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Published: Friday, 11/22/2013

Rockets expect to keep rolling

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

When University of Toledo volleyball senior Lauren Rafdal chats with former teammates they want to know why.

Why are the Rockets, after decades of hard times, suddenly good?

“I really just think we were fed up with losing,” Rafdal, an outside hitter, said. “We knew we had talent. We knew we were a good team. I think it just came out this season.”

Toledo, which last week captured the program’s first Mid-American Conference division title, has a good chance this weekend of winning its first MAC tournament.

The second-seeded Rockets square off against Eastern Michigan at 5 p.m. today in quarterfinal action. Defending champion Bowling Green State University, the No. 4 seed, plays Northern Illinois at 2 p.m. in a rematch of last year’s championship.

The three-day, single-elimination tournament takes place at the SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio.

Toledo (19-11, 12-4) comes in hot having won eight in a row before closing the regular season with a three-set loss at Northern Illinois. Few could have envisioned such a sizzling ending after such a listless beginning. After the first weekend of the conference season, Toledo stood 0-2.

Seniors had already seen enough and spoke up in the locker room, imploring teammates to not allow the season to descend into an abyss similar to the past three seasons. The Rockets won just 13 MAC matches in that period, including just two a year ago.

“We know what that feels like, and we didn’t want to go back to that feeling,” captain Jordan Kielty said. “We lit a fire under out butts a little bit at the beginning of the season. We started to get that taste of winning, and we started running with it.”

Added fifth-year coach Greg Smith: “We didn’t have to say much as a coaching staff because they pretty much said what we would have said. It means so much more coming from your teammates.”

Smith’s first recruiting class at Toledo is now in its final days with the program. Three of them — Rafdal, Adria Pryor, and Dakota Harkins — were announced Thursday to the All-MAC first team. Junior Brooke Frazer (second team) and Bedford graduate Ellen Hays (freshman team) also were honored.

Bowling Green’s left-side hitter, Lindsey Butterfield, also was named to the first team.

After enduring a lot of losing, Smith credits his five seniors with authorizing a breakthrough season that includes a 10-0 mark in five-set matches and a winning percentage —.633 — that ranks highest in the program’s 33 seasons.

“From this point on we don’t have any doubts,” Kielty said. “We’re not worried what’s going to happen. We’re just going to win.”

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.



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