SE: Hitting Hawaii — Wildcats Ready for Early Tests

Upon adding Hawaii’s Rainbow Wahine Invitational to the 2016 schedule nine months ago, K-State head volleyball coach Suzie Fritz knew two of the other teams in the field: Arizona and the host school, a powerhouse volleyball program. 

When Fritz heard of the final team — Wisconsin, preseason ranked fourth in the country in the AVCA Coaches Poll — she had her concerns about the trip. Now, she’s more at ease.   

“I was wondering at that time whether we had bit off a little bit more than we could chew. Now, nine months later, I am optimistic about our opportunities,” said Fritz, whose team returns 11 letterwinners from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad. “If there’s ever a year where we’re going to be ready to open up like that, it’s going to be this one.” 

K-State returns every starter from a year ago, which the Wildcats ended in a tie for fourth in the Big 12. They also bring back the conference’s 2014 Freshman of the Year in Kylee Zumach, who missed the majority of last season with a knee injury. 

All-Big 12 performers in setter Katie Brand, outside hitter Brooke Sassin and middle blocker Katie Reininger return for their senior seasons, as does libero Kersten Kober, who recorded a personal-best 500 digs last year to make her the Big 12’s active leader in career digs entering this year. 

Coming up the ranks for K-State are Alyssa Schultejans and Macy Flowers, both All-Big 12 Freshman team selections last season, looking to build off their first year’s experience. 

“It’s the perfect set up for us and the team,” Sassin said. “We do have a lot of high expectations, but I think they’re all achievable and we’re on the right path to taking care of them.”

The Wildcats’ 2016 journey begins Friday against Arizona, which received 68 votes in the AVCA’s first poll. Arizona went 19-14 last season and is coming off its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance that saw Penina Snuka earn her second consecutive All-America honor as a setter. 

K-State does have some insight into Arizona, however. Sophomore setter Sarah Dixon played at Arizona last season before transferring to K-State, where her brain has been picked for information on her former team.  

“(Assistant coach Jeff) Grove was trying to get all the information from her,” said Brand. “We’re definitely trying to get geared up for them a little extra knowing we have her on our team.” 

The Wildcats will then take on Hawaii, which recorded a 29-2 record last season that included a run to the Regional final. Hawaii, preseason ranked sixth in the nation, brings back five starters, highlighted by Second Team All-America opposite Nikki Taylor to go along with three other All-Big West picks. 

“We’re just working really hard,” said junior opposite Bryna Vogel, who tallied 263 kills last season, third most on the team. “Knowing that we’re going to play such good teams right off the bat, working hard and doing the best that we can in practice is the best that we can do to get ready to play them.”

To close the gauntlet of a start to the season, K-State faces off with Wisconsin. The Badgers, who went 26-7 last year, return three All-America players and six starters from last year’s third consecutive Sweet 16 team. 

To Zumach, who was once committed to the Badgers, the match means a little something extra. 

“I’m really excited to kind of show them what they’re missing out on,” the Buffalo, Minnesota native said, half seriously. “No, I’m really excited to go out there and play all of the teams, but Wisconsin kind of a little bit more.” 

Regardless of the outcomes, the three-match outing in Hawaii should serve as an early measuring stick for the Wildcats. 

“I think that will be good for us. I really do,” said Schultejans, who finished last year with 262 kills and a team-high 25 aces. “Playing those good teams right off the bat will really give us an idea of where we’re at and what we need to work on, and it will kind of expose our weaknesses so we know where to go and what to work on.”

Brand, a two-time First Team All-Big 12 setter, echoed Schultejans’ comments. 

“We’re able to talk about that openly. I think last year we didn’t have as tough of a preseason, clearly, so we focused on ourselves a little bit more, and we’re still focusing on ourselves, doing everything we can on our side of the net to prepare and be the best that we can be because, clearly, that’s what matters the most,” the senior said, “but still knowing we’re having these big teams coming in, every little mistake, every little error, they’re magnified, and I think that’s what we’re preparing for in practice.”

Outside of volleyball, Schultejans said she’s looking forward to the beach and snorkeling, while Sassin is simply excited to visit Hawaii for the first time. 

Still, they all know what the trip is really about. 

“If things go our way it can definitely tell us we can be a top-25 team, we are a top-25 team and we deserve to be playing with those teams all the time,” said Sassin, coming off the first Double-300 season (378 kills, 324 digs) by a Wildcat outside hitter since 1999. “The competition that’s in that tournament is an awesome opener for us, and I think that will really show us where we’re at.”