The Kansas State volleyball team returned from a two-week road swing just long enough to play host to the Italian 23-and-under National Team at Ahearn Field House Tuesday night.
Though the Italians rallied from two sets down to earn a five-set victory (17-21, 18-21, 21-16, 21-14, 15-11) over the Wildcats, the exhibition match served as an opportunity to work out some things before K-State opens Big 12 play this weekend.
“I think it is great experience for us, and that is what we wanted,” K-State head coach Suzie Fritz said. “We got an opportunity to play a different team, basically a team of Italian All-Stars. They all play professionally, they are all under contract.”
Kaitlynn Pelger led the Wildcats with 12 kills and a match-high six blocks, while the Italians had three players earn double-digit kills.
The Italians showed their experience on the defensive end, holding K-State to a .183 hitting percentage on the night.
“They made Pelger do a lot, and she still hit quite well,” Fritz said. “I thought our middles were pretty good. We probably should have set them a little more. Lilla (Porubek) was playing extremely well.
“We tried a lot of different stuff. We used a lot of different personnel. We put them in different positions and played them in different systems.”
Porubek, a senior middle blocker, left the match midway through the third set and didn’t return.
Both teams substituted liberally in the match, which was played under international rules, while using an NCAA regulation-sized volleyball. That ball and the fact that the match was the Italians’ first competition in preparation for the U23 World Championships in Mexico, played a factor in K-State jumping out to a two-set lead early.
The Wildcats took advantage of 21 errors — eight of which came on the serve — in the first two sets to jump out to the early lead before the Italians got their bearings.
“They have never played together, so they were kind of warming up as they went and were getting better,” K-State junior outside hitter Chelsea Keating said. “We just went out there and tried to have fun.”
It was Keating who provided the spark for one of the Wildcats’ most spirited stretches of play when she made a diving, one-handed dig that eventually led to a slide-kill by junior middle blocker Natalie Jones.
That kill pulled K-State to within seven at 11-18, and started a 6-1 run. But, after a block by Pelger and freshman setter Katie Brand brought them within three at 16-19, the Wildcats dropped the final two points and the set 16-21.
Brand said the exhibition was a welcome opportunity to face a slower-tempo system similar to some of the more powerful teams in the Big 12.
“Big teams like that are going to try and hit over us and just use their power, and I think we did a good job,” Brand said. “It took us some time to get into it and really find that feeling of when to go, but I think we found it.”
Brand led the Wildcats with 30 assists, while freshman libero Kersten Kober paced the K-State with 12 digs.
The Wildcats travel to Morgantown, W. Va., this weekend to face West Virginia in their Big 12 opener on Saturday.