K-State volleyball 5th in Big 12 preseason poll

By The Mercury

The Kansas State volleyball team opened training camp this weekend, in advance of the Wildcats’ season opener on later this month in Green Bay, Wis.

K-State, which was picked fifth in Big 12 preseason coaches poll on Friday, entered camp with seven letterwinners from last season’s 18-11 squad, including three starters.

The Wildcats garnered 35 points in the preseason poll, 10 points behind No. 4 Oklahoma and four points ahead of No. 6 Baylor. K-State has been picked fifth or higher in the preseason poll three straight years.

Defending conference champion Texas was voted No. 1, earning all eight possible first-place votes. Kansas, which picked up one first-place vote, and Iowa State were No. 2 and 3, respectively. Coaches were not allowed to vote for their own teams.

The Wildcats will lean on the trio of redshirt-sophomore Katie Brand, senior Chelsea Keating and sophomore Kersten Kober, who started more than half of the Wildcats’ matches last season, with Brand playing in every set.

Brand was the lone Wildcat named to the Big 12 preseason team on Thursday. One of two setters selected, Brand is coming off a 2013 campaign in which she was the only Big 12 freshman to average more than 10 assists per set. She also led all Big 12 setters in kills, blocks and points, helping her become the second Wildcat in program history to be named to the All-Big 12 Freshman Team.

Keating is one of five seniors on the squad. The outside hitter from Frankfort had a career year in 2013, setting career-highs in kills (117), digs (66) and blocks (43) after playing in 77 sets.

Three of the five Wildcat seniors occupy the middle blocker position, led by last year’s team leader in blocks, Taylor Johnson. The Grand Island, Neb., native paced the Cats with 116 blocks and her 1.23 blocks per set was the third-best average in the Big 12.

In addition to blocks, Johnson set a new career-high in kills with 183.

Joining Johnson up the middle is Natali Jones, who averaged 1.09 kills and 0.94 blocks per set in 2013, and Mary Alice O’Reilly, a former All-WAC performer who enters her first year at K-State after transferring from San Jose State.

Also at the middle blocker position is Katie Reininger, a former transfer from Saint Mary’s (Calif.) College who redshirted with the Wildcats last season.

Senior Gina Madonia will lead a group of experienced defensive specialists/liberos on the backline. Madonia had a career-high 175 digs and 10 aces last season, while Kober turned in 213 digs, becoming the first K-State freshman defensive specialist to have more than 200 digs in a single season since 2004.

Also returning from last season is junior Dallas Gardner, who had 33 digs and four aces in 33 sets during her first season at K-State.

A new arrival, Sheridan Zarda, will look to compete for playing time as well after she spent the last two years at Nebraska. A native of Shawnee, Zarda played in 19 matches as a freshman with the Cornhuskers in 2012, but redshirted in 2013. Also among the group of defensive specialists are redshirt-freshman Mattie Batchelder and true-freshman Devan Fairfield.

Fairfield is one of six freshmen in the Wildcats recruiting class, which was ranked No. 27 in the nation by PrepVolleyball.com.

Three transfers, sophomores Zarda and Brooke Sassin, along with senior O’Reilly, add to the field of new Wildcats. Sassin appeared in 59 sets with Mississippi State last season, totaling 105 kills, 35 digs and 10 blocks.

Opposite hitter Brookelyn Langhaim and setter Bailey Shurbet join Batchelder and Reininger as the redshirts from 2013.

After the Wildcats’ Purple/White Scrimmage on Aug. 16 and opening weekend tournament in Green Bay, K-State begins its 13-match home schedule with the Varney’s Invitational in Bramlage Coliseum. The Wildcats will face Arkansas (Sept. 4), Middle Tennessee State (Sept. 5) and UCF (Sept. 6) in the three-day tournament.

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