2014 Review: Youth, Seniors Lead Wildcats

Final 2014 Match Notes Get Acrobat Reader

The 2014 season for K-State volleyball was a surprise to some on the outside as the group of Wildcats were only returning seven letterwinners, lost six seniors from a season ago and were coming off an 18-11 season that consisted of no NCAA Tournament appearance.

However, the group of Wildcats, with a majority of underclassmen but key seniors who played significant roles, jumped out to one of its best starts in program history (13-1) and reached the NCAA Tournament for the third time in the last four years and 15th time in program history.

Along the way, there were some All-American performances (Katie Brand and Kylee Zumach were honorable mentions), a trio of All-Midwest Region honors (Brand, Zumach and honorable mention Katie Reininger) and three All-Big 12 selections (once again Brand and Zumach along with honorable mention Natali Jones). For all those highlights, check out the final notes package here or watch the season highlights here. For some more additional highlights and notes, read below.

Every student-athlete wants to make an impact, especially in the final season of his or her collegiate eligibility. For the Wildcats, two seniors broke out in a big way in their last year at K-State. 

First up, Chelsea Keating. The right-side hitter entered the year with 165 kills, 86 digs, 65 blocks and 8 aces in 131 career sets. In just 2014, Keating went off for 247 kills (1.5 times her previous career total), 266 digs (3 times), 92 blocks (1.4 times) and 28 aces (3.5 times). Not only did the totals trump all of her previous career-highs, but Keating finished as the only player in the Big 12 with 240+ kills, 250+ digs, 90+ blocks and 25+ aces.

The second senior to shine was Natali Jones. Similar to Keating, Jones had low totals in several statistical categories. The Skyline High School and Pratt Community College product had 37 kills, 30 blocks and a .176 hitting percentage in 37 career sets through 2013. Jones went on to dwarf those stats with the 2014 season as she finished with 174 kills (4.7 times career total) and 146 blocks (4.9 times) while hitting .245. The middle blocker even became just the fourth Wildcat in school history to earn AVCA national player of the week honors when she hit well over .600 in back-to-back matches with 12 kills in each contest in mid-October.

Other breakout standouts for the Wildcats included Katie Reininger, who came off a redshirt year in 2013 and finished second on the team with 130 blocks; Kersten Kober, a sophomore who assumed the libero position and became the first Wildcat in three years to total 400+ digs; and Brooke Sassin, who transferred to K-State in the spring after a freshman season at Mississippi State and finished second on the team with 312 kills.

The biggest breakout star for K-State, though, was freshman outside hitter Kylee Zumach. The Buffalo, Minnesota native arrived on the K-State campus in the spring, using the extra semester to adjust to the college game and the transition went off smoother than could be expected. Zumach set the K-State freshman record for kills in a season with a team-best 412 while she also hit .258 (Despite being a] a freshman and b] an outside hitter, Zumach hit over .300 in 14 of her 31 matches played). She became the first Wildcat to do a number of things on the volleyball court in addition to the season's worth of kills, including first to be named Big 12 Rookie of the Week three weeks in a row and five times total in a season, Big 12 Freshman of the Year, All-Region Freshman of the Year, All-Big 12 First Team and All-America Honorable Mention. 

Watch a profile on Kylee Zumach here.

Much was made of K-State's youth entering the season, by no fault to anybody since the roster featured 14 underclassmen (and only two having previously played a match in a K-State uniform). By the end of the season, the point was pushed aside with the weight of 22 wins and a 9-7 Big 12 record. A sizable portion of the underclassmen were everyday contributors as six freshmen or sophomores played in at least 111 of K-State's 116 matches this season. It marked the first time in program history a half-dozen Wildcat underclassmen played in 111 or more sets in a season, beating the previous high of five in 2010.

K-State has faced a 0-2 set deficit 98 times since 2001. In those 98 instances, the Wildcats have gone on to lose 90 times, which isn't all that surprising considering the sport is a game of momentum. Sparking that momentum is a daunting task as it would take beating your opponent three times in the next four sets while on the brink of elimination. Seems slightly overwhelming on paper, let alone in action. 

This year, K-State faced a 0-2 hole eight times. Out of those eight times, the Wildcats were able to force a fifth set three times and come away with a win twice. Simple math: 25% of K-State's wins when down 0-2 in the last 14 years took place over two weeks in 2014. 

The first 0-2 comeback was on November 1...at home...against Texas Tech...in a not-so-typical 1 pm Saturday conference match. The Wildcats dropped a narrow first set and were put away easily in the second, but with 25-23 and 30-28 wins in the third and fourth, respectively, K-State overcame the slow start to beat the Red Raiders for the second time this season after a 15-9 win in the fifth. The victory against Texas Tech was the first 0-2 comeback win for K-State since Nov. 5, 2011. (Watch highlights here).

While it took almost exactly three years between 0-2 come-from-behind wins, the Wildcats did it again just two weeks later, this time on the road at Baylor. It was the first time since 2008 that K-State had a pair of 0-2 comeback wins in a single season (side note: the Wildcats' two 0-2 comeback wins in 2008 were also exactly two weeks apart: Oct. 11 and Oct. 25). 

