After dropping its last five matches, the Miami University volleyball team is seeking to right the ship this weekend as it makes its first road trip of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) season against East Division rivals Ohio University and Kent State University. The RedHawks (8-6, 1-1 MAC) were 0-2 and 1-1 last season against the Bobcats and Golden Flashes, respectively.

No. 20 Ohio (12-2, 2-0 MAC), picked to place second in the MAC East in the preseason with five first place votes, is coming off a solid MAC road stand in which it downed the University of Buffalo 3-1 and the University of Akron 3-0 and both of its losses each coming in five sets against No. 24 University of North Carolina and No. 10 University of Michigan. With the win over the Bulls, the Bobcats have won 11 of its last 12 conference openers.

The Bobcats are led on offense with preseason All-MAC East Division honoree and junior outside hitter Kelly Lamberti with her 3.26 kills per set and 2.66 digs per set on the season, and sophomore setter Abby Gilleland, who was also named to the preseason All-MAC East Division team, contributes 10.16 assists per set.

OU is a potent offensive team that leads the MAC in hitting percentage and and is third in service aces per set. The defense is also stout, as it is second in the MAC blocks per set and fourth in opponents’ hitting percentage.

“They [OU] have active middles,” head coach Carolyn Condit said. “Our middles are trying to learn how to stay with them in transition and play with awareness. We’re also working on serving tough and getting good block penetration. We have to be rethinking how good we are, because just because we lost doesn’t mean everyone had a bad game so we’re trying to build confidence and come together as a team.”

Kent State (7-8, 1-1 MAC) is coming off of 3-1 losses to Buffalo and Youngstown State University, but has rebounded nicely from a 1-5 start. Freshman outside hitter Bianci Cifaldi and sophomore outside hitter Kelly Hutchison are key players for the Kent attack, generating a combined 5.9 kills per set, 10 service aces, and 52 of the Flashes’ 109 total blocks. Seniors setter Aleksandra Nowak and libero Hannah Herc are instrumental to Kent State’s success as well, with Nowak posting 9.85 assists per set and Herc registering 4.42 digs per set.

Miami will have its work cut out for them again this weekend, but it has several players it can rely on. Senior libero Madison Hardy put up 52 digs over the weekend to take down the school all-time career digs record while only having two reception errors during the two matches. Redshirt sophomore middle hitter Jenny Ingle leads the MAC with a .406 hitting percentage and is on pace to break the single-season school record of .358. She is sixth in the conference with 1.09 blocks per set. Hardy and Ingle were honorary mentions for MAC Player of the Week.

“We’re working on our defense and our bases,” freshman setter Krista Brakauskas said. “We’re also working on hitting out of system balls and having a good block. It’s been a great week of practice and we’re finding out some of the teams’ patterns. OU is a big team and we’ll have to play our own game, stop their hitters, and stay consistent.”

The RedHawks face Ohio 7 p.m. Friday in Athens and then will travel to take on the Flashes 7 p.m. Saturday in Kent.

The three-year old Washington, Mich. native would look on from the stands as his brother and cousin strapped on their roller skates and head out onto the rink. He wanted badly to play with them, and eventually convinced his parents to let him play an age group up. From the moment he tied the laces, Austin Czarnik was in love with hockey.

18 years later and the guy affectionately known as “Z” is still engaged in an affair with hockey, though now it’s at the collegiate level. The 5-foot-9, 150-pound junior is captain of the No. 2 team in the NCAA, and Czarnik said that though it’s a lot of work, he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

“It’s hard to do,” Czarnik said. “It’s a responsibility and you’ve got to take it day by day. Everybody looks up to me and everybody has their own role on the team. I just have to make sure I’m making the right plays for everybody and I’m making the right decisions for the betterment of the team. So far it’s been going well.”

It’s gone well in the past for Z, too. In just two years, he’s compiled 77 points and an astounding +44 rating while on the ice. He’s been one of Miami’s best six guys his entire collegiate career, and was named Central Collegiate Hockey Player of the Year last year. He was also nominated as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award at the end of the 2012-13 season (for those of you who have yet to receive your Bachelor’s in Hockey Studies, think Heisman on ice).

On the ice, Czarnik possesses some of the sauciest paws in the country. The junior is explosive on offense, back checks like a maniac and isn’t afraid to square off against some of his bigger competition in physical battles. Like many of his undersized teammates (by college hockey standards), he plays a lot bigger than his size would suggest, though the real strength of his game lies in his finesse and vision in the neutral and offensive zones. Like his childhood idol, Pavel Bure, Czarnik uses his speed to cut up-ice, creating odd-man rushes that have led to many of his 53 career assists. He disrupts passing lanes as well, and is valued as a penalty killer – his four shorthanded goals were tops in the NCAA last year.

When he’s not wearing No. 7, Czarnik is what you’d expect: an average college student. So many athletes can seem arrogant in this day and age, but Czarnik doesn’t seem to be interested in that type of hype. A five-minute conversation with him shows he’s just your regular guy who enjoys friends, video games and cheering for his Detroit-based professional teams.

“Who is Austin Czarnik off the ice…” Czarnik said, and thought for only a moment. “I’m always smiling, always enjoying being around the guys. We’re always joking around. We always chirp with each other and we try to be fun to be around.”

Heading into a new season with a few new faces in a new conference might seem formidable, but Z plans to take it one step at a time. If there’s one thing he and his teammates have learned from head coach Enrico Blasi, it’s to “live in the moment”. Don’t worry about the past or future, but focus on the now. Every time Czarnik takes the ice, that’s what he tries to do.

“I just want to be able to make plays for everybody and make everyone better,” Czarnik said. “I try to be exciting out there and get everyone motivated.”

In a few days, he’ll be back on the ice. He’ll be representing the Brotherhood for the third straight year, this time with a ‘C’ over his heart. And just like that three-year old boy in Mich. felt a rush of excitement the first time he laced up the skates almost two decades ago, Austin Czarnik will get that same feeling as he takes the ice this weekend.

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