If good things come in threes, the Cleveland State volleyball team could be in for a fun weekend.
The Vikings — led by three former Lorain County volleyball standouts — wrapped up their third straight Horizon League championship this season and with it the right to host the league’s tournament again today through Sunday at Woodling Gym.
CSU is looking for its third straight tournament title and the Horizon League’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The first round begins tonight, but the Vikings received a bye to the semifinals and will play their first match Saturday at 3 p.m. with the finals set for Sunday at 2 p.m.
“Winning this year would mean everything,” said senior Katie Mihalik, a former standout at Avon Lake and one of three area players on the squad.
“It’s great every single year, but (you want) to go out your senior year with a bang, and there’s no better feeling than winning that tournament and going to the NCAA.”
Mihalik, senior Alexis Middlebrooks and junior Mariah Carrero-Johnson, both Elyria alums, have been around for all three titles. The Vikings have a 71-20 record during that span, going 40-8 in the Horizon League.
It’s just the latest in a string of success for Cleveland State, which has won five regular-season championships in the last nine years.
“We make sure that we’re here all year round,” Middlebrooks said. “Coming in during the summer, working super, super hard and making sure that everyone new who comes into the program is aware of what it takes to reach our goals.”
Middlebrooks has put together another stellar season, earning first-team All-Horizon League honors for the third year in a row. She was the tournament MVP in both of CSU’s championships.
She enters the tournament with 1,082 career kills — the 16th Viking to achieve that mark — and needs 118 to crack the top 10 in program history. Middlebrooks is also the team’s top blocker, averaging 1.03 per set, 102 total, and is top five in school history in both blocks and block assists.
Both Carrero-Johnson and Mihalik play more sparingly than Middlebrooks, but each has made their mark. Mihalik, who was Lorain County’s Miss Volleyball in 2013, has appeared in 17 matches and 36 sets and has 40 kills, two assists, 13 digs and 13 blocks.
All those numbers are improvements over last year when she saw action in 12 sets with nine kills, no assists, two digs and two blocks.
Carrero-Johnson is right behind Middlebrooks with 0.94 blocks per set and her 46 blocks rank fourth on the team, both improvements over her sophomore year. She’s played in 49 sets and 16 matches, also recording 75 kills. Last year she had just 11 kills in 24 sets.
“The biggest thing for me was getting stronger mentally and physically in the summer and the fall,” Carrero-Johnson said. “I think my mental game helped me a lot both on and off the court.”
CSU will play the lowest remaining seed in the semifinals — either No. 6 Northern Kentucky if it upsets No. 3 IUPUI or the winner of No. 4 Green Bay and No. 5 UIC. Second-seeded Oakland received the other bye.
Regardless of the Vikings’ opponent, the road will not be easy. Two of CSU’s three league losses came in four sets to UIC and Oakland and their four combined wins against Green Bay, UIC and Oakland came in five sets.
Last season, CSU needed five sets in both its tournament matches — Oakland in the semifinals and Green Bay in the finals.
“Those hard games, win or loss, made us stronger, not just physically but mentally,” Mihalik said. “That’s prepared us to be mentally strong and tough in pressure situations. Whether it’s a final, a five set or three set, we’re going to be ready to compete at our highest level.”