Katie Brand was in shock when she heard the news.
Not only was the Kansas State volleyball team heading to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight time, it was doing so as the event’s No. 14 seed and staying home for the first two rounds. For once, the Wildcats weren’t opening the postseason in Nebraska as underdogs.
On Friday, they get to host Lipscomb at Bramlage Coliseum as heavy favorites.
“It was so exciting that it caught me off guard,” Brand, a senior setter, said. “I really didn’t know how to react.”
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The announcement was made late Sunday. She now has a firmer grasp on what it means to play postseason games at home for the first time since 2008.
“We all view it as a great opportunity,” Brand said. “It is always such an advantage playing here in front of our crowd and having that support with us. I’m not sure why it changes so much on the road, but when we are home and have all that with us, we play so much better. Having our band here and practicing here all week, and sleeping in our own beds will be huge.”
K-State appears to have its clearest path to the Sweet 16 since it upset Nebraska in the second round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament. If it defeats Lipscomb at 7:30 p.m. Friday, it will take on the winner of Ohio State and Missouri State on Saturday.
The Wildcats (20-9, 9-7 Big 12) went 12-3 at home, and will hope to add to that record this weekend. They play the majority of their home games across campus at Ahearn Fieldhouse, but has plenty of experience at larger Bramlage Coliseum.
“Clearly, there is an advantage to being at home in your own place with your won people and your own facilities,” K-State coach Suzie Fritz said. “There is a comfort level there that is better than playing anywhere else. We play preseason games (at Bramlage) every year and we have pretty good success here. I think we are all looking forward to the atmosphere here this weekend.”
The NCAA Tournament gave K-State extra home games as a reward for a strong season.
The Wildcats were picked to finish fourth in the Big 12, but quickly showed they would exceed expectations by beating powerhouse opponents Arizona and Hawaii in an early season tournament.
They went on to play well enough in conference games to finish fourth and four Wildcats earned All-Big 12 honors. Brand was a first-team honoree, Katie Reininger and Bryna Vogel both made the second team, and Elle Sandbothe made the all-freshman team.
Vogel, a junior from Clearwater, has made a big impact. She was a multi-sport athlete in high school and came to K-State with what Fritz describes as “minimal” volleyball knowledge, but she is now one of the team’s most indispensable players.
“Pound for pound she is probably our best athlete,” Fritz said. “It didn’t take her very long after her first year of playing volleyball and solely devoting herself to one sport to show amazing progress. She is one of our most improved players and she does so much for our team. She plays front row, she plays back row, she provides good kill production and she does it all very quietly.”
Winning enough games to earn a national seed was always a goal.
With four seniors leading the way, they are now hoping for more.
“We have grown tremendously from last year when we lost in the first round,” senior outside hitter Brooke Sassin said. “We aren’t looking big picture anymore, we just want to win our first game and move forward. We know what we are capable of, and if we approach things that way we should be good.”
Playing at home should help.
“I am trying not to think too far ahead, but winning these games is definitely something I dream about,” Brand said. “Doing it at home in front of our fans would be awesome.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett