MAC volleyball teams vie for spot in NCAA Tournament


Kent State freshman outside hitter Kelsey Bittinger spikes the ball ay Bowling Green University during their final game of the regular season in the M.A.C. Center on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. The Flashes sent their senior class with a 3-1 win over the Falcons and will head to this weekend’s MAC Tournament as the No. 7 seed with a 16-13 overall record.

Jimmy Miller

At the beginning of the season, Kent State volleyball coach Don Gromala talked about changing the culture of Kent State volleyball. With perennial woes came six straight losing seasons and a Mid-American Conference Tournament win drought since 2007.

With an affirmative 3-2 victory over Bowling Green State University last weekend, the Flashes enter what could be the final weekend of their season with a guaranteed winning record; however, the chance to get Gromala’s first MAC Tournament victory in his three seasons as coach approaches Friday night versus the Eagles of Eastern Michigan.

“Our goal this year was getting better as the year progressed, and we definitely achieved that, but this is the ultimate test right now,” Gromala said. “It’s a great opportunity for the girls to make a statement about this program.”

The Eagles defeated the Flashes in three straight sets in the opening weekend of conference play, but the two teams have not faced each other since then. Gromala said a better disciplined defense this weekend and a more efficient offense could lead to a win.

“Looking at how much we’ve grown since we’ve played them, this should be a very even matchup across the board,” Gromala said.

Last season, Gromala made his first MAC Tournament appearance as Kent State’s coach, and the Flashes held the eighth and final seed. The team ultimately fell to top-seeded Ohio University, and the short trip came to an end.

Now a new bracket layout means the top two teams in the conference (Ohio and Northern Illinois) are off until Sunday’s semifinal match. The third and fourth seeds (Miami and Ball State) will play the winners of Friday’s matches in the quarterfinals.

Kent State holds the seventh seed this season, and the Eagles come in with the sixth.

Graphic by Abdul Almahaimedy

“The reason why we chose it was to protect the higher seeds so we can get the most teams as we can in the NCAA Tournament,” Gromala said. “I think it makes the first and second round matches a little bit more exciting. It gives the top seeds a break, but it also gives the lower seeds an advantage to gain some momentum.”

The Flashes bring a balanced offense to the court, with senior outside hitter Tinuke Aderemi-Ibitola leading the way with 298 kills this season. Freshman outside hitter Kelsey Bittinger will get her first taste of the conference tournament, and she averages 2.52 kills per set.

Freshman libero Challen Geraghty, who holds the school record for most digs as a freshman, will anchor the Kent State defense, fortified by senior defensive specialist Kaylee Koller and junior defensive specialist Sarah Mills.

The middle blockers — senior Liz Reikow and junior Bridget Wilhelm — prove important to the offense, combining for 218 blocks this season. Freshman setter Brittney Jakscht looks to pace the offense in her first conference tournament match, averaging 9.13 assists per set despite splitting time with senior setter Jenny Buczek.

The tournament’s eight teams will all bring something different to the court this weekend in Athens, but it is likely only one — the conference champion — will punch its ticket as NCAA Tournament.

Breaking down the MAC Tournament by seed

Ohio University (23-4, 16-0 MAC)

The Bobcats appear to be on path to dominate the Mid-American Conference yet again. After dismantling Kent State in three sets during their quarterfinal bout last year, current junior libero Meredith Ashy led the Bobcats to their eighth MAC title and earned tournament MVP honors.

Enter first-year coach Deane Webb, and the Bobcats look poised to run the table. Ohio gets to play host to the tournament, which Webb said will definitely benefit his team.

“We play much better at home than we do on the road,” Webb said. “That’s been the case for most of the year. We’re definitely thankful the 2013 team and coaching staff won the regular season and allowed us to host this year.”

The Bobcats offense showcases some of the conference’s best players, particularly in junior setter Abby Gilleland, the MAC Player of the Year. Senior outside hitter Kelly Lamberti finished the regular season with 397 kills and sits third in the school history for kills per set (3.60).

Webb said the team’s experience will prove important for the team’s success in the tournament, but staying focused is pivotal.

