Libero battle shows depth for Cats

By Brady Bauman

A good libero is not easy to replace, but the Kansas State volleyball team is going to try.

The libero can be a make-or-break position for many teams and for good reason. After all, the libero is the shield on defense and makes the tough digs to keep the play alive. The position is just as key offensively, as the libero is often in charge of passing and ball control.

K-State had a very good one last season in Lauren Mathewson, who totaled a team-best 540 digs her senior year.

But, Mathewson is gone, and the time for a new libero is now for K-State.

Thankfully for the Wildcats, head coach Suzie Fritz has options and is excited about the new depth.

“(Mathewson) was kind of our stabilizing force,” she said Saturday. “We knew with her out there, if the ball came her way she was going to go after it and take it. She was a very aggressive passer and put us in good situations offensively with how she ball handles, so we were in good hands with her and that’s what seniors are supposed to do. But, seniors have to graduate.

“We have three people (fighting for that) position right now, that are fighting for opportunities and have upgraded us tremendously in regards that Maddy was one person, and now we have three. We have strength in numbers, if you will, but at this point, we don’t have a clear-cut favorite… but we have options.”

The three in the running for the position are freshman Gina Madonia, junior transfer Kuulei Kabalis and Manhattan High product, sophomore Tristan McCarty.

McCarty played in all 31 matches last season as a freshman and started in 16 of them. She tallied 178 digs a year ago, which was fourth-best on the team.

Madonia comes to K-State from St. Francis High School in Glen Ellyn, Ill. She also played AAU volleyball for Sports Performance and was named an AUU All-American in 2009. In 2010, she led her AAU team to a national title.

Kabalis, who comes from a volleyball family and has been playing the sport since she has been able to pickup a volleyball — according to Fritz — transferred to KSU from Western Nebraska, where she helped lead the Cougars to a NJCAA National Championship last year with a 43-4 record. She is native to Hilo, Hawaii and is the first Wildcat to hail from the Big Island.

“Lauren was definitely a good person to watch and learn from,” McCarty said. “We got two new players who are defensive specialists for the position, so we are all three working together rather than competing with each other — that’s all kind of on the side.

“We’re definitely working to beat each other every day, but we are also trying to build each other up so that we know that we’re going to help everyone on the team. So, they’ve been really, really good jumping in there and pushing myself, and I’m trying to push them as well. It’s been a good competition.”

McCarty said one of the aspects of the game she picked up from Mathewson was the importance of allowing the game to slow down mentally.

“She knows the game very, very well,” McCarty said. “She — like a lot of players who have played the game a number of years — said the game slows down when you reach a certain level of play and higher age. The game slowed down for her, so I just got to watch her be very composed up there.

“(Lauren) understood the game a lot better in terms of knowing what was going to happen before it actually did happen. So I got to learn from her how to read the game a little better and see things before it happened and play it at a faster level in hopes that the game will slow down for me as well.”

Fritz said the former MHS star has made a lot of improvement in a year.

“Tristin McCarty, in her first year, was a good specialist,” Fritz said. “But she wasn’t to the point where we felt comfortable at the libero position. I think that has changed for her in year two. Now she has opportunities at that position like the other two.”

Fritz said there is no certain timeline for when the libero position will be set. In fact, the 11th-year coach said she fully expects the position battle to carry into the start of the season.

“I think it’s going to have to evolve,” she said. “I don’t think you can make a decision about a libero in 10 days, necessarily. We’re going to have to let the season evolve.

“Someone is going to get it and someone is going to go out there and give it a try, and maybe they keep it. But it is certainly nice knowing that if one doesn’t play to their abilities, we have another one that can come in… and I’m not sure we felt that way last year.”

The Wildcats open their season Friday at the Georgia Tech Classic in Atlanta with a 7 p.m. match against Georgia Tech.

K-State’s home opener is Aug. 30 against Creighton.

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