The K-State volleyball team was selected to the 64-team NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008 on Sunday. The team found out its first-round opponent and location, Wichita State and Lincoln, Neb., respectively, at the Colbert Hills clubhouse where the team hosted a watch party that included family, fans, coaches and K-State President Kirk Schulz.
Head coach Suzie Fritz spoke to everyone at the party shortly after the Wildcats’ bracket was revealed about how proud she was of her team.
“This started for us, I think, last spring,” Fritz. “We really grinded it out a year ago. We were in season that was a little bit difficult. They committed, re-committed if you will, during the course of last spring and stayed with it over the course of the summer so this isn’t something that happens from August to December.”
The Wildcats waited in a confident anticipation to hear their name called when the final section of the bracket was revealed. Fritz said she was not concerned while watching the selection show on ESPNU.
“I felt very good about the body of work,” Fritz said. “And very good about where we were at in the RPI standings, which I think is a important deciding factor in whether you get to keep playing or not.”
The Big 12’s seven teams selected to the tournament tied the Pac 12 for second among conferences and was one less than the Big Ten’s eight teams selected.
This year’s selection gives the Wildcats and Fritz their 13th and eighth appearance to the NCAA tournament respectively.
Junior Caitlyn Donahue said the team’s turning point was the shift from the first to the second half of Big 12 play.
“We snagged a couple of really crucial wins in the first half and kind of did the same, made a really good run in the second half,” Donahue said. “Knocking off teams like Texas A&M and Oklahoma, that’s great for our program. Big wins like that have really helped us.”
The Wildcats finished the season 20-10 overall and fourth in the Big 12 after being picked to finish eighth in pre-season polls. Fritz said she has never put much stock into “preseason anything.”
Sophomore Kaitlynn Pelger, however, said the low preseason projections “bothered us a little bit and definitively motivated us.”
Junior Kathleen Ludwig had a similar feeling to Pelger’s.
“I think more than anything we’re just excited to look back and take a deep breath and say ‘OK, what we’ve been doing has worked,'” Ludwig said. “Our hard work in January, February and in March is paying off now.”
The Wildcats have no seniors and battled injuries to key players during Big 12 play; something Fritz said was huge for the team.
“From the very beginning, I think the two things that really stand out with this team that have made them the team that they are, are our depth,” Fritz said. “And their cohesiveness, this a team that has tremendous chemistry.”
Ludwig said the coaching staff deserves most of the credit for preparing the team for adverse situations they might face “in practice situations when they weren’t really happening.”
Donahue said this team has learned to turn “adversity into a positive thing,” through the injuries it dealt with during the season.
Pelger said the team’s chemistry comes from off the court along with on-the-court experiences.
“We hang out all the time, we’re always together,” Pelger said. “So I think that definitely correlates with on-the-court [chemistry].”
Donahue said she could not put a finger on exactly where the team’s chemistry comes from but that they “genuinely just like each other. Everyone is very positive and very supportive.”
Kathleen Ludwig, who travelled with the team to the NCAA tournament as a redshirt in 2008, is the only Wildcat on this team with any NCAA post-season experience. Ludwig said this year’s experience means more to her than her experience in 2008.
“Obviously as a red shirt player, you don’t feel as much as a part of the team,” Ludwig said. “Being a co-captain and having been on this team for four years, it seems like a lot more of my team and to some extent I can control how we do.”
Pelger said Fritz has talked to the team about the environment that many of the team will face for the first time.
“She said its very intense and you got to go in and stay relaxed,” Pelger said. “Just like any other game.”
Ludwig said even though she did not play in K-State’s tournament game in 2008, the experience of being with the team could go a long ways with this year’s team.
“Having been there and being the only player on the team that’s been there, allows me to get our team to relax and play our game,” Pelger said. “It is a very exciting accomplishment and its good but when it comes down to it, it is just another volleyball game.”
Fritz, Ludwig, Pelger and Donahue all said they were excited to face the Shockers and said they will give the Wildcats a tough test.
The Wildcats will play the Shockers at the historic Nebraska Coliseum at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday. The winner will face the winner of the Jackson State vs. Nebraska match.