Wildcats ready for Shockers in first round of NCAA Tournament

The Wildcats celebrate after winning the volleyball match against Iowa State at Ahearn Field House on Nov. 18, 2015. The Wildcats won 3-0. (File Photo by Nathan Jones | The Collegian)

There was fear, nerves and uncertainty Sunday before the Wildcats saw their name come up on the volleyball selection show to take on the Wichita State Shockers in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Once they knew they were in, it took a little while for them to realize what had just happened.

“We weren’t really expecting to make it in, and when we saw our name there, it was like three seconds of silence and then we all just started to clap and celebrate,” junior middle blocker Katie Reininger said after practice Tuesday. “We are in a good spot in the tournament and we are excited about it.”

This team is fairly young, as they do not have a senior on the roster, which just makes qualifying the tournament that much sweeter for the team. Junior setter Katie Brand said she knows this will help the program in the future.

“You don’t realize it until you get there because of the feeling you get,” she said. “Everything is different about it, but our younger players don’t feel pressure situations because they are so laid-back and consistent, which is good.”

Two freshmen who have helped these Wildcats into the tournament are outside hitter Alyssa Schultejans and middle blocker Macy Flowers.

“They are doing great, but are also doing freshmen things along with doing great,” head coach Suzie Fritz said. “They have ups and downs, and because they are long and athletic, they can do some things that are pretty special. With time, as they gain further experience, they will be extraordinary players for us. I have been pleased from start to finish with how well they have done.”

The Wildcats have lost three matches coming into postseason play, but Fritz said she isn’t too worried about that.

“We have struggled to build momentum here in the last month,” she said. “We’ve had some frustrating losses and performances, but I think we are starting to move the other way after these last two days of practice. I like where their mindsets are at, and we are starting to feel good again.”

Whether her team is experienced or not, Fritz said every year is a bit different when she takes a team to the NCAA Tournament.

“Every year it’s like bringing a new team up here,” she said. “Even if players have been here before, it’s with a new team and new players, but it is still eerily familiar to them and me.”

In their last four appearances in the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats have traveled north to play in Lincoln, Nebraska, which is something that will most likely happen if the Wildcats do not host the regional tournament.

“We know if we aren’t one of the top 16 seeds, then our journey is generally north,” Fritz said. “There is certainly some regionalization in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament that sends us up there.”

One Wildcat will be playing close to home. Brand is a native of Grand Island, Nebraska, which is a short 90-minute trek to the Delaney Center in Lincoln, where the Wildcats and Shockers will face off.

“I love going back to Nebraska, and we got to do it last year, too,” Brand said. “I’m excited to see my family and I think we can pull some fans since we are only two hours away, so I hope we have a good fan base there.”

Earlier this week Brand was named All-Big 12 First Team. Reininger and junior Brooke Sassin were named to the second team. Schultejans and Flowers were named to the All-Big 12 Freshman Team. Fritz has now had 40 All-Big 12 performers during her tenure in Manhattan.

Brand was named to the first team for the second time in her career, which is only the second time in the program’s history that a setter has been named to the first team twice.

“(Brand) has been a critical part of our team, and we kind of put that on her,” Fritz said. “Her ability to dig, to make bad situations better and setting up her teammates makes her one of the top five setters in the country.”

The team standing on the other side of the net on Friday will be Wichita State, which won both the Missouri Valley regular season and postseason tournament titles. Fritz said this wasn’t by accident.

“They are similar to us in the aspect that they are pretty young, too,” Fritz said. “They are really good and a very good team in their conference, which says a lot about the quality of team that they are. They are well-coached and very talented.”

Wichita State is led by sophomore Abbie Lehman who averages 2.9 kills per set. Sophomore Emily Hiebert averages 10.3 assists per set, and junior Dani Mostrom averages 4.35 digs per set.

Schultejans, who hails from Silver Lake, Kansas, said she knows firsthand that although these teams aren’t exactly rivals, Wichita State is an in-state foe they want to beat, especially when it’s win or go home.

“Since we don’t get to play them a lot, it kind of makes the matchup unique,” Schultejans said. “It’s not KU, but it will still be a fun showdown anyway.”

The Big 12 Conference produced five teams in the NCAA Tournament this year. Texas will take on Fairfield, Kansas hosts Furman, Iowa State squares up against Miami and TCU faces Hawaii.

In 2011, the Wildcats swept the Shockers in the NCAA Tournament, followed by a five-set victory over Nebraska before losing in the round of 16 to Pepperdine. The win against the Cornhuskers was the last time the Wildcats won a match at the NCAA Tournament.

The Shockers and Wildcats will take the court at 4:30 p.m. Friday. The winner of the match will go to battle against Nebraska or Harvard on Saturday night, when a trip to the Sweet 16 will be on the line.