything was uncertain. There were no nonconference games, no videos to review. Everyone was going in blind, and every match held equal importance.

The first match at Ohio was unique on all fronts: neither team had played in fourteen months, and the game split across two days due to a power outage. Nevertheless, CMU persevered and took the first victory of the season. 

On the same day of winning their first match, the Chippewas lost their first match, and went on to lose the next two — both at home to Kent State. 

Now 12 matches in, head coach Mike Gawlik knows his Chippewas are miles better than they were in the beginning. 

"As the season progresses you keep fiddling with your lineup and you're trying to find the right mix," Gawlik said after CMU's victory at Buffalo on Feb. 18. "That changes over time, those people get better, and that changes over time, those people struggle, and that's why we utilize our depth; to get people in to contribute to a team game."

Importance of depth

Gawlik believes creating depth within a team is incredibly important. His players need to be prepared for anything, as their chance to step on or off the court could be at any time.

The Chippewas' found several struggles in the beginning of the season. The toll of not playing for over a year contributed to injury problems within the program — leading to senior outside hitter Kalina Smith's early retirement — and a lot of unexpected lineup movement.

However, Gawlik and his team turned these setbacks into opportunity, challenging his players to step out of their comfort zone and try new areas of the court, creating depth across the board.

"We have to all be ready for opportunity," Gawlik said."We've utilized a lot of our bench, whether it's by stepping up in the practice gym and being ready for your moment when the time's come, if that's by injury or somebody in front of you struggling to find consistency. 

"Hopefully that's something that we've learned; it's a team game and we need everybody, you gotta be ready on any given night."

Closing it down

This season, CMU has excelled in taking sweeps; they are currently on a four-match winning streak with shutout victories over Buffalo and Akron, and swept Northern Illinois a few weeks prior. The team's only split victory is from their 1-1 series at Ohio for the first two matches of the season. 

Junior outside hitter Savannah Thompson said she loves the opportunity to play a team on back-to-back nights; especially at home to prevent another team from taking a match in McGuirk Arena. 

"Especially playing in the MAC, you never know what's going to happen," said junior outside hitter Savannah Thompson. "That's what I love; that's what I think the team loves about playing in the MAC, I think it's pretty rewarding when you beat a team 2-0 on a weekend."

According to statistics from the MAC, CMU is leads the MAC with 631 kills, second in blocks (104) and second in digs  (774). 

Thompson has 174 of those kills and leads the conference in both kills and points.

CMU also leads the conference in assists (567), primarily shared between senior setter Grace Butler & freshman setter Kamryn Olson who have 254 and 247, respectively. Both setters were named Co-Setters of the Week by the MAC for their performance against Akron on Feb. 25-26.

Looking ahead

The Chippewas begin the second half of their season with a difficult test. They will face off against Bowling Green on March 4 at 4 p.m. and March 5 at noon for a home-court battle in McGuirk Arena.

Since defeating CMU in the semifinal and losing in the championship to Ball State in 2019, Bowling Green stands tall and undefeated at 11-0. 

"I'm really excited to test out where we're at, there was a lot of growth in the first half of the season," Gawlik said. "Bowling Green coming in here (to McGuirk) is going to be an additional test for us to evolve. They don't have many glaring weaknesses. 

"They're coming into our building; it's our turn and we have to be ready."