Wildcats fall to 0-2 in Big 12

By Nicolas Wahl

Two costly errors proved critical in the Kansas State volleyball team’s loss to rival Kansas Wednesday night.

The 100th edition of the Sunflower Showdown saw both of the first two sets go into extra points before the Jayhawks pulled away in the third set for a 3-0 (31-29, 26-24, 25-19) sweep. 

A raucous, near-capacity crowd couldn’t prevent the loss that dropped the Wildcats to 0-2 in the Big 12 for the first time since 2009. 

Kansas (12-3, 2-0 Big 12) extended its current winning streak to eight matches.

“We are trying to win games and play as well as we can play,” K-State head coach Suzie Fritz said. “Did we want to win the game against KU? Yes, but more importantly, we are trying to play well. We’re trying to play with more consistency. 

“Kansas is a very good volleyball team — they may be the best team they have had since I have been at Kansas State.”

The Jayhawks, who boast the top offense in the Big 12 — leading the conference in kills, assists and hitting percentage — kept K-State on the defensive for much of the night. 

“KU has some great hitters out there,” K-State junior middle blocker Taylor Johnson said. “You see a great double-quick team, which we haven’t reallyseen all year.  I mean it takes time. I feel like we adapted and got better toward the end and did what we could with it, but, you know, they were good.”

Kansas kept the pressure on the entire match with 48 of its total points coming by way of the kill.  Outside hitters Sara McClinton and Chelsea Albers were especially lethal near the net, tallying 13 and 12 kills respectively. The Jayhawks finished the night with a .230 hitting percentage as setter Erin McNorton facilitated with 41 assists.

K-State seniors Kaitlynn Pelger (11 kills) and Courtney Traxson (10 kills) led the way for K-State — which was without the services of fellow senior Lilla Porubek, who may be lost for the season with an injury. 

A paltry .120 hitting percentage helped spell doom for the Wildcats.  Redshirt-freshman setter Katie Brand paced K-State with 31 assists to go along with five blocks and eight digs.

K-State will now have to erase the 0-2 Big 12 start from its memories as the Wildcats prepare to face TCU on Saturday.

“We’re adjusting to that and trying to do it as quick as possible,” Fritz said. “It’s about improvement, and we were significantly improved tonight. 

“The first two games were very tight.  We feel very good about the direction we are going in.”

The Wildcats had their chances. 

A block by Johnson, followed by an ace from senior libero Tristan McCarty capped a 6-2 K-State run that turned a six-point deficit into a 17-17 tie in the first set. From therethe two teams battled to the tune of four lead changes and six ties to finish the set. 

Johnson was big off the bench in the set, invigorating the Wildcats by sharing the team-high in kills with Pelger at six, while recording two blocks.

“I think that’s just any player’s job,” Johnson said. “You go out their and want to win a ballgame.  You gotta step up and kind of take that to heart. Whether it is a block or a kill you step up and do it for the team.”

The Wildcats were unable to take advantage of an attack error by McClinton that gave them set point at 29-28, when the Jayhawk hitter responded immediately with a kill to tie it at 29-29.  An attack error by Pelger gave KU set point on the ensuing rally before Albers sunk the Wildcats in the first set with the final Kill.

The second set played much like the first with the Wildcats battling to stay afloat, before the two teams see-sawed back and forth into extra points. 

Traxson was a catalyst this time, scoring four of five consecutive K-State points that turned an 11-8 deficit into a 13-11 Wildcat lead midway through the set. 

“It’s momentum,” Traxson said. “ As soon as you get one of those big plays, you can see everybody uplifting, then moving on to the next point and hoping for the same thing.”

But like in the first set, the Wildcats, after trading blows with KU through regulation, a key error downed their hopes late. K-State had a chance at set point at 24-24, but a service error by senior outside hitter Dakota Kauffman led to back-to-back KU blocks on Pelger attacks to give the Jayhawks the set 24-26.

Kansas controlled the third and final set, leading by as many as six points before closing out the match at 19-25.

“We did our best to kind of dig a hole, but just made some really good plays at the end,” KU head coach Ray Bechard said. “We made some big blocks for points, had some big swings. That’s gotta be deflating, but give K-State a lot of credit for battling.

“After 31-29 and 26-24, they came back out and finally we were able to get a little distance in the third set.”

The Wildcats will look to rebound from their 0-2 start when they host TCU on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Ahearn Field House.

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