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Bauman: Focused Cats are on a mission

By Brady Bauman

It’s not that the Kansas State volleyball team started off poorly last season.

The Wildcats were 6-3 at this point a year ago, despite opening the season 0-2 against Georgia Tech and Louisville on the road.

K-State ended the season 22-11 — advancing to the Sweet 16 by beating No. 2 Nebraska in the Cornhuskers’ own house in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Today, the Wildcats are off to their best start in program history at 9-0 and moved up from No. 22 to No. 19 in the national rankings this week. The Wildcats are one of only five other teams in the Top 25 to remain undefeated.

But, here is the more staggering statistic.In the 32 sets K-State has played so far, the Wildcats have lost just two.

That’s right. Two.

Those two sets K-State lost came from an Oregon State team that defeated No. 2 Penn State over the weekend. And Penn State has won the national champion four out of the last five years.

But how has K-State done this? The coaching staff is the same, the players on the floor are the same as last season and the work ethic of both is undoubtedly just as intense as it was last year. What’s the difference?

“Experience,” K-State head coach Suzie Fritz told reporters Monday after practice. “You can’t teach experience, period… and we have more of it. That’s what I think the difference is.”

Fritz continued with a nod to legendary NFL coach Bill Parcells, who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants in 1987 and 1991.

“The Big Tuna says confidence comes from demonstrated ability,” she said. “I think those things go together, clearly. The more you play, the more confident you are in your ability to play.

“I don’t think it works the other way. I don’t think you say, ‘hey, I’m terrific!’ and then all of a sudden that’s how it works. You gain confidence by having demonstrated the ability.”

The Wildcats are clearly more confident, but that doesn’t mean this team is taking time in practice to pat itself on the back.

The phrase many players on the team — coaches included — have repeated since the season began is to “go from good to great.”

In the nine matches K-State has played, all but one — the five-set win against Oregon State — wasn’t a three-set sweep. While that certainly seems to qualify for great status, the odds of Fritz and her players being dissatisfied after a match are extremely high.

This is clearly a team with very lofty goals, and last season’s Sweet 16 run may have been addicting.

The Wildcats, much like their football counterpart,  have swagger. That’s evident in practice.

There is a no-nonsense, workman feel in what can be a very toasty Ahearn Field House — especially in the afternoon. While players and coaches always say nobody is looking further ahead than the next day, or next practice, one can’t help but feel there is something larger in the back of the minds of the Wildcats when watching them practice.

Overall, it seems the difference between this season’s team — at least at this point — compared to last year’s may be deeper than just simply having more experience.

Instead, it may be a contrast in belief and knowledge.

There was no doubt that last year’s Wildcats believed they had what it took to make an NCAA run. But now, after actually doing it, it seems K-State knows they can make another — and perhaps an even deeper one.

“We’ve just matured,” senior setter Caitlyn Donahue said Monday. “We’re constantly setting goals and we’re constantly not happy where we are at. I think we’re a very good team, but we’re working on becoming a great one.

“Suzie says a lot that confidence is demonstrated ability. So, being able to execute a skill… to execute at a high level and to be successful at it (is) going to gain confidence, and that’s what our hitters, our passers, our blockers… that’s what our entire team is doing. We have the ability to do things over and over again, and that breeds confidence, and that’s where that is coming from.”

It’s of course far too early to talk about the NCAA tournament — and if you love incredibly awkward, uncomfortable moments, ask Fritz how far this team could go when tourney time comes in December.

I haven’t, and there’s a reason for it — but K-State has that look about it. It had it last year, too, but this time around, it seems the bar is set higher than the Sweet 16.

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