For its first 30 seasons, Wichita State’s volleyball team did not make an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. From 1974-80, there wasn’t an NCAA Tournament, but you get the point.
Here’s another point.
Over the past 13 seasons, since 2004, the Shockers have made it to nine NCAA tournaments. The architect of this turnaround, Chris Lamb, is in his 17th season. And he’s taking Wichita State to a familiar place for the NCAA first and second round this weekend.
That’s where the Shockers’ broke NCAA Tournament ice in 2004, beating Nevada in the first round before losing to the host Huskers.
The Huskers haven’t been the most pleasant of hosts for Wichita State. They beat the Shockers that year 3-0.
WSU was back in Lincoln again in 2007 for its second NCAA appearance. The Shockers dispatched Western Kentucky in the first round before again running into the brick wall that is Nebraska volleyball, losing 3-0 with no close sets.
“Nebraska has been the overall No. 1 seed, at least in our region, every single time we’ve gone there,” Lamb said. “And it’s the No. 1 volleyball home-court advantage maybe in the world. I don’t know what’s going on in Cuba or freaking Russia, but this place is packed and those Nebraska fans get it.”
As good as the Shockers have been under Lamb, they’ve never been a host for an NCAA Tournament. Those spots are reserved, of course, for schools from the power conferences and that’s why when WSU isn’t assigned to Lincoln, they’ve been ticketed for Ames, Lawrence, Austin and Norman.
This is Wichita State’s fifth time in Lincoln, though, so back to the Shockers’ history there.
They lost to Kansas State in the first round in 2011, but beat the Wildcats in the first round last year, setting up another championship showdown with Nebraska with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. Again, though, it didn’t go well — the Huskers won 25-19, 25-19, 25-14.
The one time the Shockers did advance beyond the second round, in 2012, they knocked off Arkansas and Kansas in Lawrence before losing to USC in the regional semifinals in Austin.
Lamb refuses to look past TCU (14-12), the Shockers’ opponent Friday afternoon in the first round. But he knows, like everybody knows, that the Huskers await.
“Everyone is talking about Nebraska, but TCU had one of the toughest schedules in the country,” Lamb said. “They’re more physical than we are.”
Nebraska, though, is more everything than almost anyone else. The Huskers are four-time national champions and they knocked out Texas 3-0 to win the title in 2015.
What would it take for Wichita State to beat Nebraska?
Probably something as close to volleyball perfection as even a perfectionist like Lamb could imagine. And likely some mistakes from the Huskers. And maybe the blizzard of the century that would keep so many Nebraska fans from filling up the Devaney Sports Center.
The Shockers have met Nebraska 13 times over the years and won once. In 12 meetings since 1976, WSU hasn’t won a set, let alone a match. The Huskers have outscored WSU in those meetings, 570-287.
Lamb, though, has had only the three shots against the Huskers in NCAA Tournament play. WSU has been outscored 255-175.
The Shockers are game to keep trying, though. What other choice do they have?
The NCAA Tournament in volleyball isn’t like basketball, in which the 68-team field is seeded throughout. There are only 16 seeds in volleyball and everyone else is assigned to a first- and second-round location within its region. It might be fun for the Shockers to travel to California or Florida for the tournament, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
“The one time we thought we might host was in 2008,” Lamb said. “We had a really high RPI that year, a high ranking and we were undefeated in the (Missouri Valley Conference). We thought we had a shot there but we ended up going to Iowa State.
“Debby Colberg, who coached at Sacramento State, told me she went to the NCAA Tournament 11 times and nine times they played Stanford in the first round. That’s just the state of volleyball right now.”
Which makes perspective important, because only a few schools have been dominating volleyball for a long time. Since 1990, six schools — Penn State (7), Stanford (6), Nebraska (4), UCLA (3), Long Beach State (2) and USC (2) — have won 24 of 26 national championships.
Even though he’s still working on a way to get over that Nebraska wall, what Lamb has done at WSU is remarkable. He’s made the Shockers a perennial NCAA Tournament team, one that was able to burst through to a regional four years ago and one that will keep trying to wade through volleyball giants like Nebraska.
There’s fun in the continuing challenge.