SE: Intangible Traits Set Kober on Path to Success
SE: Intangible Traits Set Kober on Path to Success
The words caught Kersten Kober by surprise.
“Kober, you’re serving.”
Three words from K-State head coach Suzie Fritz, sending Kober into her first college volleyball match as a true freshman. For a brief second, Kober was frozen by moment.
“I just stood there, thinking, ‘What? Me? Are you sure?’” recalled Kober, whose internal reaction may have resembled that of a freshman, but her play certainly did not. She went on to be named to the all-tournament team at the UNLV Invitational, setting up an excellent first season and an accomplished K-State career. “I got very lucky with that opportunity and I’m so grateful that I got the chance to do that.”
In reality, luck had little to do with Kober being in that match. What did play a role was an impression Kober left on K-State’s coaching staff at a summer camp.
“Very quickly you realized that she’s just not afraid,” Fritz said. “She wants you to hit it at her hard and she gets ticked off when you don’t. So pretty early on there was a fearlessness that we were able to identify.”
In time, Kober’s other strengths came to light, revealing a rare collection of traits that helped her become a standout on and off the volleyball court.
As a libero, a large part of Kober’s job is to keep the ball from hitting her team’s side of the court. This often requires her to dive, lunge or hurl her body all over the court, which doesn’t exactly provide the softest landing.
Kober isn’t one to let pain deter from playing, however.
“That kid is gritty. I wouldn’t want to get in a fight with her,” K-State assistant coach Trent Sorensen said. “She could be bandaged up and would still stand up, get going and tell you, ‘I’m fine.’ She’ll look you right in the eye and tell you she’s fine, when you know that she’s about ready to fall apart. To me, I think it inspires a lot of the other kids to work as hard as she does and sacrifice as much as she does.”
“If I had to define her in one word, it would be toughness,” Fritz added. “She is one of the toughest players, I think, I’ve ever coached, in terms of her ability to play through injury, in terms of her willingness to sacrifice bodily harm to make plays, so she’s incredibly tough.”
In Kober’s career, she’s played in all but one match out of 100. It’s not that her body is impervious to injury. Kober simply doesn’t let pain prevent her from playing.
“It’s mind over matter, for sure,” she said. “There’s not going to be a whole lot that keeps me from stepping out on the court. I’m going to do my best to be out there and a little pain isn’t going to affect me.”
Kober’s toughness, Fritz said, only enhances her other valuable traits.
“That’s when you really figure out just how bad she wants it, because she, at different times, has played significantly beat up,” Fritz said. “To her credit, she’s faking it pretty well sometimes and has managed that extraordinarily well, as well we could’ve ever asked.
“She’s the poster child for discipline, focus and work ethic. When you combine that with toughness, she’s pretty special.”
When Kober sets her mind on achieving something, good luck trying to stop her.
“She’s going 110 percent all the time,” K-State senior Brooke Sassin said of Kober. “She’s so driven, so focused. If anyone could accomplish all of their goals, I would pick her.”
Kober shifted her primary sport from softball to volleyball as a sophomore at Southlake Carroll High School in Texas. She went on to letter in her final three seasons and developed even further with her club team, which ironically included Sorensen as a coach.
Even then, Kober’s determination seemed capable of taking her wherever she wanted.
“To me, there’s always a question mark when you’re looking at kids who are super athletic, and it’s whether they can continue to progress,” Sorensen, in his second season at K-State, said. “Her mindset, her mentality and her work ethic combined with that athleticism was pretty special early on, and I think you’re seeing the fruits of it now.”
After enjoying a breakout freshman season, Kober’s drive never slowed down. If anything, it increased.
“Even on Christmas break, she’d come in and I’d serve her balls,” Sorensen said. “That’s the type of dedication I’m talking about. That kid has always been so focused and so dedicated that whatever she wants to go after, she’s going to get.”
Athletics is far from the only driving force in Kober’s life. She has envisioned becoming an attorney since she was little, a dream she’s continued to pursue with the same level of focus and determination.
