Wichita State volleyball is no longer ranked. The Shockers are in third place in the Missouri Valley Conference, two matches behind the leaders.
It's early in the conference season, but the feel is quite different for the Shockers (12-3, 3-2 MVC). They lost one conference match in 2007 and 2008 combined.
"You get kind of used to winning," senior Katie Niggemeyer said. "I don't want to say we're underdogs, but we have people after us right now, and there's kind of a thrill in that — that we can fight back."
Losses to Missouri State and Creighton on consecutive Fridays dropped WSU out of the top 25 and into a precarious position. The Shockers face Evansville and Southern Illinois this weekend before traveling to first-place Northern Iowa in a week. Coach Chris Lamb said Evansville (10-7, 3-2) and SIU (13-2, 3-2) are a more difficult package than in past years. SIU started the season with a school-record 11 straight wins.
"Statistically, they both are very good on the left," he said. "Both of them love setting the right-side players, who are very physical and can score."
WSU's margin for error is pancake-thin if it wants to win a third straight MVC title. Using history is a guide, the Shockers are likely eliminated. Since 1994, only one MVC champion (UNI in 2006) suffered more than one conference loss.
"We realize from here on out we can't lose," junior Sarah McGee said. "We've got to be better, and we are better."
McGee, a middle blocker, can't do much more than she did in Saturday's win over Drake. She set a WSU record with an .833 attack percentage with 10 kills on 12 swings. In that match, McGee and setter Mary Elizabeth Hooper took advantage of her height to overpower the Bulldogs front line.
"A physical advantage always helps," McGee said.
Getting production out of the middles has been a constant challenge for WSU. Progress comes more slowly than coaches or players would like. It is critical to find more offensive help for outside hitter Emily Stockman.
"We have a lot of different sets, and it seems like every week we add a set or we change the tempo of the set," McGee said. "I think that's been difficult on Hooper and on the middles. But we're working on it."
McGee, an All-MVC pick as a sophomore, is expanding her influence on the team. Lamb said when he looked around the locker room after the loss at MSU, McGee's disappointment stood out.
"I think that's an indication of people who are most invested," Lamb said. "I think when people see that, there's a respect for that. I thought it was good for her that people saw that."
McGee, in her fourth season at WSU after redshirting as a freshman, is taking on more leadership. Lamb sees her talking with teammates and communicating better on the court.
"She's been keeping it positive on the court," Niggemeyer said. "She's really trying to step up into the upperclassman role."