Wildcats Head into Summer with Positive Spring

The K-State volleyball team wrapped up its spring slate of scrimmages last weekend with a tournament at UMKC, but for the Wildcats, the spring was far more about practices than just weekend scrimmages.

With the departure of six seniors, including five who started or logged significant playing time, the Wildcats immediately became a lot younger after the end of the 2013 season, with more than half of the current Wildcats being sophomores or freshmen. The group needed time to familiarize themselves, with new and old teammates, as roles increased or changed.

“The thing I see is that we have everybody doing a little more” said K-State head coach Suzie Fritz. “We were very dependent on the voice of the last group of seniors – there were a lot of them, so they were great in numbers and their voices stood out over the rest of them. I think the culture, though, has changed dramatically.”

Since February 17, the Wildcats have been practicing 20 hours a week – up from two hours per week in the first few weeks of the semester and minus a week off for spring break. Although there were more than 140 hours worth of practice and scrimmages, the focus on development was limited due to a change in offense.

“Ninety percent of our focus was on offensive rhythm, both in first-swing offense and in transition,” said Fritz. “In that regard, we attacked it, we talked a lot about it, and spent a lot of time on it. I felt like the athletes were really invested in what we were asking them to do, in terms of making offensive changes, speeding some things up, and adding some new personnel.”

K-State had three new players already join the team in the spring: early-arriving freshman outside hitter Kylee Zumach, freshman transfer and outside hitter Brooke Sassin, and sophomore transfer and defensive specialist Sheridan Zarda.

“We came into the spring with a lot of question marks,” said assistant coach Jeff Hulsmeyer. “We had a new player, Kylee Zumach, coming in fresh from high school; Brooke Sassin was a transfer student. I think everyone came together very well. Sheridan Zarda has impacted the team with her ball control and talking on the court. They all feel a lot more confident going into the summer now that they have had a semester under their belt.”

“We made progress with all of them,” said Fritz. “Something that stood out was Kylee Zumach and Brooke Sassin, who are brand new this semester. They have been with us for less than three months, and yet, they are going to have to carry a pretty significant load and be in a very important role as outside hitters for the team. I thought their adjustment and how quickly they made it was pretty significant. They had some ups and downs, but that was to be expected. They were a lot of further along and gained more experience quicker than I expected.”

The adjustment was quicker than anticipated, but with new personnel and a new style of play, some aspects of the game drew less attention. However, as associate head coach Jeff Grove pointed out, lessons were learned over the course of the spring and quickly applied in the right amount of time.

“In the last two weeks, we got better defensively,” said Grove. “We were not so good defensively at Blue Valley West [High School], and then we worked on defending different offensive systems, and it showed in the last weekend [at UMKC].”

The tournament at Blue Valley West High School, which was hosted by K-State, offered the Wildcats the chance to play high-level opponents, such as Illinois and Wichita State – programs that both made the NCAA Tournament in 2013. The Wildcats went unbeaten in their four matches (3-0-1) at Blue Valley West, but spring results are less important than the team coming together at the right moment.

“Things started to come together for us at Blue Valley West,” said Fritz. “Not so much from a performance perspective as much as that was the first opportunity to really test ourselves against good competition and see different types of things. The way that the team responded together and how energized and excited they were to play together was a big turning point just in regards to them really understanding, ‘Hey, we can do this. We could be really good.’”

K-State will add a few more players in the summer, including signees Kali Eaken and Sami Flattum, so there is still plenty of work to be done before the first match of the 2014 season on August 29 in a tournament at Green Bay. Over the course of the next three months – before official practices start on August 9 – the Wildcats will continue working with strength and conditioning coach, Danny Cavender, as well as hold open gyms and scrimmages organized by the team’s leadership council and seniors. The removal of the coaches overseeing all practices will allow the team to continue to work together and build from the ground up.

“I think [the chemistry] is still developing,” said Fritz. “Everyone on this team has a voice, and there is a willingness to let those relationships and that chemistry continue to develop. I don’t think that is something we could expect that would just come in three months necessarily, but we like the direction it is heading.”

Added Grove, “I like the chemistry of this team. I like the way they work together. They seem to be all on board together.”