Mary Elizabeth Hooper is finishing her first semester in Texas Tech’s Physician Assistant Program, which means grades are coming due soon. It takes something important to distract Hooper, something as important as Wichita State volleyball advancing to the Sweet 16.
“I should have been studying for finals the whole time, but that does not matter,” she said. “I was (watching) on the computer Friday and Saturday. It was very high, crazy emotions.”
The Shockers beat Arkansas on Friday and 11th-seeded Kansas on Saturday in Lawrence to advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven trips. When the match ended, coach Chris Lamb’s phone filled with messages from former players. He mentioned them soon after in a locker room celebration when he addressed the team.
“So many girls that were here before you that helped pave the road,” he said. “I can’t wait to talk to them. You need to know that some of you wouldn’t have even considered us if the girls before you didn’t make this place sort of cool to play volleyball. I will never, ever, forget those things.”
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Those past Shockers haven’t forgotten, either. They watched the streaming video, listened to the radio, or kept up through social media. WSU (24-9) continues NCAA play against sixth-seeded Southern California (29-5) on Friday in Austin.
“I’m thrilled for them because that is such a huge catalyst for the future,” said Katie Niggemeyer, who played from 2005-09. “It’s a huge recruiting tool, but even more than that it’s huge for team morale. It should give them such a fire to start them off next year.”
Lamb started at WSU in 2000 and pushed the Shockers into the NCAA Tournament in 2004. They’ve made it a regular event since, never winning more than one match until this season. Three times, they faced heavyweights Nebraska and Texas in the second round. They lost in the first round the past two seasons.
This season, geography worked in WSU’s favor with a trip to Kansas and the Shockers won in Allen Fieldhouse.
“It’s so great, words cannot describe it,” said Jen Ray, who played from 2002-05. “I know the girls worked hard. I know Chris worked hard. They deserve every minute of it.”
Hooper, WSU’s setter the previous four seasons, watched the Arkansas match with growing confidence. She knew the Shockers wanted a piece of Kansas and liked their chances. The teams last played in 2002, a fact that bothers the Shockers and their fans. She recognized the Jayhawks didn’t present an impossible obstacle on the level of Texas or Nebraska.
“It’s pretty ridiculous that we’re two hours apart and haven’t played them,” she said. “We finally got our chance. That was the best draw we’ve ever drawn.”
Niggemeyer appreciates Lamb’s remarks about the players who helped build the program over the past 13 years. She fondly remembers the seniors — Ray, Darci Vohs, Elizabeth Meyer, Cori Meyers and Andee Hartig — who showed her how to play as a freshman.
“There’s a huge sense of pride to be a part of Shocker volleyball,” Niggemeyer said. “They started us off so strong and showed great ownership in the program.”
Hooper’s finals end on Friday morning, giving her just enough time to drive from Midland, Texas to Austin. She wouldn’t mind sneaking into uniform to watch WSU’s biggest match.
“I miss it so much,” she said. “I’ll be there on Friday.”
Worth noting — WSU and BYU are the only two remaining teams not from one of the six BCS conferences. Six Big Ten schools remain in the field.… WSU is the first Missouri Valley Conference team other than Northern Iowa to win more than one NCAA match in a season. The Valley, represented by WSU, UNI and Creighton, has a conference-best four wins and had three teams win an NCAA match for the first time. WSU is the first MVC team in the Sweet 16 since UNI in 2002. No MVC school has advanced to a regional final.