The Kansas State volleyball team is looking to ride the wave of some recent success to a Sunflower Showdown victory over No. 23 Kansas in a 6:30 p.m. match Saturday at Horejsi Family Athletics Center in Lawrence.
“KU is tough,” said junior middle blocker and reigning Big 12 defensive player of the week Taylor Johnson. “It’s KU/ K-State, and everybody is going to want to win. We’re going to go out there fighting. They’re playing well, and we’re going to have to play well too.”
K-State (16-8, 4-7 Big 12) heads east on I-70 after grabbing home wins in two of its last three matches by sweeping then-No. 25 Oklahoma before dominating West Virginia in another sweep last Saturday.
“We’ve played very well in two of our last three,” K-State head coach Suzie Fritz said. “To that effect, I think we have built some momentum, but we have to figure out a way to take our show on the road.”
Sandwiched between those two wins was a road loss to Big 12 bottom feeder Texas Tech that dropped K-State to 0-5 in conference road games.
Kansas, which downed the Wildcats 31-29, 26-24, 25-19 on Oct. 2 in Manhattan, is no bottom feeder.
“That is probably the biggest challenge going into the Kansas match,” Fritz said. “You’re playing a very good team, and you’re playing them on the road.
“That isn’t a situation that you’re necessarily going to be very comfortable in, but we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s what good road teams do.”
The Jayhawks (19-6, 9-3) own one of the most potent offensive attacks in the Big 12. They trail only No. 1 Texas in team hitting percentage (.274), and middle blockers, freshman Tayler Soucie (.402) and senior Caroline Jarmoc (.332) both sit in the Big 12’s Top 10 in individual hitting percentage. Junior outside hitter Sara McClinton ranks fifth in the conference averaging 3.51 kills per set.
K-State will rely on the nation’s 12th-ranked block (2.87 blocks per set) to help keep the KU attack at bay. Steady all year, the Wildcat defense had it’s best outing of the season against West Virginia, holding the Mountaineers to negative hitting and registering the conference’s lowest opponents’ hitting percentage in a Big 12 match since 2001.
Johnson, who’s registered 18 blocks in her last two matches, said her week was a reflection of the team success that the Wildcats are looking to carry forward.
“Last week goes strictly to my teammates — I just happened to close the block,” she said. “It’s all about seeing things. If we’re seeing and talking we’re gonna get the job done.”
K-State senior outside hitter Courtney Traxson said that the experience of playing KU’s dangerous double-quick attack earlier in the season is going to be helpful.
“Knowing what they’re going to do, it really does help,” Traxson said. “We watch film on them. We know their rotations and see what patterns they’re going to run, but at the same time all bets are off in transition.”
And Traxson, who has played a big role in K-State’s resurgent offense knows how important transition will be. She said against an offense like Kansas,’ scoring quickly is a must.
The Wildcats, who hit better than .300 in a match for the first time in conference play in the win over West Virginia, have seen others step up to compliment senior middle blocker Kaitlynn Pelger, who averages 3.46 kills per set on .257 hitting in Big 12 play.
Fritz said that along with recognizing and taking advantage of what the defense gives the confidence to be aggressive has been key.
“You have to be a risk taker to be a good attacker,” Fritz said.
Traxson has 39 kills on .277 hitting in her last three matches. In the same timeframe junior outside hitter has averaged two kills per set, nearly doubling her output in previous conference games.
The KU defense though, which holds Big 12 opponents to just .186 hitting, won’t make it easy. And the Wildcats will have to avoid the strong block of Jarmoc and Souci, who both rank in the Top 10 in conference blocks per set.