“Everybody goes into the tournament 0-0,” Webb said. “It’s just a matter of can we switch from regular season success to finding new success in the tournament

Northern Illinois (21-9, 14-2 MAC)

Seeking to avenge a loss to Ohio in last year’s semifinals, the Huskies return senior outside hitter Mackenzie Roddy to the tournament. This season, Roddy averages 4.25 kills per set and owns 1,037 in her career. Despite this, coach Ray Gooden said the team takes the most pride in the balance of his squad.

“It’s not just one person or two people…that can provide offense for us when we need it,” Gooden said. “Playing cleaner volleyball…is the biggest thing for us. We’re really working on cleaning up our game so we can play our best volleyball at the end of the year here.”

The team wants to forget their final regular bout—a home loss to Eastern Michigan, a definite underdog in that match—as the team waits until the semifinal round on Sunday to play in the tournament. Gooden said the rest the new bracket layout provides is good for his squad.

“It keeps things pretty consistent for the year,” Gooden said. “It’s a potential two-match situation for us. It’s all about getting to December.”

Miami University (19-9, 12-4 MAC)

After a two-year absence from the Mid-American Conference tournament, the Redhawks bring a team to the tournament that exceeded preseason expectations. In the Ohio-dominated MAC East, coaches picked Miami to finish fourth in the division.

Now, they’re third in the entire conference, and play the winner of the Eastern Michigan and Kent State match Saturday. Coach Carolyn Condit said her squad is young, but eager to prove themselves.

“I think we have a tough road ahead whether we play Kent or Eastern,” Condit said. “I think one of our biggest strengths is how talented we are within the court in terms of spreading the ball around to different hitters that can be effective.”

The Redhawks also entered their final match riding a 10-match win streak, but the squad hopes a 3-0 finale loss to Ohio doesn’t deter their confidence.

“Because we’re half-young and half-experienced, we’re still trying to get our team to run like a well-oiled machine,” Condit said. “(The players) are a very competitive, motivated group, and they’ve been very special in that way.”

Jordan Rinard, volleyball beat reporter for The Miami Student: “They do a really good job of moving their offense…Their strength is in their setting and ball movement… Our middles and right side have been solid all season long, but our left side has been inconsistent at times…We do have an inexperienced back row…Their nine-game win streak (was) their longest since 2007.” 

Ball State (17-12, 11-5 MAC)

While it is true coach Steve Shondell said his Cardinals lost some experience last season (Ball State graduated five seniors last year, including a stud offensive option in outside hitter Mindy Marx), he believes this team has improved every week.

“I knew we were going to have to replace some experience,” Shondell said. “If someone would have told me, ‘would you be satisfied going 11-5?’ I probably would’ve taken that in a heartbeat. With the league as strong as it is, I’m really very satisfied with that because you can’t replace experience.”

Junior and senior middle blockers Hayley Benson and Kelly Hopkins pose physical threats at the net, accounting for roughly 40 percent of the team’s kills and 72 percent of the team’s blocks this season. Shondell said the progress of freshman outside hitter Sabrina Mangapora has helped the team this season, as her offensive development has led to 275 kills on the season. Junior Alex Fuelling, listed on Ball State’s athletic website as an outside hitter, leads the team defensively with 381 digs.

Ultimately, Shondell said getting more balance from the offense will determine how the Cardinals turn out this weekend.

“We’ve been giving the ball to all of our players fairly equally, and it’s just a matter of those girls finding ways to put the ball away,” Shondell said. “Those girls have to be able to manufacture some kills for us, and if they do, we become pretty good.”

Jake Fox, volleyball beat reporter for The Ball State Daily: “They went through a pretty heavy and tough tournament schedule at the beginning of the year…They were battle tested early, and I think that prepared them for MAC play…(Coach Shondell) is just real personable with the girls and I think he does a great job of game planning…They’ve got a bunch of hitters and they’re pretty deep, and so having the luxury of every match, someone different can step up, I think that’s an advantage…The thing I’ve noticed is sometimes they have a tendency to get off to a slow start, and sometimes their transition between the second set seems to be a little off…Overall, they’ve been more consistent as the year went on.”

 Western Michigan (18-13, 9-7 MAC)

To say freshman middle blocker Sydney LeMay had a steep learning curve is an understatement: The MAC Freshman of the Year is third on the team in kills while leading the squad in blocks and blocks per set.

LeMay is just a snapshot of the entire youthful squad, whereas only three of the players are seniors, including redshirt senior Ali Gossen and senior Claire Gerwig, who only managed two matches this season due to torn ligaments in her left ankle. Even still, coach Collen Munson has found a formula for success with her inexperienced group.

