As the 19th-ranked Kansas State volleyball team hits the road this weekend against other ranked programs for the first time this season, the Wildcats can take comfort in the fact a strong defensive duo has emerged.
Senior Kuulei Kabalis and junior Tristan McCarty — both defensive specialist/liberos — will rarely be in a position to smash a ball in the face of the opponent.
But without crucial digs from either of these two — or any of the team’s defenders — no outside hitter could have a chance at those kills.
“They work together daily,” K-State head coach Suzie Fritz said after practice earlier this week. “They are a little team within a team, and that happens in other areas of volleyball. The passers are a little team within a team, the blockers are a team within and the primary defenders are a team within a team, and they have to get their own little thing going back there because they are the unsung heroes.
“They sit back there and take shots, and do all these plays, but very rarely does anything they do, hopefully, lead to the end of a play. If they are doing it right, we are still playing. So, nothing they do really leads to this big ‘wow’ type of moment, but everything they do leads up to it.”
Kabalis came to K-State a year ago after transferring from Western Nebraska, a junior college where she helped the Cougars win a NJCAA championship in 2010. In that title run, she also broke a school and NJCAA tournament record with 34 digs in the championship match.
Last season Kabalis was the lone libero for the Wildcats and posted 478 digs, ranking ninth in K-State single-season history.
McCarty, who graduated from Manhattan High School, came on strong at the end of last season and had 15 digs and three service aces in the win against No. 2 Nebraska that propelled the Cats into the Sweet 16. McCarty has seen even more time already this season and has started five matches — in some cases, even at libero.
“This year has been more about quality, rather than quantity of digs,” McCarty said. “We’re trying to capitalize on the opportunities in the digs we get. It’s been one of my big improvements.”
McCarty said she has taken comfort in the consistency Kabalis brings to the table.
“Kuulei is so consistent with all areas of her play,” she said. “It’s really nice to play with somebody who doesn’t have these big ebbs and flows, just like we are trying to work on as a team.
“So, being able to have that stability has been really awesome, and great for my game as well. I’ve learned a lot from her and I keep learning things from her.”
Kabalis said she feels like big gains have been made in her play from a year ago.
“I think my skill set has improved drastically compared to where I was and where I am now,” the Hawaii native said. “My team’s encouragement has helped a lot and have helped me with what I need work on. They help me so much with the little things.
“I really enjoy the time I have with my team and the opportunity that I have here.”
Fritz said the unit’s strength comes from its diversity in style, helped by sophomore Gina Madonia, who is K-State’s other pure defensive specialist.
“Kuulei is very calm,” Fritz said. “She’s kind of that presence for us. She’s very consistent, very calm and doesn’t say a whole lot – though we’d like her to say a little more. She lets her actions speak larger than her words.
“Tristan is the opposite… not that she doesn’t let her actions speak, but she is much more vocal. She’s much more one of our cheerleaders. She provides that spark.”
A year of playing together has allowed those styles to mesh.
“They are both pretty aggressive, now, but I don’t think they both started that way,” Fritz said. “As they’ve became more comfortable, they both became very aggressive, and when they work together they know each other’s responsibilities.
“They trust each other a great deal back there.”
K-State will face the toughest competition it has seen so far this year in the Hurricane Invitational hosted by Tulsa.
Play will begin play against the Golden Hurricane tonight at 7. Tulsa is 7-4 and boosts the nation’s top kill leader in senior Tyler Henderson, averaging 5.50 kills per set.
The Wildcats will face No. 10 Minnesota (6-1) on Friday at 4 p.m.
K-State will conclude the tournament on Sunday at 11 a.m. against Dayton (7-2), which dropped from No. 10 to No. 20 this week after losses to Ohio State and Western Kentucky last weekend.