In August, the expectations weren’t too high for the Kansas State volleyball team.
The Wildcats were coming off a 12-14 season and were picked to finish eighth in the nine-team Big 12.
To top it all off, it was a team without seniors and a roster that wasn’t deep in experience.
But that was then.
Now, K-State is fresh of a Sweet 16 appearance, a victory over No. 2 Nebraska, a 22-11 overall record and a fourth-place finish in the Big 12. The Wildcats had two players named to the All-Big 12 team — with one being selected as an honorable mention All-American .
“We’re still digesting the loss (to Pepperdine) a little bit,” K-State head coach Suzie Fritz said this week. “But I’m certain at some point in time we’ll be able to reflect on the year that we had and the successes that we had, and be really excited about it.
“I think we’ve had a great year, but I certainly don’t think we’ve arrived by any stretch of the imagination. I think our team has to continue to get better. We’ll just continue to control the things we can control. They are a wonderful group of young people and it’s been one of our most rewarding and enjoyable years, for lots of reasons, but primarily because we’ve had 15 kids that were invested in the success of the program, and I think that made a big difference.”
Junior opposite and team co-captain Kathleen Ludwig said so much of this season’s achievements were made possible by the work the team put in well before August.
“I feel really accomplished after this season,” she said. “I feel like we exceeded expectations and we finally kind of met our own expectations as a team in terms of competing in the league and competing in the postseason. I know that none of it could have happened without the hard work that we put in before the season and the months and months before any of the competitions happened.
“I feel so proud and happy about the way things went. No one likes to end on a loss, but I think the way that we were able to come through and get some wins this season was huge for this team. We’re excited to get going on that for next year.”
Fritz said Ludwig, who redshirted her freshman year, told her after the Sweet 16 loss to Pepperdine that she was glad she took that extra year.
“She said to me after the match, ‘I’m so glad I redshirted my freshman year’,” Fritz said. “And she was really ticked off at it at the time, or, not ticked off — she’s Ludwig, so she doesn’t get ticked off. But it was really difficult for her, in that moment, to understand that by the time she got to be a fifth-year senior, she was going to be a much different, much better, a much more experienced volleyball player.
“But you can’t see that at 18. She said to me immediately after the match, the first thing she said was that, ‘I’m so glad I’m coming back next year… I can’t imagine this being it.’”
Fritz feels the same way.
“I’m so glad she’s coming back next year,” she said. “I’m so glad a good majority of them are. The hope is, and I strongly feel that (it is), that they will want to continue to get better. That’s all we ask, just keep trying to get better, and I think we made a lot of improvement this year.
“As a coach, that’s probably my biggest — not the wins necessarily — sense of accomplishment comes from the improvement that we made from start to finish.”
Outside of junior Ashley Kelican, who will shift her focus to veterinary school next year, the entire roster is back next Fall.
That includes setter Caitlyn Donahue, middle blocker Alex Muff, libero Kuulei Kabalis and Ludwig who will all return for their senior seasons. Outside hitters Lilla Porubek and Courtney Traxson, along with defensive specialist Tristan McCarty and middle blocker Kaitlyn Pelger will all be returning for their junior seasons.
Porubek was second on the team in kills with 417 and was named All-Big 12 Honorable Mention. Pelger led the team with 500 kills and was an All-Big 12 First-Team selection. For the second straight year, Pelger reached triple digits in three of the big statistical categories in kills, digs and blocks.
Earlier this week, Pelger was named an AVCA All-American Honorable Mention — just the sixth Wildcat to receive the honor in the program’s history.
“It’s really awesome,” Pelger said. “I think my team and my coaching staff have gotten me to where I am today. I wouldn’t be the player that I am if I didn’t have them. I’m thankful to have a team that works hard and pushes me to work hard every single day.
“The honors just come along with the wins and the great season, so I’m really happy and really proud of my team. I’m excited about just getting better.”
When asked if either Pelger or Ludwig thinks this team will be picked eighth in the Big 12 again for next season, both didn’t think that would be the case.
“I don’t think so,” Ludwig said. “But it worked out this year, so maybe they should do that.”