CLEVELAND — Alexis Middlebrooks capped her final outing at Woodling Gymnasium with the most important kill of the match.
It just happened to be the one that allowed Cleveland State to clinch its third straight Horizon League Tournament title.
The Elyria High grad crushed a shot into two defenders, who deflected it out of bounds and the Vikings came away with a 25-22, 25-16, 25-21 win over Green Bay on Sunday.
“It’s just as special as the other ones, but for this one it’s my senior year,” Middlebrooks said. “Knowing that we led these guys, that we got here three times in a row … it’s amazing.
“This place, this school, this team is everything to me. There’s no place like home. It’s bittersweet, but there’s no better way that I would rather finish it up.”
Three straight tournament titles means the Vikings (22-7) will be making their third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The draw will take place Sunday, Nov. 26, at 9 p.m. on ESPNU. Cleveland State will more than likely be sent on the road for the opening rounds given that it currently ranks 75th in RPI, making Sunday’s final the last home match for Middlebrooks and fellow senior Katie Mihalik — who played volleyball at Avon Lake and was the 2013 Lorain County Miss Volleyball.
The pair has helped lead Cleveland State to a 73-20 record over the last three years, sweeping the Horizon League regular-season and tournament championships during that span. The program is making its fifth appearance in the NCAA Tournament, all since 2007.
“It seems like every year gets more and more special,” said Mihalik, who did not play in the final, but did record a kill in the semifinals against Northern Kentucky on Saturday.
“This place has meant everything. It’s a great program, a great place to be. I’ve loved my four years here.”
While Middlebrooks didn’t win tournament MVP for a third straight season — that honor went to CSU’s Sara Skeens — she did make an impact with nine kills, six blocks — five assisted — and four digs.
Her best moment came just outside of the gate in the third set when she scored four of the first five points in helping the Vikings build a 5-1 lead. Middlebrooks slammed two kills to open the set and then went up for an assisted block for the first three points.
After Green Bay (15-15) scored to make it 4-1, Middlebrooks sent another thunderous kill across the net to push the lead back to four. That’s when Skeens took over — scoring three kills and a block to give the Vikings a 10-3 lead.
The Phoenix rallied to come within three points on five occasions, taking back the serve at 24-21. But Middlebrooks ended the match on the next point. She actually had the clinching point in all three sets — a forceful kill in the first and a block in the second.
Last year the Vikings built a 2-0 lead against Green Bay in the final, only to watch the Phoenix force a Game 5.
“We were winning Game 3,” Middlebrooks said. “We came out and we weren’t going to give them a chance, not a lick of hope. We came out, played our game, and that was it. We had a very good talk in between sets and we all talked about coming out and shutting them down. Just keep things rolling.”
Like Mihalik, Mariah Carrero-Johnson — another former Elyria High standout — did not play in the final, but recorded three kills Saturday against Northern Kentucky. She and her fellow juniors are 3-for-3 in the tournament.
“There’s no words to explain it,” she said. “It’s a great feeling every year, winning it freshman, sophomore and junior year, it makes me so excited for my senior year.”
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