Before the season even started, the Kansas State volleyball team made sure to get into a highly-competitive mindset by taking a day to train with a group of people who also train at an incredibly high level.
In August, the Wildcats took a trip to Fort Riley and met with Col. Mike Morgan’s Combat Aviation Brigade.
Throughout the experience, Morgan spoke with the team about the values of working together, about work-ethic and about trust. At the end of the day, Morgan presented K-State head coach Suzie Fritz a special “challenge coin” that every member in his unit holds on to as a reminder of those values.
It was a moment that stuck with Fritz and it gave her an idea.
Quickly, Fritz borrowed the idea and created challenge coins for her own team. Like Morgan’s coins, the K-State volleyball challenge coin has the look and feel of a poker chip with the K-State branding and Powercat on one side, with core values — all selected by the team — on the other.
The values are commitment and work ethic, character, communication and trust, confidence and belief, and finally, competitiveness.
As the Wildcats readied themselves for this afternoon’s matchup against Northern Iowa in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Lincoln, Neb., it’s safe to say the values on their challenge coin haven’t been ignored.
K-State was 27-9 in the regular season — it’s second-best record in the Big 12 era. The only time the Wildcats won more matches was in 2003 when the K-State won the conference and was 30-5 overall.
The Wildcats are a close group and all those values describe this squad that is full of experience — with four seniors who have a very tight relationship.
Fritz said the challenge coin is supposed to stay with each player at all times — so much so she’s held “coin-checks” just to be sure. Perhaps Fritz did a coin check before her team got on the bus to Lincoln, because lately, the Wildcats have struggled.
The month of November hasn’t been kind to K-State. Since Nov. 2, the Wildcats are 1-5 with losses against Texas, KU, Iowa State, Texas Tech and against Oklahoma.
K-State’s lone win this month came against a struggling TCU squad at home in a sweep. While the Longhorns, Jayhawks and Sooners all joined the Wildcats in this year’s NCAA tournament, the loss to the Red Raiders surely hurt K-State’s position in the field, as Texas Tech finished the season 14-18 and 3-13 in the Big 12, just one spot better than conference newbie West Virginia, who went winless in league play.
But that’s not all.
K-State’s leader in kills, junior middle blocker Kaitlynn Pelger, struggled on the road in the loss to Iowa State and did not see the floor in the season finale against OU. Though she was dressed and seemed healthy, Fritz wouldn’t comment this week on the status of Pelger.
Pelger, who finished the Big 12 second in kills per set, would definitely be an asset against a team like the Panthers today.
Without a doubt, the Wildcats seem to be going through challenging times at a crucial moment, but those are often the tests in a season that prove a team’s resolve — especially when the heat in the kitchen is the hottest during postseason.
Besides, the tournament can give K-State a fresh new outlook and direction that Fritz and every player has said they perceive it as.
The Wildcats have proven to be an opponent to be reckoned with. They began the nonconference season 12-0 and were ranked as high as 11th in the country.
One of those wins came against Creighton, the team that beat out Northern Iowa for the Missouri Valley crown this year. They began the Big 12 8-3 before the November skid. K-State, without a doubt, knows how to win.
Maybe today, the Wildcats will clinch those challenge coins just a little tighter than usual. After all, the values on the coin got them this far. Who says they can’t take them farther?