More vocal. More aggressive. More comfortable. Pick your description of why Wichita State freshman Jackie Church played her best volleyball match of the season a week ago.
Coach Chris Lamb prefers "more engaged" as he describes her as this season's most improved player. Church caught Lamb's attention with her performance as defensive specialist against Missouri State, a match in which she recorded 11 digs.
"I followed the scouting report, and I didn't look timid when the ball was coming to me," Church said. "That was the most I've felt like my old self, that I could bring what I had before to the team."
WSU (16-4, 7-3 Missouri Valley) faces Drake (18-7, 7-4) tonight and Creighton (9-12, 6-5) on Saturday at Koch Arena. Church's contributions to the back row are vital if the Shockers are to make up ground in the MVC race.
"I like her defensive range — her serve-receive numbers have climbed dramatically," Lamb said. "She's becoming the kind of player we hoped that she would be."
Church, who redshirted last season, moved into WSU's rotation from the start this fall. Her production increased in recent weeks as she became more assertive. She recorded 10 or more digs in five of the past seven matches. Earlier, Church too often let her elders take balls.
"She's been playing older," Lamb said. "Patient. Relaxed. Yet, not deferring to other people. Go get it. Don't expect someone else to go get it."
With Church playing well, the Shockers held MSU to a season-low .109 attack percentage.
"As long as she's aggressive, she's going to be a great player," senior libero Melissa Granville said. "It's always nice to have a system, and when everybody's in the system, then things go well. Jackie was really engaged this weekend. That helps us with our confidence in her."
The Shockers moved to within one match of second-place MSU with the win. A loss would have been a disastrous way to start the second half of the conference schedule. Those stakes helped Church turn into a more aggressive, more vocal player.
"Everyone knew this was completely serious," she said. "We felt like we got over a hump, and we're starting a completely new level of play."
Church, who played high school volleyball at Bishop Miege, is the newcomer to the back row. Granville has played for four seasons. Sophomore Sarah Waldorf played 32 matches last season. Now Church feels comfortable as part of that group.
"I couldn't stop smiling (after the MSU match)," she said. "That has continued into my practices. This weekend, I feel like the whole team is going to have that attitude, that we have something to go after and it's not over."
The Shockers face Drake tonight, a fact Lamb mentioned each day before practice. Creighton, Saturday's opponent, is usually a top MVC team and the Bluejays defeated WSU 3-1 earlier this season. Drake hasn't had a winning season since 1996. However, the Bulldogs are 7-0 since losing to WSU on Oct. 3 and in fourth place in the MVC. Creighton is 3-3 since beating the Shockers, including a 3-1 loss to Drake.
"It doesn't take much to get me thinking about Drake," Lamb said.