The Wildcats' last eight rallies from a 0-2 hole were two in 2014, one in 2011, two in 2008, one in 2005 (Oct. 15) and two in 2003 (Oct. 29 and Nov. 12...two weeks apart, of course)

Setter Katie Brand contributed aplenty during the 2014 campaign. Being one of only two players last year who played in every set, the redshirt sophomore was a veteran beyond her athletic eligibility level. She showcased her all-around abilities by registering 20 double-doubles this season, the most of any Big 12 player. The 20 double-doubles were also relevant in K-State history as they are the most by a Wildcat sophomore (previous high was 18) while they are tied for the third-most by any Wildcat, regardless of athletic class standing. Brand helped establish the figure of 20 by recording a double-double in 12 consecutive matches from Sept. 8-Oct. 8, the longest such streak in K-State history. She reached peak double-double in the midst of that streak on Sept. 19 at Michigan when she became the first Wildcat since 2011 to notch a triple-double. In the four-set win against the Wolverines, Brand had 42 assists, a career-high 11 blocks and 10 digs. In her career, Brand has 31 double-doubles, which are the most by a Wildcat through a freshman and sophomore campaign.

Assisted by Brand's 11 block assists, K-State set a program-record for blocks in a four-set match when it had 23.5 at Michigan in mid-September. The block total bested the previous school record of 23.0 set on Nov. 7, 1998 at Colorado (head coach Suzie Fritz and associate head coach Jeff Grove were assistant coaches on that year's team). Also, the 23.5 blocks are now tied for the second-most by the Wildcats in any match, trailing the 25.0 in a five-set contest on Nov. 1, 2006 at Colorado.

In the match against the Maize and Blue, K-State had just 2.0 blocks in the opening set loss. Thereafter, the Wildcats went off, tallying 7.0 in the second, 8.0 in the third and 6.5 in the fourth. In addition to Brand, Katie Reininger (13 blocks) and Natali Jones (10) had double-digit blocks while Chelsea Keating (4), Kylee Zumach (4) and Brooke Sassin (3) also placed their names on the block ledger.

The 23.5 blocks went on to help K-State finish with 333.0 blocks over the entire season, its most since setting the program-record with 357.0 in 2007.

A few streaks from the 2014 season...
11-match winning streak from Sept. 4-20, second-longest over the last 11 seasons and tied for the fourth-longest under head coach Suzie Fritz in the last 14 years
9-match home winning streak from Nov. 3, 2013-Sept. 16, 2014, which was its longest since it won 14-straight home contests from Oct. 26, 2011-Oct. 3, 2012
7-match winning streak in true road matches (Aug. 29-Oct. 25), tying the longest in school history (2003)
Active 17-match winning streak against nonconference opponents at home (25-1 since 2010)

K-State volleyball calls Ahearn Field House home. The historic building is raucous throughout the season, with its brick walls holding volume levels higher than the Ahearn ceiling. However, this season, the Wildcats held their annual "preseason" tournament (with "preseason" actually meaning "nonconference" in volleyball terms) in Bramlage Coliseum. After three days of matches during the Varney's Invitational in early September, K-State walked away 3-0 against the likes of Arkansas, Middle Tennessee and UCF. Not only were the Wildcats undefeated in the matches, but they did not even drop a set to the three visitors. In fact, of the seven matches K-State has played in Bramlage over the years, the Wildcats have never lost a set in the building. The Wildcats hosted a tournament in Bramlage in 2003, facing USF, LSU and Colorado State, while also taking on Iowa State on Oct. 8, 2005. After all said and done, K-State volleyball is 7-0 all-time in Bramlage and 21-0 in sets.

Senior Natali Jones rarely toed the service line in a match in her career before the start of 2014, and even through the first 13 matches of the season, she had no aces and three service errors to show for her new role. On Sept. 20 vs. Youngstown State, though, the middle blocker not only registered her first career ace, she went on to notch another one to give her two in the match. The match against the Penguins set Jones' ace total on a roll, as she had 15 aces over the final 18 matches of the season, which paced the entire team over the stretch. Her average aces per set over the final 18-match span? It was 0.22, besting fellow senior Chelsea Keating (who had a team-best 28 aces over the entire season) for the team-lead.

Defensive specialists recording a kill happens less often than a kicker missing an extra point in football. It's a fluke play in volleyball, so there's no reason to expect it. However, senior Gina Madonia recorded a kill, the second of her career nonetheless, on Oct. 8 vs. Iowa State (go to the 1:31 mark in this K-StateHD.TV highlight video). The defensive specialist was left to scramble for the third touch, just trying to free ball it back to the Cyclones to give her and the Wildcat defense an opportunity to notch a point on the rally. Madonia's lunging cross-court lob over the net was mishandled by Iowa State, though, giving the Wildcats a 10-7 lead in third set. K-State would lose the third, 25-23, but it won the match, 3-1, its third straight win over Iowa State in Manhattan. (For the record, K-State went 2-0 in matches when Madonia had a kill - her first career kill was on Sept. 21, 2013 vs. Saint Louis, a 3-1 K-State victory.)