SE: Katie Brand Finds Greatness in Time at K-State

Long before Katie Brand ever played volleyball in a K-State uniform, head coach Suzie Fritz could see signs of greatness in her. They only pointed toward the possibility for something special, however. They didn’t guarantee it would happen. 

“It takes the right combination of things for greatness to occur,” Fritz said after practice on Monday. 

Brand, as it’s turned out, possesses a rare set of abilities — both innate and self-produced — that have elevated her to be one of the best setters in the country and in K-State history. 

Not that either should be a surprise. Brand was voted as the Big 12 Co-Freshman of the Year in the preseason poll in 2013, before she had ever played a collegiate match. From day one, she had the attention of opposing coaches and the trust of her teammates as well. 

“She’s going to be one of the best setters that K-State has ever had,” All-America outside hitter Kaitlyn Pelger said during media day in 2013. “She comes in, works hard and she wants to get the perfect set for everyone every single time.”

The writing was on the wall, and now Brand’s name is among the best to ever set in a K-State uniform. 

Brand ranks second all-time at K-State for career assists in the rally-scoring era (since 2001) with 4,743. She has recorded 67 career double-doubles, two away from tying Kim Zschau for the top mark in K-State history. Additionally, Brand is one of three Wildcats since 2001 with multiple 1,200-assist seasons and one of only eight to ever to record at least 4,000 assists and 1,000 digs in a career. 

“All the signs were there, given the right opportunity and the right kind of growth, that she could get there,” Fritz said. “She’s exceptionally high achieving…maybe one of the highest achieving people we’ve ever had. I don’t say that lightly because we’ve had a lot of really, really high achieving people, but her combination of dedication, intelligence, competitiveness, work ethic, it’s kind of unusual, and she’s like that in every facet of her life.”

For as long she can remember, Brand said volleyball has been a major part of her life. Her mother, Mary Brand, played at Hastings Community College and made the sport a regular activity within the family. 

It certainly stuck, as the future Wildcat became enamored with the sport. Sure, she played basketball and tennis in high school, earning all-state honors in both sports, but Brand did so mostly to avoid burning out on volleyball. 

“It was always volleyball,” said Brand, still thankful she played three sports at Central Catholic High School in Grand Island, Nebraska. “I would say that’s a big reason why I love it so much because I never got burnt out. I never felt like this was a job. It was always fun.”

To no surprise, Brand also grew up a Nebraska fan and had early dreams of playing for the powerhouse program. When the Cornhuskers recruited a pair of setters from her class, Brand moved on with the intent to play somewhere else. 

Where she ended up was a bit of a surprise, even to her. 

“To be honest, I didn’t know anything about K-State. I didn’t want to come here at first,” said Brand, who was convinced by one person to come to Manhattan. “Suzie Fritz, 100 percent. She’s as good as it gets. I fully believe she’s the best coach in the NCAA.” 

Brand still considers Fritz a life guide, directing her to paths for improvement on and off the court. Ask Fritz, however, and Brand deserves more credit for her many achievements. 

The senior setter has been selected to the Academic All-Big 12 First Team four times and the Academic All-District 7 First Team twice. She’s also earned a spot on the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll five times and was named as one of 10 finalists for the 2016 Senior CLASS Award in collegiate volleyball. The award measures notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom, character and competition. 

“She’s incredibly high achieving academically and just the way she leads her life, her commitment to her faith, how she values work,” Fritz said. “She’s pretty special.”

On the court, Brand has been equally impressive.

She ranks first in the Big 12 and 12th nationally this season in assists per set (11.34), less than half an assist per set away from the top four. The two-time AVCA All-America Honorable Mention also holds the second-most double-doubles in the Big 12, which she is the active leader for career assists by nearly a 1,000. 

“I remember her from third grade, she would come to my little kids camp and she would win all the ball-handling competitions,” Sharon Zavala, Brand’s head coach at Grand Island, said, “and I had middle school kids. She had all of the skills.” 

