Wichita State coach Chris Lamb built many strong offenses around the talents of a powerful outside hitter.
This season, he’s got two. Plus a two-time honorable mention All-American middle, a third-year starter at setter and a senior who is as versatile as any player he’s had in 17 seasons.
A week ago, Wichita State’s middle blockers combined for six kills and 12 attack errors. A year ago, those struggles would doom the Shockers. Now that match serves as an example of WSU’s offensive punch and versatility. The Shockers swept aside a 25-12 loss in the first set against Northern Iowa 25-12 in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and won the next three.
The Shockers (24-7) take the NCAA’s No. 8 attack percentage into Friday’s NCAA Tournament match against TCU (14-12). The 2016 Shockers will rank as one of, if the not the most powerful, offenses in Lamb’s tenure.
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“This is certainly the best we’ve ever been on the left,” Lamb said. “I’ve been saying all year that what this team can do for six rotations is as good as we’ve had.”
Junior setter Emily Hiebert, also dangerous as an attacker, is taking her physical tools and improving her hands and decisions. Outside hitters Tabitha Brown and Mikaela Raudsepp gave Hiebert two strong options that keep the scoreboard moving, even when out of system. Defenses can no longer make middle Abbie Lehman their focus without surrendering points on the pins.
And senior Jody Larson ties the attack together with her attacking skills from the front and back row, and her threat as a setter should Lamb use his 6-2 option.
“Everyone is able to score,” Lehman said. “Each hitter has so many one-on-one looks. Our outsides are more terminal. It’s all clicking.”
Raudsepp’s health may be the one issue that can slow this unit on Friday. She sprained her left ankle late in Tuesday’s practice, leaving on crutches, and her availability or effectiveness is not certain for the weekend.
Should WSU finish at .288 for its attack percentage, that mark would rank No. 2 in program history behind .309 by the 2005 team that employed a two-setter attack and devastating middles. This team is more balanced and while it’s used the 6-2 at times, its primarily Hiebert’s show. While Lehman’s .391 attack percentage leads the team, five other regulars, including middle Katy Dudzinski, are above .250.
Brown, a transfer from Alabama, is hitting .252. Raudsepp, in her third year as a starter, has added an ability to scoring down the lines and is hitting .252. Their ability to bail out the offense when Hiebert is pulled off the net is an asset that separates this attack from previous seasons.
“We’re more physical now,” Lamb said. “Mikaela is a very physical outside hitter who plays high and has gotten more and more terminal as she’s gotten older. Tabitha is a big-arm outside hitter. The two of them together bring as much pop and firepower as we’ve ever had.”
Hiebert’s progress over the past three seasons is subtle. She points to small improvements, such as her ability to delay arching her back for a beat longer than in the past to avoid tipping blockers, as an example.
“She’ll improve on the little things that maybe someone on the outside couldn’t notice,” Raudsepp said. “It’s the little things —they way her hands are as she releases the ball, her back, her footwork.”
Hiebert, the MVC’s Setter of the Year, redshirted in 2013 and started in 2014. She worked to improve her technique so that she could direct the ball with her hands without her body position giving away the plan.
“Emily didn’t walk in the door with pretty setting hands,” Lamb said. “She was a little clunky with the hands. I just knew with her athleticism and determination, we could get there. Now that Emily’s hands have gotten stronger, she can do more things with her hands, so her body doesn’t have to overcome so much. She’s more deceptive than she’s ever been.”
Larson, the MVC Tournament MVP, is hitting .285 and is second on the team with 334 digs. Lamb used her as a setter late in the season.
“Jody glues the whole thing together,” Lamb said. “She’s as complete an all-around player as we’ve ever had here.”
At Lincoln, Neb.
TCU (14-12) vs. Wichita St. (24-7), 4:30 p.m.
New Hampshire (21-10) at Nebraska (27-2), 7 p.m.
Friday’s winners, 7 p.m.
Video at Huskers.com and BTN2GO.com (for cable viewers with Big Ten Network); audio on goshockers.com.