Through the losses, through the injuries, through the ghosts, through the dripping water and the sandbags, people with court vision could see it.
Maybe nobody else did, because certainly few people paid attention to Wichita State volleyball in 2000. The players on coach Chris Lamb's first team had a feeling something good was building. Ten years later, Lamb's building project is a success and the 2000 team can say they started it all.
"That was what was meant to be for Wichita State," former Shocker Julie Renfrow said. "He wouldn't settle for anything less."
Of course, it wasn't easy.
Never miss a local story.
The Shockers went 8-23 in 2000 and finished ninth in the Missouri Valley Conference. Shannon Lamb, then an assistant coach and now his wife and director of volleyball operations, said they concentrated on surviving each day. Chris Lamb never predicted four NCAA Tournament appearances, four MVC titles and attendance records.
"No, I didn't," he said. "If the one true goal can be to try to get better every day, it shouldn't be a surprise if you meet expectations, or surpass some expectations."
Lamb's first memory of the 2000 season is a player telling him ghosts inhabited every MVC gym, waiting to frustrate the Shockers with a bad bounce. He remembers talking during a timeout and overhearing players discussing party plans for the night.
"We sat and talked for a couple hours after the match," he said. "The party was in our locker room."
The Shockers lost five straight matches to open the season before a 3-0 win over Louisiana Tech on Sept. 8 gave Lamb the first of 219 victories. He didn't win No. 2 until almost a month later.
That win over UMKC on Oct. 4 followed a nightmare trip to Evansville and Southern Illinois. Lamb counted on getting a win at SIU, which was also winless in MVC play. The Salukis swept the Shockers, leading to an attitude-adjustment practice upon return to Wichita.
"That was the most difficult practice I've ever been through," Shannon Lamb said. "A lot of coaches would have said 'Eh, it's not worth it.' We didn't. We pushed even harder."
That refusal to quit is what stands out to the players.
Lamb came in with big ideas, new drills and eager to make changes. He taught them digging drills with rubber cords pinning their arms to their sides. He talked about Tiger Woods' golf swing. He changed their positions and changed strategies.
"I remember a lot of practices with Lambo being the toughest one I've ever been through," said Amy Smith, a senior on the 2000 team. "For the first time in a long time, I felt inspired to work hard again. You could see he loved the game and he cared about sharing that with us. He made it feel worthwhile."
When things didn't work, his enthusiasm stayed constant.
"What he has inside of him, it keeps you going," Renfrow said. "It was a hard season. We were struggling every day. But there was never a point when I doubted him."
The losing hurt morale on the team. Lamb never let the defeats ruin the season.
"As an 18-year-old, it was a love-hate relationship," said Nicole May Johnson, one of his first recruits. "It was a losing program. We were doing all those crazy drills. You had to buy into what he was saying and trust him."
Lamb's love for the practice gym helped.
"It didn't matter to me there was an under-.500 season," he said. "For me, there was always the next game to try to win. I could even go so far as to say the matches get in the way of what I'm trying to do — train players."
For the Shockers, the 2000 season represented a stripping down and rebuilding of their volleyball life. Lamb challenged everything they knew about the sport.
"Lambo understands the game to a much higher level," Smith said. "He started helping us thinking about small decisions we were making all the time and didn't realize. Are you going to put your thumb on the ball and hit to right, or put your pinkie on the ball and hit to left?"
Soon after the loss to SIU, the work began to pay off. Lamb switched to the 6-2 offense with walk-on Stephanie Whitcomb joining the rotation as a setter. He simplified everything. WSU won two matches in a row in mid-October. It swept SIU in the rematch in Wichita. The Shockers finished the season winning three of their final four matches, including a sweep over a Drake team that embarrassed them in the conference opener.
"We were a totally different team," Shannon Lamb said.
Recruiting occupied time not spent coaching. The Lambs secured the first critical building blocks of future success during the 2000 season.
Libero Karen Augspurger, from Maize, signed on despite her father's warnings. Outside hitter Sara Younes visited from California during a driving rain storm. Water pouring in through open vents in the Levitt Arena roof delayed play twice. During the match, athletic director Jim Schaus and others sandbagged the tunnel to prevent water from flooding the court.
The Lambs took Younes to the airport, hoping the experience didn't ruin their chances. Instead of putting them off, she asked if she could commit.
"I remember being stunned," Chris Lamb said.
Two years later, Younes and Augspurger led the Shockers to a winning season. In 2004, they celebrated WSU's first MVC title and NCAA Tournament.
Most Shocker fans assumed Lamb would jump at the first job in a power conference. Now starting his 11th season, he is building his empire in Wichita. He likes the bus rides. He likes the support of the administration, which puts a priority on volleyball as its main fall sport. He likes that his former players keep in touch and come back for alumni weekend.
"I've never not wanted to be here," he said. "I can't imagine walking away from my team. I've never thought that would be fun."
The 2000 season wasn't always fun. It took a lot of imagination to envision a Shocker volleyball team nationally ranked and drawing 3,000 fans. The players on the 2000 team know how it happened.
"Just knowing his passion and dedication, it doesn't surprise me," Johnson said. "Chris has always had a vision."