SE: K-State VB Players Improve from Summer CNT Experiences

Katie Brand experienced it twice, seeing her game go to another level each time. Now, K-State volleyball’s senior setter is eager to witness similar growth in two teammates who received the same opportunity. 

Bryna Vogel, a junior opposite, and Brooke Sassin, a senior outside hitter, both participated in the U.S. Collegiate National Team-Indianapolis program in June with 34 other players from across the country. 

Brand took part in the program in 2014 and 2015, helping elevate her game to First Team All-Big 12 level as a sophomore and junior. 

“I was so excited for them to go, especially knowing my experience in the past and how much I enjoyed it and came back so fired up,” said Brand, who was part of the 12-player Collegiate National Team (CNT-China) that toured China this summer. “I got to come back, talk to them about their experience and they felt the same way. It’s fun to come back, have that sort of confidence and see that in them already.”

CNT-Indianapolis is part of USA Volleyball’s High Performance pipeline, being considered a second tryout for the U.S. Women’s National Team. Players selected first went through tryouts in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with the 36 chosen being divided into three 12-player teams to compete in a round-robin tournament. 

“Those experiences raise your expectations for the level at which you are capable of playing at. And it’s not as if your teammates — your collegiate teammates — aren’t good, but it is another level of competitiveness, it’s another level of work, it is, in some ways, the best of the best,” said K-State head coach Suzie Fritz, whose team started official practices earlier this week. 

“To keep up, you have to find another level of execution, another level of play. So I think the biggest thing they get out of it is it just raises expectations, raises their standards,” Fritz continued, “and what have I seen is, most of the time, they come back and go, ‘Yeah, I can play at that level. I loved it. I felt good. I felt comfortable. I felt prepared,’ and I think it gives them a little bit of confidence too.”  

On the court, Sassin and Vogel’s Red team went a perfect 3-0, allowing the Wildcats to return to Manhattan with plenty to remember.  

“It was a very good experience,” Sassin said. “The biggest thing I took away from it was all of the girls I met, friendships that I made and how close you become playing with these people for two weeks.”

“It was really cool to play with other girls,” added Vogel, who was third in kills (263) and digs (329) in 2015 for K-State. “They were really, really good, so that was something that pushed me to be better as well.”

From a volleyball standpoint, the nine-day experience enhanced both Wildcats’ games in different ways. 

“We really spent time celebrating each point and really focusing on one at a time, and I think that really helped our team because we just kept getting the momentum. So I can bring that back, to focus on each and every point, rather than the big picture,” Vogel said. “From my own standpoint, something I have been working on is communication. So seeing how other people communicated, it made me see what I should do to help my team that way.”

For Sassin, who led K-State with 378 kills last season, pitting her skills against some of the best in the country was a benefit in itself. Additionally, she said learning to come together with new players quickly was a positive from her time there. 

“We got in a lot of passing reps in back row,” Sassin said of another plus. “I think that helped me take big strides forward, getting served at by some really good servers and hit at by some really big players. That helped a lot.”
Meanwhile, Brand was on another continent representing the United States and honing in her skills as well. 

With notable stops in Shanghai and Beijing, Brand took part in a series of matches across the country, including a win against a professional Chinese team before later topping a Pac 12 All-Star team in a scrimmage.

To cap the competitive side of the trip, Brand’s team captured the championship at the China-U.S. Super Women’s Volleyball Challenge, defeating the Chinese Junior National Team for the top spot. 

“It’s crazy to be able to wear that name on your back and know that people are really pulling for you over here,” Brand said of representing the U.S. “You’re going over there and you’re representing the entire country, and everyone who had to try out, everyone who went through that, you really want to perform for them.”

Brand left China with a batch of new friends and memories to last a lifetime. She said walking the Great Wall of China was among her favorite activities, while being able to share her volleyball knowledge with local children was a special moment as well. 

“We didn’t speak their language,” she said. “So it was cool to see how volleyball was our universal language and all we had to do was make motions and they could figure it out.”

Brand also gained a new perspective on building relationships, which was especially important with new teammates, little time and against stout competition. 

“That’s something sometimes you take for granted when you play with the same people every day,” Brand said. “For me, that was something that I was so happy to be back with my own (teammates), my own family, but really I’m trying to build on those relationships more, knowing how much I put into the relationships I had when I was in China.” 

K-State opens its season against Arizona on August 26, at the Chevron Rainbow Wahine Invitational in Honolulu, Hawaii, where the Wildcats will also play Hawaii and Wisconsin — both ranked in the top 10 of the AVCA Coaches poll. The Wildcats start home play against Michigan on September 2, as part of the K-State Invitational in Ahearn Field House.