AUSTIN — Reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament is a peak performance for a Missouri Valley Conference volleyball team. The tournament started in 1981 and four MVC schools survived the first weekend.
Wichita State became the fourth, defeating Arkansas and 11th-seeded Kansas before losing to No. 6 Southern Cal in Friday’s Austin Regional semifinal. Even more than in basketball, the volleyball tournament is about matchups and geography. With WSU sitting in the same region as powers Nebraska and Texas — sites they drew in four of their previous six appearances — returning to the Sweet 16 won’t be easy.
Lamb, however, welcomes higher expectations as a result of this season’s December run. WSU will take a few months off before starting spring drills and hope the experiences in the tournament help a new team.
“You can’t deny that lots of things are learned by this,” he said. “It’s fun to raise the expectation bar. When you have high expectations, even if you don’t make it, you still got close and you’re still operating at a pretty high level. My goal is to tool these guys up in the spring and start training.”
Even in a season when WSU finished third in the MVC and endured rough patches — Lamb said his team played disinterested at times — the Shockers took advantage of the bracket. The NCAA committee handed them manageable foes in Arkansas and Kansas. Given that opening, WSU did what past teams did not.
“It’s not how far you go, it’s who you get to in these situations,” he said. “The program’s been around enough it long enough so when we did finally catch a break in the schedule, we were good enough to crack through.”
WSU’s consistency — seven NCAAs since 2004 — should roll on next season with plenty of experience and firepower on the roster. Four seniors will likely start, its largest group of four-year players since 2009.
All-Central Region outside hitter Emily Adney and libero Jackie Church are the losses, barring underclassmen departures. Even though Adney’s offensive numbers slipped as a senior, with a .169 attack percentage, she led the team with 382 kills and 35 aces. Her six-rotation skills as a defender and passer will be tough to replace. Her 294 digs ranked third on the team. Church played four seasons in the back row and led WSU with 581 digs.
Lamb’s biggest task may be getting WSU’s defense back to previous levels. WSU led the MVC in opponents hitting percentage from 2007-2010 and led the nation at .129 in 2007. This season, WSU slipped to sixth (.201) in the MVC. Lamb returns most of his blockers and can choose from among Kelsey Banwart (288 digs), Jordan Hinkle (166) and Gaby Urban (34) as libero and defensive specialist candidates.
With setter Chelsey Feekin, an All-Region pick, back, WSU’s offense should continue to improve. Feekin, also a good defender, led the MVC with a .435 attack percentage and her three triple-doubles (double figures in kills, assists and digs) rank as the most by any Shocker in a career. In the post-season, her connection with middles Elizabeth Field and Ashley Andrade carried the Shockers. She will also have right-side Sam Sanders, who hit. 238, and outside hitter Ashlyn Driskill to work with. Driskill earned MVC All-Freshman and All-Austin Regional honors. Sophomore-to-be Katie Reilly played in 25 matches at outside hitter and twice recorded double-digit kills.
“Accomplishing this is something that you dream of, and we’ve done it once and we have a chance to do it again,” Feekin said. “Knowing what it feels like, you just strive for it even more.”
WSU will be helped by the return of Katy Dudzinksi, who sat out the season with a broken right foot. Before the injury, Lamb expected the freshman to compete for a starting job on the right. WSU signed four high school seniors in November, including Newton teammates Emily Hiebert, a setter, middle blocker Abbie Lehman and outside hitter Jennifer Whitledge of Tonganoxie and libero Alyssa Carney of Washburn Rural.
It is too early to determine how the NCAA victories might help recruiting. Lamb said WSU will continue to fight perception problems against higher-profile schools.
“It’s hard to break through the shiny schools,” he said. “You know a lot of schools that aren’t good in volleyball, but they continue to get good recruits. We’ll find out soon enough how it’s going in recruiting. We’re recruiting for two more spots in the junior class.”