Wichita State middle blockers Elizabeth Field and Ashley Andrade played well as sophomores and coach Chris Lamb expected big things this season. However, their early triumphs covered up weaknesses. When their junior seasons didn’t unfold as expected, Lamb looked for answers.
“We take for granted when they get to this level with certain tools,” he said. “Elizabeth and Ashley both had great success last year. We felt we sort of hit this wall. Why aren’t we getting better? The wall was vision. The wall was really, really seeing what you’re up against and making good choices.”
For the past month, Lamb and his middles went to work improving their ability to read and defeat blockers. Call it a reminder or a reinforcement, the practice time is helping. The Shockers (22-9) open NCAA Tournament play against Arkansas (22-9) on Friday at Allen Fieldhouse and bring with them middles who are raising their production. Field recorded double-digit kills in six of the the past eight matches. Andrade has 11 or more kills in three of the past five.
“We’ve made more improvement in the last month with the middles than we have in the last six months,” setter Chelsey Feekin said.
Since early November, a drill designed to improve their sense of open spaces at the net is a daily lesson on how to avoid getting stuffed. Lamb wants them to put the ball down, if possible, or at least keep it in play. It isn’t a complicated drill — the middles take sets and try to beat blocking combinations called out by coaches. In Lamb’s mind, it helps his middles see past the forest of blockers.
“It’s something you realize needs to be taught and learned,” he said. “Having great vision in sports is something pretty good to have. We’ve tried to develop that.”
If the middles face a single block, their directive is to chop around it. When a double block hits them, they try to go over or around. The lesson is that the middles don’t need to smash every ball. The 10-minute drill starts the middles on the mental path to keeping the ball in play at times when a kill isn’t likely.
“We are finally starting to have the mind-set in matches, not just practices,” Field said. “We’re learning to tip out more, or just see the hands in front of us and make a decision on the go.”
WSU is making its sixth consecutive NCAA appearance. It hasn’t won a match since 2009, losing to Oklahoma in 2010 and Kansas State last season. To break that string, the Shockers must handle an Arkansas team that will own an edge in height and athletic ability. The Razorbacks rank seventh in the SEC in hitting percentage (.250), sixth in opponent percentage (.186) and ninth in blocks (2.07 a set).
Senior outside hitter Roslandy Acosta earned All-SEC honors by hitting. 353 in conference matches with an average of 2.38 kills a set. Senior outside hitter Jasmine Norton is a second-team pick and averaged 3.59 kills and 3.04 digs in SEC play. Right-side Liz Fortado was named to the all-freshman team and had seven SEC matches with a .308 attack percentage or better.
WSU split with its two SEC opponents, beating Auburn 3-1 and losing 3-2 to Tennessee. Arkansas split with Auburn, winning 3-0 and losing 3-2, and with Tennessee, winning 3-1 and losing 3-0.
“SEC volleyball is high-flying, hard-hitting,” Lamb said. “They’re playing sideout volleyball, race to 25. We play a different brand of volleyball. If we can dig balls and get into rallies, I say it’s not exactly the kind of volleyball that the SEC standard-issue is used to playing.”
Arkansas is making its first NCAA appearance since 2006. Coach Robert Pulliza said his team’s six seniors made the berth their goal.
“Our biggest strength is we’re a veteran group,” he said. “The senior class has a lot invested. They helped build this program.”
The winner meets the winner of No. 11 Kansas and Cleveland State. WSU hasn’t played KU since a 3-1 loss in 2002.