There are days when Hanna Shelton misses soccer.
She once had dreams of scoring, growing up a forward in Valley Center, but scoring isn’t a reality on the volleyball court when you’re 5-foot-2.
Since she can’t score, Shelton has made it her mission to stamp out the scoring dreams of attacking players the last four years as the defensive specialist on the Wichita State volleyball team.
“It really does crush an attacker whenever you have an awesome dig on them,” Shelton said. “I still miss soccer and being able to score, but I feel like the defensive side is just as important. I know I choose the right sport.”
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Shelton, a senior, has certainly made an impact at Wichita State, helping the Shockers to a 28-3 record, an undefeated conference championship in the American Athletic Conference, and their first chance to host in the NCAA Tournament. No. 16 WSU hosts Radford (25-4) at 8 p.m. Friday in Koch Arena, while Missouri (20-11) plays Kansas (22-7) at 6.
The winners will meet at 7 p.m. Saturday for a berth in the Sweet 16.
“Hanna is so valuable to our team because if you don’t have someone in the back like her, then you can’t win games,” WSU’s senior setter Emily Hiebert said. “She’s so competitive and she has this spunk about her that she’s not going to allow the ball touch the floor.”
A competitor from Day 1
The competitive drive has always been present with Shelton, a courtesy of growing up the middle daughter of three athletic girls in the family.
And the spunk? Well, that’s a result of being 5-foot-2 and the constant feeling she had growing up of having to prove herself as the smallest player on every sports team.
“She is just the ultimate competitor and she could go 0 to 100 faster than anybody when it came to fighting with her sisters,” said Brian Shelton, Hanna’s father. “We all got a lot of fingernail marks from her over the years. Hanna was a very active competitor from the day she was born, I can attest to that.”
There are defined roles on this year’s WSU team. There are six seniors, many of whom play key roles and all have built up tremendous chemistry on the court. Most things go unspoken in the group. All it takes is a look and eye contact to know what the others are thinking.
But when something needs to be said, more times than not, Shelton will be the one delivering the pointed message.
“She always holds us accountable and we need that on this team,” Hiebert said. “During practices if people aren’t hustling and diving for balls, she’ll get on them.”
Excelling outside the spotlight
It’s difficult to quantify the impact of a defensive specialist through box scores because their job isn’t to finish plays.
“You can’t really start a play out without a good pass,” said Kristen Shelton, Hanna’s mother and middle-school coach. “It’s really important to have someone back there that can get the ball to the setter and allow her to do her job and get a kill. It’s kind of an overlooked position.”
It’s a thankless job, evident by the absence of a defensive specialist on the All-AAC team released Monday.
But WSU coach Chris Lamb said Shelton is playing the best volleyball of her life.
“I think Hanna shows up in the right spot a lot and feels good about what she’s seeing and goes and gets it,” Lamb said. “It’s never looked better. She feels good about herself and knows she’s making a contribution.”
The numbers back up that assessment, as Shelton is delivering 2.48 digs per set and is looking to tack on more to a career-best season (212 total digs).
They’re not as glamorous as kills, but digs can change the momentum of a point just as much.
“As much as I would love to score, I love preventing front people from scoring even more,” Shelton said. “It’s such a good feeling when somebody crushes the ball and you’re there and you get it up.”
And she’s been at her best in the (rare) moments WSU has faced adversity this season.
“She hates to lose so much that you can see her change,” Kristen Shelton said. “When things get tight, Hanna goes into a different gear.”
The best for last
From the day she knew she wanted to play volleyball in college, Shelton also knew she wanted to play for the Shockers.
She aspired to someday be apart of the winning machine Lamb has created. She never dreamed of being part of a senior class that would guide WSU to a 20-0 record in a new conference or bring the NCAA Tournament to Koch Arena for the first time.
“I couldn’t imagine it going better than it has for the past four years,” Shelton said. “I’m very, very proud to be apart of this team and be able to make history with this group of girls.”
When Shelton takes the court Friday to play on volleyball’s biggest stage, the moment will seem so far away from her front yard in Valley Center where she used to go out and pass to herself.
Even then, she was preparing herself to excel in the details of the game. Those details will add up to Shelton’s biggest moment this weekend.
“I think her dream definitely came true,” Kristen Shelton said. “It’s been incredible as a parent to watch your child do something like that. I couldn’t ask for anything better and she’s made us very happy and very proud.”
At Koch Arena
Missouri (20-11) vs. Kansas (22-7), 6 p.m.
Radford (25-4) at Wichita St. (28-3), 8 p.m.
Friday’s winners, 7 p.m.