It's been two seasons since Wichita State won the Missouri Valley Conference volleyball title. It's also been two seasons since the Shockers claimed the MVC's best ground game.
Coach Chris Lamb knew his team needed to get better below the net, so he made those skills a top priority in the off-season. As the Shockers start the season today, he believes senior Sarah Waldorf and junior Jackie Church, WSU's top liberos, took his challenge seriously.
"Blocking, attacking — some of that comes down to talent," Lamb said. "The floor skills — the passing, the serving, the digging — you want to believe you can train that. We want to do all those things really well. I felt in several matches last year that our group was being outplayed by that same group on the other side of the net, and it needed to get better."
Pass through the practice gym on a random August day and you might hear Lamb invoke the name of Karen Augspurger, the two-time MVC Libero of the Year. The standards are high, and Lamb loves to remind his players.
"Last year, we were good, but we weren't amazing," Waldorf said. "He expects a lot out of his littles."
It's not that Waldorf and Church didn't play well in 2010. WSU finished 17th nationally in digs per set (17.51) and led the MVC in opponent hitting percentage (.147). The Shockers went 21-8 with a fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
However, the Shockers finished four matches behind Northern Iowa in the MVC standings for a second straight season. Consider Northern Iowa's 36-0 MVC record against WSU's 28-8 over the past two seasons to get to the heart of Lamb's concern. Add an MVC Tournament meeting and UNI went 5-0 against the Shockers in 2009 and 2010.
"What they (the littles) want most is his respect for them over UNI," setter Mary Elizabeth Hooper said. "For two years we've lost, and for two years he's clearly said that UNI has better littles than us. I think they're done with that and ready to put an end to that."
Lamb liked the progress in the spring, when statistics showed WSU won the passing and defending battles in most scrimmages. Nothing changed in fall practices as WSU prepared for a tough non-conference schedule that starts with matches against Arizona, No. 10 Hawaii and San Francisco this weekend in the Rainbow Wahine Invitational in Honolulu. As of Thursday, Lamb hadn't settled on a libero, a competition that will continue all season much as it did in 2010.
"They know they were challenged," Lamb said. "They've gotten better at being better passers consistently. They're more mature defensively and reading better and making plays. They're playing defense with more range."
Waldorf, a senior from Augusta, started 2010 strong, earning MVP honors at an early season tournament. She was unable, however, to build on that peak.
"I started out the season with all the confidence in the world, and kind of lost that," she said. "I'm working on getting that back and staying confident and relaxed."
Waldorf came to WSU as a setter and it's taken her time to learn the position. She worked to improve her serve-receive, steadying her arms and body to make a more accurate pass to the setter. She is WSU's best digger, especially handling hard-hit smashes. She led WSU with 526 digs last season.
"Sarah finally believes in herself at the level she needs to," Lamb said. "Sarah wants to be great, and when things are less than great, she's tough on herself."
For Church, improvement came with better fundamentals. Lamb broke down her digging technique to give her more balance and more court coverage. When her hands dropped to her waist, it cut down on her reaction time. When she plays with them at her chest, her range expands.
"I'm not making so many steps forward and steps backward," she said. "I'm seeing the ball better and I'm getting to balls faster."
Waldorf and Church are entering their third season playing together as WSU's primary defensive specialists. Lamb expects that experience to help return the Shockers to a higher level of defense.
WSU's offense is also in experienced hands with junior outside hitter Emily Adney and senior Camri Zwiesler. Adney, an All-MVC pick, recorded 372 kills with a .248 attack percentage.
Zwiesler led WSU with 391 kills, hitting .241. Lamb expects her to be an MVC Player of the Year candidate as a six-rotation performer. Her 338 digs ranked second on the team behind Waldorf and she led the Shockers with 22 service aces.
WSU's other hitters are not as experienced. Sophomore Sam Sanders and freshman Audrey Biggs will play on the right. Sophomore Elizabeth Field totaled 141 kills with a .249 attack percentage as a middle blocker. Sophomore Ashley Andrade moved into the rotation late in 2010 after an injury sidelined senior middle Sarah McGee. Andrade is recovering from knee surgery and did not practice in the spring.
Hooper on national list — Hooper is one of 30 candidates for the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award. The award goes to a senior volleyball player with achievements in four areas: academics, character, community and competition.