By Mike Ashcraft
ATHENS, Ohio -- The Ohio volleyball team (14-14, 8-6 MAC) looks to finish the 2017 regular season strong when it plays host to Mid-American Conference East Division rival Kent State (5-20, 3-11 MAC) on Thursday (Nov. 9) and West Division foe Central Michigan (15-11, 7-7 MAC) on Saturday (Nov. 11). Both matches are set to get underway at 7 p.m. ET and will be streamed live on ESPN3, with 'Voice of Ohio volleyball' Jake Hromada and Gabe Genovesi on the call.
The Bobcats will be looking to lock down a top-four seed heading into the 2017 MAC Volleyball Championship, which is set to be held Nov. 16-19 at Millett Hall in Oxford, Ohio. Ohio is currently in fourth place in the league standings with an 8-6 conference record, sitting behind Miami (11-3), Bowling Green (11-3) and Ball State (9-5). Earning a top-four seed would guarantee Ohio a bye to the second round of the tournament next Friday (Nov. 17), putting the Bobcats three wins away from capturing the league tournament title and the MAC's automatic bid to the 2017 NCAA Championship field.
In addition to the conference tournament implications, this weekend will also be significant for the Bobcats as they celebrate the career of the team's lone departing senior -- middle blocker Ali Lake (Liberty Township, Ohio).
Lake has played 91 matches and 311 sets over her five-year career as a Bobcat, which began with a redshirt freshman season in 2013 under former head coach Ryan Theis. She has tallied 585 kills (1.88 per set), 161 total blocks (22 solo, 139 assisted; 0.52 per set) and 112 digs (0.36 per set). Lake has recorded double-digit kills 20 times in her career and has posted five or more total blocks on six occasions. Her best season as a Bobcat came as a redshirt junior in 2016. She garnered First Team All-MAC honors after ranked third on the team with a career-high 293 kills (2.69 per set) and second with 50 total blocks (six solo, 44 assisted; 0.46 per set). She recorded double-digit kills a career-high 16 times last season. Lake also earned a spot on the 2016 All-MAC Championship Team after posting 19 kills (3.17 per set) and two assisted blocks (0.33 per set) over two matches in the league tournament.
"We're looking forward to honoring her on Saturday," said fourth-year head coach Deane Webb of Lake. "She has had an interesting journey. She had some injuries early on, an ACL. Ali's first day cleared from an ACL, to be back on the court fully cleared to play, was my first day here as a coach. There was just so much uncertainty at that point. She improved and did some things and improved that next year. Then, you get to play that first fall. Hannah (Burkle) was on the right. Got to play the next year and got to be a starter but wasn't a huge impact player in 2015 but was on a team that won a conference championship. And, then, 2016, plays her best volleyball and becomes a first team all-conference player."
Lake has battled through injuries during much of her 2017 season campaign, limiting her to 88 kills (1.22 per set) and 31 total blocks (four solo, 27 assisted; 0.43 per set). She has not played in six of the last eight matches. However, she has embodied the selfless spirit of the Ohio volleyball team this year by embracing a new role as a team mentor from the bench.
"This year obviously hasn't gone the way that she would have hoped," said Webb. "I think we all know that, but that doesn't take anything away from the career she's had as an individual or the wisdom she still gives to our team and the experience that she offers when you're talking to a team where there's one person who is playing right now that has ever played a point of postseason volleyball. To have someone that has that type of experience and knows what it takes -- she goes to the conference tournament last year and she's the one member of our team to make the all-tournament team -- that's very, very valuable. We want to honor her for what she's giving to our team now, what she's given to our school throughout her career. She definitely deserves that."
Lake, who has been a part of two MAC tournament championship squads in 2013 and '15, wants to do her part to help the Bobcats return to the national postseason stage as she closes out her collegiate career.
"Not being able to play toward the end of my senior year, it's not always everyone's ideal senior year, but it's really meant a lot for me to become a team player in my final year," said Lake. "I'm really working to benefit the team this year more than any other year."