The Kansas State volleyball team will look to turn “Sin City” into “Win City” as the Wildcats travel to Las Vegas to open their 2013 season at the UNLV Invitational this weekend.
K-State opens play in the four-team, round-robin tournament at the Cox Pavilion on Friday at 6 p.m. against Portland before playing two more matches on Saturday — Cal State Fullerton at noon and UNLV at 9 p.m.
“We’re really excited to play, all of us,” senior outside hitter Courtney Traxson said this week. “I think we’re really competitive. All of us want to win rallies all the time. It’s a really good thing. We’re ready to beat other teams and have fun.”
Heading into the season opener, K-State coach Suzie Fritz is trying to keep the focus on gameplay simple.
“We have certain marks and objectives that we’re trying to meet for early-season performance,” she said. “Things like point scoring, and siding out at a certain percentage, trying to be more offensively productive. Nothing fancy, just early season statistical objectives.”
For the players, the focus is on the transition from the preseason to competitive play.
“It will be completely different putting a group of six to nine players out on the court playing against somebody else, and not trying to potentially help each other out like in practice,” senior libero Tristan McCarty said. “You want to be able to put it all together in the best manner possible, and we’re also trying to better ourselves for the next competition date as well.”
While the Wildcats will be showcasing a dynamic scoring combo featuring unanimous All-Big 12 pick in senior middle blocker Kaitlynn Pelger and the league’s preseason freshman of the year in setter Katie Brand, it’s the emergence of a rally-extending back end that’s caught Fritz’ eye.
“We have five libs on our team, and they’re all very capable defenders,” Fritz said. “They extend rallies, we play longer and our ball handling has upgraded significantly having those five players.”
It’s those young liberos, three freshmen and one junior — led by McCarty — that have been making scoring hard to come by during Wildcat practices.
“Our girls know that if it’s not the perfect situation that we can just manage and dig in and play defense,” McCarty said. “We just buck up a little bit and extend the rally out. If you don’t hurt yourself then you give yourself a chance.”
Fritz said that though it’s up to the players to carry it over into matches, the difficulties that the Wildcat hitters have had scoring in practice has been an excellent learning tool.
“One of the frustrations, from an offensive perspective, is that it is much more difficult to kill a ball in practice right now,” Fritz said. “Long term, that’s going to be beneficial for us. Our hitters have to be more creative. They can’t hit the same shot over and over, because defensively we’re better.”
And the trend hasn’t gone unnoticed on the K-State front line either.
“It definitely makes me tired as a hitter, them keeping those rallies going,” Traxson said. “But, it’s really encouraging to see those freshmen step in and make a huge dig. It pumps me up to get a kill when I get a chance.”
Traxson joins Pelger and fellow senior outside hitter Lilla Porubek to make up a front-line trio that accounted for 54 percent of the Wildcats’ scoring in 2012.
“We’re starting to realize that the primary goal is to make the opponent make mistakes,” Porubek said. “It’s not us who need to force a point, we just need to make the opponent play.”
As for K-State’s opponents, Portland returns four starters from a team that was 7-23 a year ago, while Cal State Fullerton brings in nine new players to try to improve on 2012’s 15-16 record. UNLV returns two All-Mountain West performers from a team that tallied an 18-11 record last season.