Sophomore outside hitter Alysia Beznik leads the offense with 361 kills and sits third on the team in digs at 343. Meanwhile, freshman Sierra Hubbard-Neil, listed on the team’s website as an outside hitter, leads the program in digs with 434.

Eastern Michigan (18-12, 9-7 MAC)

What some may deem a miracle run for the Eagles in 2013 is just taking care of business for coach Kim Berrington. After toppling the University of Toledo and Western Michigan (both seeded higher than the Eagles), Berrington’s squad fell to Ohio University in three sets during the championship round.

Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, and those who ignore the Eagle’s passing game will also be doomed. Senior Jill Briner ranked fourth in the conference with 1058 assists all season on her way to earning All-MAC honors.

“We like to spread the ball around,” Berrington said. “I think having a senior setter in Jill Briner understanding what we’re trying to do, she’s kind of been pivotal for our success offensively.”

On paper, the potential for a déjà vu seems fairly possible. A first-round draw with Kent State, whom they defeated earlier this season in straight sets, appears to set the Eagles up with Miami on Saturday. After that, Eastern Michigan would play Northern Illinois, the team they beat on the road to conclude the regular season.

“Our biggest thing is that there are nights where we just have way too many attacking errors,” Berrington said. “We have to make our opponent, Kent State, earn their points. Limiting our attack errors is big for us.”

Kent State (16-13, 8-8 MAC)

It’s too bad the conference tournament isn’t being played in the M.A.C. Center: In Don Gromala’s tenure as Kent State’s coach, the Flashes have gone 19-15 when playing at home, including a 9-3 mark this season. All three losses came to the top three seeds of the tournament.

However, playing in Athens hasn’t exactly boded well for the team. Kent State hasn’t won a road match against the Bobcats under Gromala, and has only taken one of ten sets played in Athens.

But this doesn’t mean Kent State is panicking, especially since none of those losses came to anyone other than the Bobcats. Additionally, Gromala said the team is playing some of their most confident volleyball of the season.

“We’re going to be playing confident,” Gromala said. “I guess it’s going to come down to our girls just being in the moment, not (letting) the idea of it being the MAC tournament…and I think we’ll be okay.”

The Flashes feature two seniors who made the All-MAC Second Team: outside hitter Tinuke Aderemi-Ibitola and middle blocker Liz Reikow. Meanwhile, All-Freshman libero Challen Geraghty anchors the back row.

“It could possibly be our last weekend of competing, so we want to show what’s going to be our best volleyball,” Gromala said. “I think we’ve had a decent week of practice so far, and the girls have been focused. I think we’re ready.”

University at Buffalo (16-14, 6-10 MAC)

The Bulls’ record doesn’t jump off the page, but junior outside hitter Tahleia Bishop’s statistics might. Averaging four kills a set in conference play, Bishop finished with All-MAC First Team honors last season, the first Buffalo player to earn the honor in the program’s history. Despite some injury issues this season, Bishop repeated the honor in 2014.

Coach Reed Sunahara credits Bishop for her work on offense, but believes the team has more to offer than just an offensive stalwart.

“I think we had our ups and downs this season, but I think we try to play together and play for each other,” Sunahara said. “I think that’s kind of coming into our own right now.”

Junior outside hitter Megan Lipski notched 259 kills this year, while junior middle blocker Akeila Lain managed 217 kills and 106 blocks. All-Freshman middle blocker Cassie Shado will also provoke issues at the net, as her first regular season campaign as a Bull ended with 121 kills and 75 blocks.

“We’ve just got to get better every day, every time you step on the court,” Sunahara said. “We’re excited to be in the tournament…and whoever gets hot will win.”

Quentin Haynes, volleyball beat reporter for The Spectrum (Student newspaper at Buffalo): “I don’t want to say (Bishop) is the entire offense, but she’s pretty much 75 percent of the offense. She’s like a satellite for that offense. They revolve around her. She does a great job of getting kills and allowing other players to get a little bit of an advantage being on the court, like Lipski and Lain…They will lose this Friday if their mental mistakes continue to creep up. When they’re on, they’re pretty good…This team definitely has the pieces to be a solid team. I’m really shocked they just barely made (the MAC tournament).”

Contact Jimmy Miller at [email protected].