“I set a very high standard for myself, both athletically and academically,” said Kober, an accounting major seeking to become a sports and entertainment attorney. “Sports have made such an impact in my life and I’m not ready to be done with it yet, so I want to surround myself with athletics as long as I possibly can.”
Kober’s academic honors outnumber her athletic ones, which is no small feat.
The senior, who has held a 4.0 GPA throughout her time at K-State, was recently awarded her third Academic All-Big 12 First Team honor. She’s also been on the Big 12 Academic All-Rookie Team, the CoSIDA Academic All-District 7 Team (twice), the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll (six times) and was named the Big 12 Volleyball Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 2015.
She credits her parents for setting this standard of academic excellence and her time-management skills for maintaining it through the busy schedule of a student-athlete.
“In every aspect of her life, she is on task. In fact, if she has a weakness, it is that she is on task all of the time,” said Fritz, who has emphasized to Kober the importance of not overthinking on the court. “She’s had to work very hard to find joy in the process of work, because she’s a worker, and to kind of free herself up to just simply play. But the effort base she’s willing to bring on a daily basis is pretty special.”
If there was one piece missing, or at least not fully developed, when Kober first stepped foot on campus, it was confidence.
It’s a trait Fritz said her staff tries to develop in all players, but when it began to take hold in Kober, it became noticeable almost immediately.
“When you saw her go from good to great, it wasn’t about anything that she was doing from a skill perspective, it wasn’t about anything we were doing, it was more about her level of belief and confidence in herself and her abilities,” Fritz said. “That’s when you really saw her take another step as a player.”
The numbers would agree.
Kober became the first K-State freshman libero to have at least 200 digs in a season since 2004. As a sophomore, she nearly doubled her output with 413.
“I think getting the opportunity to play so early gave me a lot of confidence. It prepared me for the role as a libero a lot faster,” she said. “It gave me a lot of confidence for years to come.”
Kober posted 500 digs as a junior, averaging 5.16 digs per set in conference play, the highest conference average by a Wildcat since 2002.
“She makes those crazy plays when you think the play might be over and you see her flailing around and it’s up,” Sassin said. “I think that is a really big momentum push for us during big games.”
In the rally-scoring era (since 2001), Kober ranks third on K-State’s all-time digs list with 1,500. She also holds the single-match, four-set record with 32 digs while ranking second in five-set matches with 37.
“She’s become more steady, more consistent and much more confident than she was before,” Sorensen said. “The confidence came with the more success she had. It’s nice to see her grow in that area.”
Confidence, Kober agreed, has helped her progression immensely.
“It’s a mind game for sure,” she said. “If you think you can do it, you’re going to have a better chance of actually doing it than if you’re complacent or not willing to take risks and step out of your comfort zone.”
Kober has also learned to lead both by example and verbally, the latter of which was another step outside of her comfort zone.
“I think early on, Kobes was about doing her job and doing her job well. To me the true definition of leadership isn’t what you do for yourself, it’s what you can do for other people,” Fritz said. “That is where she’s at now. She has the ability to raise the entire team’s expectations, and because of how she works, we listen. When Kobes says it’s time to go, you go, because of the examples she provides.”
Kober credits K-State’s coaches for fostering the confidence she needed to evolve into a complete leader. It’s yet another reason why she said her time at K-State has been more than she originally expected.
“I tell people all the time, it’s been the best time of my life,” said Kober, whose top memories as a Wildcat include beating Kansas in Lawrence as a sophomore, claiming two important wins in Hawaii this season, making multiple NCAA Tournaments, experiencing the atmosphere of Ahearn Field House and making her debut as a Wildcat. “There’s so many. It’s gone by so fast.”
As K-State approaches the end of the season, with three matches left before the NCAA Tournament selections are made, Kober has passed along some words of wisdom to her younger teammates.
“Enjoy every moment of it because it goes by so fast,” she said, with K-State’s second-to-last home match set for Wednesday at 7 p.m., against Oklahoma. “Embrace every opportunity, take advantage of your resources and enjoy the people you’re surrounded by because the people are the things that make the experience great.”