A team’s preparation heading into a new Big 12 volleyball season is always going to feature some adjustments.
It’s even tougher when a team is faced with the prospect of replacing a constant cog in their lineup that earned all conference honors the year before.
That is exactly the scenario being played out on the practice courts in Ahearn Field House, as head coach Suzie Fritz gets ready for her 13th season at the helm of the K-State volleyball program. If the Wildcats are to improve on their 21-9 record (8-8 Big 12) and NCAA Tournament berth from a year ago, much of it will be due to the maturation of setter Katie Brand.
Gone is the steady hand of former All-Big 12 setter Caitlyn Donahue, whose 11.63 assists per set average ranked second in the Big 12 a year ago.
A redshirt freshman, Brand will be charged with the task of setting up Wildcat hitters in 2013 — a job Donahue did so well in 2012 that she enabled K-State to post the second highest team hitting percentage in the conference at .242.
Brand, who was tabbed as the 2013 pick for Big 12 Freshman of the Year, doesn’t seem to be giving her teammates any reason to worry.
“She’s gonna be one of the best setters that K-State’s ever had,” said preseason All-Big 12 selection and senior middle blocker Kaitlynn Pelger.
Despite the difficulties of adjusting to a new setter, Pelger heaped praise on her new court mate.
“She comes in, works hard,” Pelger said. “She wants to get the perfect set for everyone every single time. I’m extremely excited for everyone to see all the hard work that she’s put in for a year. I’m excited to work with her in my last season.”
Brand, a 6-foot-1 setter who earned all-state honors in high school as both a junior and a senior in Grand Island, Neb., spent the year learning under the tutelage of Donahue.
“She taught me a lot,” Brand said. “She taught me a lot in practice by showing me the different ways K-State runs their stuff.”
Brand also said the learned much from the veteran Donahue by watching her in games from the Wildcat bench.
“I really got to see how she beat different systems of blocking schemes and different teams,” she said. “I got to watch her really do her thing and it helped put that into gear for me too.”
Not only does Brand have the benefit of spending last season under a quality mentor, she is surrounded by experience on this year’s squad that includes six seniors and 10 total letter-winners from a year ago. It’s something that didn’t go unnoticed by her coach.
“She’s playing with a lot of seniors,” Fritz said. “She’s playing with a lot of experience around her, which I think will help her. I feel pretty strongly that she’s ready to go.”
Brand was quick to credit the veteran leaders around her.
“With me being a new setter, they really worked hard and they’re great teammates,” she said. “They’ve helped me to build up my confidence and to feel good enough and to be ready to play.”
Perhaps, the one aspect of Brand’s game that impresses her coach and her teammates the most is her work ethic and desire to improve. Wildcat senior teammate Tristan McCarty went so far as to call her a “gym-rat, who only wants to get better.”
She’s also learned a lesson in patience, waiting to take the court for the first time in NCAA competition.
“I think that in practice you can improve day to day, but a game highlights where you need to improve the most and it points out certain flaws,” Brand said. “I’m just excited for getting ready to play.”
Despite the hype and accolades already heaped on the young freshman, it is that improvement that seems most important to her as she heads into her first season with the Wildcats.
“I don’t necessarily look at those as expectations as much as I look at trying to improve day to day,” Brand said. “That’s what they really need out of me. They really need quality work and looking at them not as expectations, but as a goal and trying to come as close as I can to them.”