COLUMN: CMU Volleyball will shock the MAC
Fresh faces on the court and bench are common signs of a program in flux. To some, Central Michigan volleyball fits that mold.
But as the season progresses, it is beginning to seem that any team with Mid-American Conference championship aspirations will have to prove its worthiness to wear the crown in Mount Pleasant.
However, entering the season, that was not the case. Preseason projections had the Chippewas firmly out of contention and on a sinking ship headed to the bottom of the MAC.
With star outside hitter Savannah Thompson, key setter Grace Butler, and head coach Mike Gawlik’s entire coaching moving on to new opportunities, the predictions seemed spot on.
Although they based their projections on the previous season, I think the “experts” overlooked one key detail. Gawlik’s ability to build a roster.
Following the 2021 season, the Chippewas roster lost eight seniors.
However, through six games, CMU already has teams in the MAC sweating as Gawlik’s squad has shaken back from an abysmal 13-17 overall record in 2021. But why?
In short, outside hitter Mallory Hernandez.
Transferring from Georgia, Hernandez has dominated in the Maroon and Gold during the team’s tournament schedule.
Coming off a down senior year with the Bulldogs, where she finished with 12 kills, Hernandez came to CMU looking to prove she is not washed. Her message is being heard loud and clear, as she has compiled 89 kills, 22 digs and 14 blocks in six games.
There is no doubt that Hernandez, one of three seniors on the team, has been a key piece for the Chippewas. But Gawlik’s efforts on the recruiting trail cannot be understated.
Of the six freshmen Gawlik brought to Mount Pleasant, the standout has been Poland-born Natalia Rejment. In her brief time as a Chippewa, Rejment has shown promise all over the court, recording 54 kills, 47 digs and 11 service aces.
I can already hear people saying, “But, Sean, adding new players doesn’t mean that anything has changed with the team's mindset.”
However, those people are wrong.
At this point in 2021, CMU had been swept in straight sets twice. While that was not a point of concern at 4-2, as the season played out, the Chippewas struggled to battle back from deficits.
CMU's only loss so far came at the hands of Nicholls in a five-set brawl. Outside of that, the Chippewas have only dropped three sets compared to three sweeps thus far. In every set beside those, Gawlik’s squad has shown aggression in the face of adversity. Including battling back from a 2-0 deficit to win against Memphis.
In 2021, when CMU was forced to call a timeout to combat an opposing run, oftentimes it came out of the huddle flat and allowed teams to close the door. That mindset is a thing of the past for the Chippewas, as they’ve consistently overwhelmed opponents following timeouts.
And to top it off, CMU has not played inside the friendly confines of McGuirk Arena. Gawlik and company will finally return to Mount Pleasant when they open their conference schedule against projected MAC West Division champion Ball State on Friday, Sept. 23 at 6 p.m.
Before then, the Chippewas face their toughest test of the season at the 2022 Bulldog Brawl. Starting on Sept. 16, CMU will compete against Notre Dame (1-4), Missouri (4-2), and Butler (4-2).
If the Chippewas can pick up two wins during that tournament, the confidence in their locker room could lead to a shocking opening weekend of MAC play.