No King James, but Alexis Middlebrooks and Cleveland State earn their own crown
LeBron James has yet to accept the invitation Alexis Middlebrooks extended to him via Twitter to attend a Cleveland State volleyball game. Here's what King James missed last weekend:
- Middlebrooks combining for 35 kills in the Horizon League semifinal and final on a .353 hitting percentage, earning tournament MVP honors and, now, the espnW player of the week.
- Back-to-back five-set victories for the Vikings, propelling them to the conference title for the second straight year and a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
- Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. OK, not the actual Cavaliers stars (hopefully LeBron would bring those guys with him). But setter Gina Kilner is dubbed "Irving" by her teammates, and they call outside hitter Grace Kauth "Love." The versatile Middlebrooks, of course, is "LeBron."
"Alexis is one of the most driven players I've ever had in this program. The bigger the game, the bigger she plays," said coach Chuck Voss, in his 17th season at Cleveland State. "She was not going to let us lose this weekend, knowing there was nothing left potentially. She was probably only playing at 70 percent, but there was no way she was going to let us lose."
Until this junior year, the 6-foot-1 middle blocker had never dealt with any serious injury in a childhood that included volleyball and basketball since seventh grade. But last spring sprained ligaments in her foot and a sore right shoulder limited her offseason training. Once preseason conditioning started, Middlebrooks thought she was good to go.
"Then I got shin splints and couldn't figure out what was wrong for the longest time," she said. "From the spring on, it was one thing after another."
Middlebrooks refused to get dispirited from all the issues, or frankly from any setbacks since she's become a college athlete. She was the first in her class to arrive on the Cleveland State campus the spring of her high school senior year, eager to begin her volleyball training. But Voss didn't recognize the player he recruited from Elyria (Ohio) High School who earned all-state honorable mention her junior and senior years.
"She looked awful at first," he said. "To be honest, I didn't know if she could play for us."
Middlebrooks had drifted from her fitness regimen without the routine of high school sports. She was out of shape and knew it. Instead of pouting, she took to the weight room and the track. The daughter of two Army veterans, she's a stickler for self-discipline, whether it's diet or in the gym, and by the start of preseason, she was as ready as the returning veterans.
"I had never sat the bench in my life, so I worked really hard," she said. "In the summer I worked every day with the older kids. I was the only person in my class here running and lifting with the upperclassmen, so that put me ahead."
"She was not going to be denied," Voss said.
It's a mental approach she brings to the toughest of situations, even last weekend.
Neither of the tournament matches last weekend went as scripted. Cleveland State surged to 2-0 leads in both only to drop sets three and four. Middlebrooks takes her responsibility as captain seriously and knew she had to lift her team in the fifth.
Cleveland State prevailed 15-11 in its semifinal over Oakland, punctuated by a Middlebrooks kill on match point. The Vikings clinched the title the following night behind a 15-7 fifth-set after a 20-kill performance by Middlebrooks, her first of the season on a night when she hit at a .515 clip.
It's a victory that validates a season of hard work, she said. "I don't know that many people who work as hard as me and my teammates," said Middlebrooks, a dean's list regular majoring in criminal justice with a double minor in communication and psychology "Winning it two times in a row adds to our school history. We want to get to the NCAAs and put Cleveland State volleyball on the map."
A year ago, the Vikings made the field of 64, too, though an unfortunate draw pitted them against USC, the top team in the nation, in the first round.
This season with an RPI of 39, Voss said he's hoping for a better matchup in the national tournament.
"We're a physically strong team with of a lot of girls from Northeast Ohio, many of whom were overlooked by bigger schools," he said. "We've got raw athletic kids that we've trained up into really good volleyball players."
Middlebrooks, an AVCA All-Northeast Region honorable mention selection last year, is among those. Just like her Cavs, she promises, "We don't back down from anyone."