Lindsay Gerber, CMUChippewas.com
OXFORD, Ohio – The Central Michigan volleyball team squandered a 2-0 lead in falling to Western Michigan on Thursday in a Mid-American Conference Tournament-opening match at Millett Hall on the campus of Miami (Ohio).
The Chippewas, who finished its season 15-14, took the first two sets, 25-21, 25-21, then fell, 22-25, 17-25, 8-15.
It was CMU’s first league-tournament appearance under second-year coach Mike Gawlik, and the program’s first since 2012.
“I loved our aggressiveness, energy and passion,” Gawlik said. “We went into the break (after the second set) and talked about our night not being over and having work to do, but I thought we took our foot off the gas pedal.
“We needed to be more aggressive and we let WMU build momentum and have hope. That’s the worst thing you can give the opponent being up 2-0. All in all, we fought hard, but we needed to fight smarter, but it’ll be a learning opportunity and a steppingstone for the program.”
Jordan Bueter led CMU with 19 kills and 19 digs. Paige Carey and Taylor Robertson added 11 kills apiece, while Courtney Hiltibran contributed a team-high 23 digs. All four are seniors who played their final match in a CMU uniform on Thursday.
“The seniors have had some big leadership moments while stepping up for us,” Gawlik said. “I have loved their ability to fight hard. Tonight, the seniors were the head for us.
“This team has grown as a group and pushed the program forward. I appreciated our senior class tonight in helping others buy in. Getting into the tournament is a step forward for this program and it’s something to be proud of.”
While the seniors played a big part, younger players also stepped up to the plate. Setter Grace Butler had 55 assists, while Kalina Smith added 11 kills and nine digs. Both are freshman.
“Next year the bar is set higher,” Gawlik said. “We’re going to be willing to work towards bigger goals than just getting in the tournament. We’ll keep the focus. Changing a culture takes time, but I’m proud of what we’ve done and I’m already eager to get started with the next group.”
Rachel Bontrager recorded 23 kills on a .388 attack percentage for Western Michigan (16-12), which will face Ball State in a tournament quarterfinal on Friday.
Central Michigan had the edge in team hitting-percentage, .230-.222
“We needed to handle the moment better,” Gawlik said. “We want to be aggressive and be that team that’s playing on our terms, but we let Western play on their terms and gain momentum.
“Unfortunately, this one stings, but anytime you face adversity, on the court or off, you have to learn. We’ll use this to be better. It stings to be up 2-0 and lose in this situation, but it’s even more important that we learn. It’s bigger than just our game.”