Replacing five starters is rarely an easy task for a head coach of any kind, and doing so while facing some of the nation’s elite programs doesn’t make the job any more appealing.
But that’s the challenge Suzie Fritz, head K-State volleyball coach, and the No. 22 K-State volleyball team will face as the Wildcats begin the 2009 campaign on Aug. 28 in Omaha, Neb. K-State will open its season with an appearance in the AVCA Showcase, which includes back-to-back matches against No. 11 Minnesota and No. 16 Michigan.
Fritz, who enters her ninth season as head volleyball coach, said the showcase – a late addition to the non-conference slate – complements an already difficult schedule leading into conference play.
“We originally already thought our schedule was pretty competitive,” she said. “Now, with the addition of [this tournament] and adding two quality Big 10 teams to the schedule, now it’s on. Our preseason is as difficult as any one we have ever had. We are trying to do that in replacing a good majority of our core.”
That core includes former outside hitters Rita Liliom, Jenny Jantsch and two-time AVCA All-American Nataly Korobkova. The trio combined for 1,065 kills in 2008. To put that in perspective, that was nearly two thirds of the team’s kill total a year ago.
“Having to replace three outside hitters is a significant challenge, but it is what it is,” Fritz said. “We’ve had since January to start preparing those kids who will have to fill those roles.”
K-State must also replace former libero Leslie Townsend, who saw action in all 32 matches a year ago, and middle blocker Megan Farr, who led the team with 151 blocks.
Despite losing so much depth, the Wildcats will begin the season just two spots below their final No. 20 ranking in 2008. Junior libero Lauren Mathewson said she’s not surprised that the squad managed to crack the top 25 even though there are so many voids to fill.
“It shows other people have confidence in this program,” she said. “Even with losing five seniors, they know this program is always about excellence. We’re always about pushing no matter who we lose and we’re always going to work our hardest.”
Middle blocker Kelsey Chipman, one of two seniors on the team’s roster, said last year’s seniors left some big shoes to fill, but the team has embraced the challenge and everyone will look to contribute this year.
“[Last year’s seniors] were great players,” she said. “But we’re really excited with the people that we have this year. [The offense] will come from everybody. I think this is a team that’s going to have to be spread out. We’re going to have to trust each other.”
Chipman, a native of Topeka, is the Wildcats’ most experienced player, having seen action in each of her first three seasons. She led all returning players with 258 kills last year.
Mathewson echoed Chipman’s thoughts, saying the team’s unpredictability could work as an advantage early in the season.
“It’s going to be harder for our competition because they’re not going to know that we just depend on one person,” she said. “I think we’re excited that we have distribution to everyone. We’re going to expect a lot from everybody this year.”