After an offseason spent ushering in nine new faces to help replace six graduating seniors, the new-look Kansas State volleyball team opens its 2014 slate against host Green Bay Friday night at 7 at the Green Bay Country Inn & Suites Tournament in Wisconsin.
“We’ve been working really hard through this long summer and preseason,” KSU senior libero Gina Madonia said. “I think we’re just excited and ready. We’ve been working hard this whole time and now we get the opportunity to play against somebody other than ourselves.”
K-State head coach Suzie Fritz said that just like any year, the emotions are a mixed bag, especially with the influx of new talent, as well as many new Wildcats stepping into more key roles.
“It’s excitement, anxiousness, probably some trepidation,” said Fritz, who brings a 256-147 career record into her 14th season leading the Wildcats. “I think some of the older players, they know what they’ve gotten themselves into. The younger players, they’re just excited to see what it’s like.”
Following Friday’s match with Green Bay, K-State is set for two more Saturday — 10 a.m. against South Dakota and a 4:30 p.m. tilt against an Arizona team that received 60 votes in the AVCA Coaches preseason Top 25 poll.
“We will be tested the first weekend out,” Fritz said. “It’ll be good for us.”
With three matches in two days on the horizon, Fritz sees the strides her young group has made since the annual team scrimmage just 12 days ago.
“I think we’ve made significant progress and gotten some things put in play,” she said. “Our focus has been primarily on team systems and team development. We’re starting to see that come together.”
But it’s not as if the quick turnaround is something uniquely effecting the Wildcats heading into competitive play.
“There are still some holes, still some things,” Fritz said. “We don’t have to be the very best team we’re going to be first weekend out. We have to be good enough to be as good as the other guys, who’ve also only been training for two weeks.”
Madonia — whose 101 sets played in 2013 rank second only to sophomore setter Katie Brand (105) among returnees — and sophomore Kersten Kober return as experienced leaders on the defensive back end.
Fritz said that sophomore transfer Sheridan Zarda has joined Kober with impressive showings in the passing game as well.
Brand, a preseason All-Big 12 selection, sets the K-State attack with a year of experience under her belt.
“From just the pure fact of putting (the ball) where it is supposed to go, she is significantly better,” Fritz said during the team’s recent media day. “That first year of setting is a lot (to take on). The window that they get to work — to put that ball in — is just like a quarterback and wide receiver relationship.”
Seniors Chelsea Keating and Taylor Johnson provide veteran power up front. Freshman Kylee Zumach looks to join the party.
“Even though she’s a freshman,” Fritz said of the 6-foot-4 outside hitter, “We’re going to depend on her to come in and kill some balls.”
Wednesday Fritz described Johnson’s growth in a similar fashion to the praise she lauded on Keating earlier this month.
“Regardless of her role, she’s about ‘we’ not about ‘me.’” Fritz said. “She’s done a tremendous job of developing a vocal presence that we hadn’t seen from her. She’s super positive, very inclusive.”
After finding her footing as a middle blocker early in 2013, Johnson was forced into a frontline jack-of-all-trades role following a midseason season-ending injury to graduated senior Lilla Porubek.
In 2014, however, Johnson — whose 1.23 blocks per set ranked fourth in the Big 12 last season — is ready to help anchor the middle of the Wildcat defensive front.
“I’m going to do as much as I can to satisfy my role,” she said. “Blocking is probably my highest priority. That’s my strength. Focusing on my strength and keeping up that strength is the goal, and when I can get kills I’m going to get kills.”