In this series, The Mercury asked K-State coaches to identify their favorite game they’ve coached with the Wildcats. In this edition, volleyball head coach Suzie Fritz reflects on K-State’s 2011 NCAA Tournament win over Nebraska.
Take a look around Suzie Fritz’s office and you might not notice anything peculiar — not right away, at least. The Kansas State volleyball coach has accomplished quite a bit — she led the program to its only conference title in 2003, among other accolades and honors — so she’s set up memorabilia.
Look a little closer, though, and you might notice something that stands out — in a weird way.
In a display case sits a white ball of tape, about the size of a basketball.
“But not in the shape of a basketball,” Fritz said. “It’s truly, like, this wadded up thing. It’s not really interesting.”
The reason she has it is, though:
The tape comes from the floor of the old Nebraska Coliseum in Lincoln, Neb., where in December 2011, Fritz guided her unranked K-State club to a 3-2 upset over No. 2 Nebraska in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats captured a spot in the Sweet 16 — in Hawaii, no less.
Fritz, who has spent 19 seasons at the helm of the program, called the win the most memorable match she’s coached at K-State. She had trouble identifying a favorite — “As a coach, you don’t necessarily have a favorite,” she said — but she remembers this win fondly for several reasons.
Here’s a big one: Nebraska had advanced to the Sweet 16 each of the previous 17 seasons, which was the longest active streak in the country. The Huskers, titans in their field, hadn’t suffered a home NCAA Tournament loss in nine years.
Besides, a rivalry had long existed between K-State and Nebraska. This was the Huskers’ first season in the Big Ten, and the Wildcats had dropped the previous 14 decisions while the teams competed in the Big 12. But still: This matchup was a rivalry, if only because of geographic proximity.
Plus, headed into that match, unranked teams faced long odds against second-seeded opponents in the tournament. Fritz couldn’t remember the exact record, but she recalls hearing that unranked teams are roughly 1-74 in those scenarios.
“And we,” Fritz said, “were the one.”
Here’s how they became the one, what Fritz remembers about it and the events that led to her son — she isn’t sure which of the two it was, but she thinks it was T.J. — handing her a ball of tape afterward.
K-State won the first set, 25-22, and seized a quick 1-0 match lead before Nebraska responded with a 25-22 win in the second. One set later, the Wildcats won a 31-29 marathon, but the Huskers secured a 25-22 win in Set 4 and forced a fifth and final set.
That set the stage for one of the most important sets in program history.
“I don’t remember who won and who lost (each game),” Fritz said. “I just know we won the last one.”
Did they ever.
The Wildcats raced to an 8-5 lead, benefiting from a Nebraska attack error before the teams switched sides to mark the halfway point of the set.
From there, K-State and Nebraska continued to swap points, but the Wildcats never let the Huskers creep closer than two. Even when Nebraska threatened to draw closer, middle blocker Alex Muff produced a timely kill to stretch the visitors’ lead to 10-7.
“Probably one of the best blockers we’ve ever had,” Fritz said of Muff.
Finally, when middle blocker Kaitlynn Pelger delivered a kill to hand K-State a 14-10 lead, the Wildcats were on the verge.
Moments later, after the Huskers parried a Pelger serve and a short rally ensued, Nebraska outside hitter Gina Mancuso rose up for a kill. She swung her right arm forward and struck it.
Three Wildcats leapt for a block, and good thing none succeeded, because the ball sailed — barely — out of bounds.
Point K-State. Game over.
The seven Wildcats already on the court fell to their knees in euphoria while the other eight rushed to join them, screaming and laughing in the kind of delirious celebration few visitors ever experienced in that coliseum of 4,000.
Minutes later, the happy reality set in for libero Kuulei Kabalis, who hails from Hilo, Hawaii. Fritz joined a throng of teammates in surrounding Kabalis, who beamed as she came to the realization.
K-State’s next stop: Honolulu.
“I’m going home!” she screamed.
Seconds later, as the on-court festivities began to taper off and the Wildcats broke a huddle, Pelger turned to Fritz, their faces flush with joy. Pelger told Fritz, “I don’t think it gets better than this,” as the two embraced.
Fritz was elated for the team — don’t get her wrong. She just has high expectations, and her team met them that Friday night.
“So at the end of the match, I wasn’t necessarily going to Disneyland,” said Fritz, whose squad fell to Pepperdine one match later in the Sweet 16. “I genuinely thought we had a team that was going to win the match. So I was wonderfully happy, but not terribly surprised, because I thought we had the team that could win.”
Turns out, she was right.
For her intuition, she received, well, a ball of tape.
“That’s basically what I have to remember it by,” Fritz said. “My celebration was basically inheriting a big wad of floor tape.”