Chelsea Keating remembers how it felt when she was a freshman, trying to fit in and understand the complexity of what was going on — doing it all on the Big 12 stage.
The fifth-year senior from Frankfort says she tries to keep those things in mind as she gets set to help lead the young Wildcats into a new season, her final season in Wildcat purple.
“I try to remember how it was coming back in here as a freshman, and try to relate to them,” Keating said.
As one of just three returning starters from 2013, Keating finds herself in a leadership role this season for a team that includes nine newcomers, six of whom are freshmen.
The 6-foot-1 outside hitter with the relaxed smile, powerful legs and an overhanded hit that echos through Ahearn Field House, seems a natural fit to help guide the young Wildcats this season.
She’s one of only three frontline returners with meaningful playing time from 2013. Keating played in 26 matches — with 16 starts — and totaled 117 kills (1.52 per set). She had 43 blocks and is K-State’s returning leader with 21 service aces last season.
Keating’s fire and impressive power shone through last November in a home sweep of West Virginia. She had seven kills on 11 attempts, five digs and three blocks to help lead K-State to the victory, while bookending a four-point Wildcat run to end the match with two mammoth kills.
“I know that’s what my team needs,” she said afterward. “Just hit it. I’m not going up there trying to tip it anymore. I’m just going up and swinging really hard.”
While Keating’s previous production has come despite rarely being a featured part of the K-State attack, that figures to change this season. It’s a role Keating accepts with open arms.
“I mean, I like getting sets,” she said. “It’ll be nice getting set more, but our offense will stay pretty balanced. I’ll try to kill it when I can.”
K-State head coach Suzie Fritz sees the potential for creating more opportunities for her senior.
“We’ve been trying Chelsea a little bit on the left (side) and a little bit on the right,” Fritz said. “She understands exactly what she is supposed to do and what everybody else is supposed to do…
“She’s got some opportunities to not just be an attacker and a blocker. She has developed as an all-around player, playing six rotations.”
Behind the conspicuous presence of her power lies an accepting personality and inclusiveness that lends itself to a leadership style not always seen in major college athletics.
“I try not to see it as my team,” Keating said. “I think that’s been a fault in our past, how each year is kind of ‘the seniors’ year.’ I try not to look at it like that.
“I think we’re just trying to meet the expectations (the coaches) have.”
Fritz, who has taken to affectionately referring to Keating as “The Boss” heading into the season, has noticed the management style as well.
“She’s not one of those people who is in your face, but she is clearly in charge,” Fritz said.
It’s a delicate balance that’s seemed to infect the rest of the team.
“Different teams lead in different ways,” Fritz said. “This team is all in it. It’s a really large team with a wonderful dynamic. The seniors are not afraid to let the freshmen lead. The freshmen are not afraid to lead, and all those in between seem to understand that they are all better if they are all giving.”
Keating, a two-time selection to the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll and 2013 Academic All-Big 12 Second-Team selection, came to K-State in 2010. She came in with a heralded group herself — including frontline stars Lilla Porubek and Kaitlynn Pelger — and redshirted her freshman season before slowly earning time the next two years.
Keating played in just 12 matches (17 sets) in 2011, but came off the bench to provide two kills on two swings and a block to help K-State defeat No. 2-seed Nebraska in the NCAA tournament and advance to the Sweet 16.
The following season Keating played in 21 matches while earning starts in two. She totaled 41 kills (1.11 per set), including a then-career high nine kills in a sweep of Syracuse to go along with 17 blocks on the year.
All the while, Keating was watching, learning, and interacting with a gaze especially focused on former K-State opposite outside hitter Kathleen Ludwig (2009-12).
“She played my position and I was behind her for two or three years,” Keating said. “She helped me a lot. She was very energetic and someone who gave a lot to the team.”
It’s a comparison that Keating used as she prepares to lead the young K-State bunch into 2014.
“I’ve tried to think about what upperclassmen have done in the past, and when I have liked what they’ve done, and when I haven’t,” Keating said. “I try to use that coming into this year.”
Redshirt-sophomore, and preseason All-Big 12 setter Katie Brand has seen the senior step into her new role as a key navigator of the Wildcat ship.
“She has grown a lot as a vocal leader,” Brand said. “She has definitely taken the lead of being the one who brings down the hammer when things are not going as well as they should be going.
“This team doesn’t have a problem with working hard, but if she does need to put somebody in line, she does and that’s a huge role to fill.”
If the Wildcats — who missed the NCAA tournament last season — are going to make it back this year, Keating is sure to play a key part.
Asked of her expectations for herself and the 2014 season, Keating provided a chuckle and a quick answer.
“A lot of kills,” she said grinning. “A lot of kills and a lot of wins.”