Wildcats Report for First Official Practices

  VIDEO:  First Day Recap

The 2015 K-State volleyball season is officially underway.

The Wildcats reported for official practices on Sunday, going through all of the preseason checklists and meetings before taking part in the first training session of the season on Monday morning. K-State, which returns eight letterwinners from last year’s 22-win squad, will have a first week packed with 11 practices over seven days. 

“I think we came out like the work list got longer,” said K-State head coach Suzie Fritz, who is entering her 15th season at the helm of the program, after the Monday morning practice. “There were some positive things. We like their approach. They were maybe more focused, like they had matured since we had worked with them last [in April]. Certainly the intentions, the investment and their commitment levels were extremely high and really positive. That’s a good start.”

Unlike last season, when some key roles were up for grabs, this year’s group of starters is a little more established due in part to five players returning who played in at least 111 of K-State’s 116 sets last season.

That group is highlighted by All-Americans and Big 12 Preseason Team selections, Katie Brand and Kylee Zumach. The return of Brand and Zumach marks the first time in program history that the Wildcats will welcome back a pair of All-American selections from the previous season. 

Brand, a two-year starter at the setter position, enters her redshirt junior season with 2,330 career assists along with 207 kills, 191 blocks, 564 digs and 42 aces. The all-around player also trained with the USA Volleyball’s Collegiate National Team program for the second summer in a row this past June in New Orleans.

“It’s an impactful experience for her,” said Fritz about Brand’s time with the CNT program. “She’s highly competitive. She has an opportunity to surround herself with the best of the best. It raises her expectations, too, which is pretty hard to do with a player like Katie Brand, who has exceptionally high expectations to begin with. I think she comes back with a new understanding, new expectations and the hope is she can get that to permeate through her team a little bit.”

Zumach, meanwhile, is coming off an unprecedented freshman season for a Wildcat as the 2014 Big 12 Freshman of the Year, the first winner of that award in program history, had a team-best 412 kills last year – a program-record for a freshman. The outside hitter was valuable to the Wildcats, accounting for more than 26% of the team’s kills, and all of the conference’s coaches noticed as she was unanimously selected to the All-Big 12 First Team, All-Big 12 Freshman Team and 2015 Big 12 Preseason Team.

Zumach is not the only big-time point producer returning for the Wildcats either. Juniors Brooke Sassin and Katie Reininger, who were second and third on the team, respectively, in kills last year, will help Zumach at the net. Sassin, in her first season as a Wildcat after transferring from Mississippi State, was K-State’s OH2 for all of last season, totaling 312 kills along with 44 blocks and 11 aces. Reininger also made an impact in her first season in a Wildcat uniform. The Saint Mary’s (CA) transfer who redshirted with K-State in 2013 had 269 kills and 130 blocks over 112 sets in 2014, making her the first Wildcat with 250+ kills and 125+ blocks in a season since 2009. The AVCA Midwest All-Region Honorable Mention selection also finished second on the team in blocks.

The other key returner for the Wildcats is libero Kersten Kober. A native of Southlake, Texas, Kober has been a stalwart for K-State since the first weekend of the 2013 season. The junior was named an all-tournament honoree at the UNLV Invitational in August 2013, her first taste of collegiate matches, setting the stage for what has been a consistent career so far. She entered last season in a battle for the libero position, but after that campaign’s first weekend, she seized the role and went on to lead the team in digs with 413. She has played in 205 of a possible 221 sets in her first two years, making her one of the main veterans on a team that features no seniors – a first for the program since 2011.

“Reininger is a redshirt junior, and Brand is a redshirt junior. Kober is a junior. And they have all played significant time and played significant roles,” said Fritz. “I don’t know it is that we feel leader-less [without seniors]. There have been years where we’ve had a bunch of seniors and felt leader-less. It’s not a reflection of our ability to lead [without having any seniors]. We have players who have significant experience, and that’s really, in my opinion, all that matters.”

Also adding a veteran presence will be returners Bailey Shurbet, Bryna Vogel and Mattie Batchelder. Vogel appeared in 25 sets as a true freshman last year, registering 22 kills, 13 digs and 12 blocks. Batchelder, a redshirt sophomore in 2015, saw time in seven Big 12 matches a year ago.

While there are no seniors and just four upperclassmen total, the Wildcats will rely on their stable of seven freshmen at times. Middle blockers Macy Flowers and Zsofia Gyimes, along with Makenzie Holcomb and Kelsey Schroll, are going to challenge each other for the second middle blocker role behind Reininger. Opposite Sami Flattum, a redshirt from last season, used the year to build strength and awareness for the college game while the Kansas high school record holder for career kills, Alyssa Schultejans, will look to get acclimated with the collegiate level and learn from fellow outsides Zumach, Sassin and Vogel. Devan Fairfield, one of just three liberos on the Wildcat roster, will also have an increased role after redshirting in 2014.

The one main consistency, as has been for nearly two decades when you include her time as an assistant in the late 1990s, is Fritz. The Wildcats’ all-time winningest coach, who enters 2015 with 278 career wins, is tasked once again with a young roster as last year’s team featured 14 underclassmen (and now 11 this year). Nonetheless, with more experience returning this year than last, Fritz and the Wildcats are looking to build on last year’s success and return to the NCAA Tournament for the 16th time in program history.

“I do [like their chemistry], and they do have a lot of fun, but I like the fact that they are starting to figure out when it’s appropriate,” said Fritz. “There is starting to be a maturity to them in terms of managing that looseness, if you will, in a more productive way. I think it will be impactful. They are just working better than we got out of them last year.”

After the Purple/White Scrimmage on Friday, August 21 in Ahearn Field House, K-State starts its 28-match regular season schedule on Friday, August 28 against Florida A&M in the Hurricane Invitational in Coral Gables, Florida. The Wildcats’ home opener is the following weekend on Friday, September 4 as part of the Varney’s Invitational in Bramlage Coliseum. 

“We’re 18 days away from being in some fashion prepared,” added Fritz. “We don’t have to be the very best volleyball team we can be on the 28th of August, but we have to be ready to play.”