Emily DeShazer | Collegian

K-State senior middle blocker Kaitlynn Pelger keeps a ball in play against Italy during the Wildcats’ last home game.  The Wildcats will take on the KU Jayhawks tonight at Ahearn Field House for the volleyball version of the Sunflower Showdown.

K-State volleyball prepares to take on Jayhawks

After a preseason in which the Wildcats looked unbeatable at times, the K-State volleyball team now has some work to do. At 12-2, the foundation for a successful season has been set.

The Wildcats must tread lightly, however. K-State is fresh off of a tough 3-1 loss to West Virginia in their Big 12 opener and in danger of falling to 0-2 in conference play if they fail to bring their best game tonight when No. 15 ranked KU arrives at Ahearn Field House for the first leg of the Sunflower Showdown.

Even though this is only the second conference game of the season for the Wildcats, there is an eerie feeling that tonight’s match could be a fork in the road. If the Wildcats, led by six established seniors, can upset their instate foe and get back to their winning ways, good things will certainly be coming.

However, a loss could spell trouble as not only would K-State be in a hole in the conference standings, they would also have dropped their first home match of the year. Here’s a preview of what to expect from the Wildcats’ battle with the Jayhawks.

KU rolls into Manhattan with a record of 11-3 (1-0 Big 12), sweeping their conference opener against TCU. The Jayhawks are led by senior middle blocker Caroline Jarmoc, who is the defending Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Week. She has won the award twice this season and has been an anchor for KU up front all season.

Jarmoc is averaging third in the Big 12 in blocks, with 1.31 per set and fourth in the Big 12 in kills, averaging nearly 3.5 per set. When it comes to offense, the Jayhawks are powerful and dangerous. KU leads the Big 12 in kills, hitting percentage and assists. Erin McNorton, a senior setter from Dallas, leads the Big 12 in assists and has been instrumental in the Jayhawks’ early rise in the polls this season.

One particularly interesting note is the recent surge in the play of KU redshirt senior outside hitter Catherine Carmichael. Carmichael grew up in Manhattan and played volleyball at Manhattan High School.

Ray Bechard, head coach at KU, is in his 16th season. He has amassed a record of 259-212, and was named the 2012 Big 12 Coach of the Year.

The Wildcats are looking to regroup after their trip to Morgantown, W. Va. ended on a sour note. Their saving grace will certainly be the Wildcats’ defensive prowess.

As is the case with nearly every sport, defense rarely disappears and can be the deciding factor between wins and losses. In five straight matches, the Wildcats have recorded double digit blocks. Junior middle blocker Taylor Johnson has been the catalyst so far, averaging 1.35 blocks per set and recording nine total blocks last week in the loss to West Virginia.

The Wildcats currently sit at 17th in the NCAA in average blocks per set (2.79). Johnson is joined by senior middle blocker Kaitlynn Pelger and senior outside hitter Dakota Kaufman as key pieces of the offense. As a team, the Wildcats are swinging with a .203 kill percentage and averaging 12.5 kills per set. By comparison, KU is averaging 14.25 kills per set and swinging at a clip of .262. Redshirt freshman setter Katie Brand has been good all year, averaging nearly 10 assists per game. She is poised for a breakout performance, and the Wildcats would like nothing more than for her to make that happen tonight against the Jayhawks.

As we have seen all season, the Wildcats will work to balance their offense and attack the opposition from all over the court. Pelger needs to continue her strong all-around play, and the Wildcats need someone to step up and swing confidently and effectively. An upset is not out of the question, but it will certainly take an impressive performance from K-State.

Since 1995, K-State volleyball has won 30 of 36 matches against the Jayhawks. However, last year, KU took both matches from the Wildcats, the first win for the Jayhawks since 2009. K-State head coach Suzie Fritz is 20-6 in her career against KU and 9-3 when the games are played at Ahearn Field House. If the Wildcats have aspirations of competing for a conference title and gaining a birth to the NCAA tournament, the road to recovery starts tonight with the Jayhawks.