April 6, 2012
MANHATTAN, Kan. – During spring workouts most volleyball teams are plugging holes, filling spots in the starting lineup and finding a way for the new players on the court to gel. This spring, the Kansas State Wildcats do not qualify in the category of most volleyball teams. That’s because the Wildcats are not filling holes after the 2011 season when they had zero seniors on the squad.
The 2011 Wildcats were picked to finish eighth out of nine teams in the Big 12 Conference and surprised the naysayers by finishing fourth, upsetting No. 2 Nebraska on the Cornhuskers’ home floor in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and advancing to the Regional Semifinals.
K-State was one of only three teams in the NCAA Tournament without a senior on the roster and returns every player but one from the 2011 roster this spring. The only player no longer with the team is Ashley Kelican, who played a crucial role on the team as the backup setter. Kelican graduated in just three years and elected to forego her final year of eligibility to enroll in Kansas State’s veterinary school.
With 99.8 percent of the teams’ kills and 95.8 percent of the assists returning, the Wildcats are focusing their attention to building on last year’s success and growing as a team while others may be trying to find an outside hitter to take the majority of the swings or a libero to shore up the defense.
“I think in some ways we’re working on less, and what I mean by that is our work list is smaller, it’s not less important, but our work list is smaller,” said K-State Head Coach Suzie Fritz. “We have less question marks, we have less things we’re working on. We’re fine tuning, building on some things and getting a little bit more detailed in some areas.”
While K-State was missing seniors during the 2011 season, the 2012 campaign will have four. Adding to the list of upperclassmen will be six juniors, making the Wildcats one of the most experienced teams in the Big 12.
“Having everybody back, no question it’s a tremendous advantage for us,” Fritz said. “This team now has another year to grow, has another year to work together, has another year to develop. There’s no question that it’s an advantage, and the fact we’re not young anymore. We’re loaded up with lots of juniors and seniors with lots of experience.”
Those juniors and seniors know what is expected of them as well after playing multiple years in the system. Of the seven starters from last year’s squad, three of them are three-year starters and two have started for two years. That experience is pushing the Wildcats in practice to continue to improve.
Senior opposite Kathleen Ludwig is the most experienced player on the team in her fifth year with the Wildcats. She was the only player on the squad to have been to an NCAA Tournament prior to last year as she was on the bench as a redshirt in 2008. Now that every player has been to the postseason, Ludwig said the team is motivated to make 2012 another year to remember for K-State volleyball and being aware of the role reversal the team will face.
“We talk about not becoming complacent. We are happy about our successful season, and now we’re trying to build upon that rather than looking back and being satisfied,” Ludwig said. “I think in knowing we’re going to have that target on our back, we’re not going to have that underdog advantage, so we need to work as though everyone’s going to give us their best so we’re going to have to do the same.”
Fritz said the internal expectations of her team will not change in 2012 with all but one player returning. The expectations remain to make the NCAA Tournament and compete for a Big 12 title like every year. What will change is the mental approach her team must bring to the court, and it is something that can be worked on during spring workouts.
“I don’t worry about what other people think. I worry a lot about how we think we’re going to be. I think it’s a little different mentality when you wear the target as opposed to when you’re chasing people,” Fritz said. “I think you have to be a little more resilient in that you’re going to get everybody’s best. You’re not going to surprise anybody. Maybe last year we were able to surprise some people, and I think those days are over.”
The Wildcats will get a chance to test the progress they have made this spring against one of the nation’s top teams this weekend when they take on the Fighting Illini of Illinois. The Illini reached the Final Four and finished as the national runner-up to NCAA champion UCLA in December, and will tangle with K-State on Saturday in Kirksville, Mo., where the teams will meet at Truman State.
Illinois is one of those teams that is filling holes in the starting lineup, unlike the Wildcats. The Illini had two AVCA All-Americans on their squad last year, and both were senior outside hitters. But that does not mean Illinois will not be ready to take on the Wildcats. Illinois has been to 20 NCAA Tournaments with 2011 marking the program’s 13th Sweet 16 appearance and third Final Four. The Illini are no strangers to success, and the Wildcats are looking forward to the challenge of taking on one of the nation’s top programs this weekend.
“They’re a very physical team. They do very well in the Big Ten,” Fritz said. “Even though they are replacing some people, they have great depth so I think they will still be very competitive in their league. I’m excited to compete against another good team and kind of test where we’re at.”