Brand’s value has always gone well beyond that of a traditional setter. As a senior in high school, Zavala said Brand recorded 390 kills as the setter in a 5-1 formation. 

“I actually had to have her pass and hit on the first ball, and then she became the 5-1 setter. I needed her passing and she could sideout for us,” Zavala said. “When (K-State) recruited her as a setter, I said to them, ‘You can’t go wrong with this girl because if she’s not your number one setter, you can use her at libero. This girl can play defense and pass like no other.’ 

“She was a no-brainer to be successful at the Division I level.”

The 6-foot-1 Wildcat has continued to serve as a jack-of-all-trades, with 118 kills, 295 digs and 71 blocks this season. Among the other setters ranked in the top 20 nationally for assists per set, only two have more kills than Brand, two have more digs and three have more blocks. None of them have Brand beat in more than one of those categories, however. 

“Katie’s unique in that it’s not just about setting for Katie. It’s all of the other things that she can do,” Fritz said. “She’s phenomenal when we’re bad at passing. She can do things at the net in terms of a blocker and an attacker that I’m not sure any other setter in the country can do. She has unique gifts for sure.” 

Those unique gifts took time to mature and acclimate at the Division I level, a process that was helped by Brand redshirting her first season at K-State. 

“You think you’re pretty good until you get to Division I volleyball, and then you have to catch up with the speed, you have to catch up with the people around you,” said Brand, who was able to learn from Caitlyn Donahue, the only K-State player in history to finish their career ranked in the program’s top 10 for assists and digs. “She was just such an athlete, I think I appreciated that the most about her, because she wasn’t really a true setter. They turned her into a setter when she got here, so it was fun to watch her style of play and how she would do anything to win the point.”

After a year of watching from the sidelines, practicing as much as possible and becoming comfortable in K-State’s system, it was Brand’s time to shine. Before the season even started, however, she realized her game still needed plenty of polishing. 

In Brand’s mind, her first match as a Wildcat wasn’t in August when the 2013 season officially began. For her, it was in a different country during the previous summer, when K-State participated in the World University Games in Russia. 

“It was super competitive, and we didn’t do well,” Brand said of the trip, which included K-State securing one win, against Norway, out of six matches. “I felt like I got the first taste of it there. That was nerve-racking…definitely eye-opening.”

“At that point in time I remember thinking she’s got a ways to go,” Fritz added. “It wasn’t that long after, maybe midway through what would’ve been her redshirt freshman year, we started to see glimpses.”

Those glimpses of great play soon became stretches. Now, it’s just an expected routine. 

“She is so athletic, she works so hard and she’s so talented,” senior libero Kersten Kober said. “She’s willing to go get every ball, she’s extremely mindful and competitive. She’s just so good."

Brand has been especially good in Ahearn Field House. Of her 10 matches this year with 50 or more assists, eight have come in the place Brand said she would remember for a number of reasons. 

“The fans, and for me it’s special that it’s so close to home. My family is always here. It’s the best environment, I think, in the Big 12. It’s so hard to play here,” she said. “It’s incredible how many home wins we have compared to our away wins because it’s so hard to play here and every team says that.” 

Brand, along with fellow seniors Katie Reininger, Brooke Sassin and Kober, will take the court in Ahearn for the final time on Saturday at 6 p.m., as K-State (19-9, 8-7) hosts Texas Tech in its final regular-season match. 

“I’m just trying not to think about it. I think for all of the seniors it’s going to be really hard, but we love this place and we don’t want to leave,” Brand said. “I think a lot of times you have seniors who are ready to be done, and that’s really not the case with this team. It’ll be hard.”

The Wildcats’ record and their RPI ranking of 19 indicate they should be a lock for a trip to the NCAA Tournament, which would be the third in Brand’s four years on the court. 

While the end is approaching, Brand is not ready to be done anytime soon. 

“The perfect ending would honestly be getting past the first and second round. Making it to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, is really the goal,” Brand said. “Just playing as long and as hard as we can. There’s no way the senior class is going to give in and we just need to keep that mindset the whole way through.”