Wichita State last won a Missouri Valley Conference volleyball title in 2008. It last defeated conference rival Northern Iowa that same season, dropping eight straight matches to the Panthers since.
So it appears clear what the Shockers need to do in order to reclaim dominance of the Missouri Valley Conference. WSU starts the season tonight against New Mexico State and a tough non-conference schedule is the immediate priority. It won’t be long before Valley play and targeting the UNI dynasty becomes the goal. Shocker coach Chris Lamb says he doesn’t think that way. His players admit to measuring much of what they do against the UNI standard. Either way, WSU starts the season planning on a sixth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament and moving up in the MVC standings after finishing third in 2011, its lowest finish since 2003.
“You could bring Texas and Stanford into our conference, and I wouldn’t all of a sudden change anything,” Lamb said. “We need to be better to be better. I don’t have a ‘To beat Northern we need this.’ We need this to be in the top 25. Northern happens to be there.”
Yes, it is.
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The 21st-ranked Panthers are 54-0 in MVC matches the past three seasons to end a period of Shocker dominance in which they won four MVC titles in five seasons from 2004-08. WSU is picked third in the preseason poll, behind Northern Iowa and Missouri State. WSU is 5-3 against MSU the past three seasons. It’s UNI that frustrates. Last season, the Panthers won three times, twice sweeping the Shockers. Seven of the 11 sets were decided by two points.
“If they have girls who are going to go pursue balls, we need to have girls that are going to pursue balls,” WSU senior libero Jackie Church said. “We need to have girls that are comfortable taking out-of-system swings, and we’re getting there. Staying with Northern Iowa is going to be having a high kill percentage and also having a very low error percentage.”
Lamb knows exactly where the Panthers separate themselves, and it’s not with their high-powered offense. He spent the past two seasons demanding more from his defenders, trying to match UNI’s ability to keep balls in play and start the offense with good passes.
“They had the best blend of offense and defense,” he said. “Throughout that stretch, we had offensive numbers like them. Nobody had defensive numbers like them and serve-and-passing numbers like them. They small-balled everybody to death, while looking like an offensive team.”
UNI setter Bre Payton, a former walk-on who became a three-time MVC Player of the Year, is gone, taking exceptional defensive abilities with her. Lamb considered Payton and returning hitter Amy Braun talented enough to be liberos for most MVC teams. Lamb believes his team will be stronger on defense with junior settter Chelsey Feekin in the lineup and improvement by his littles, led by Church. Senior outside hitter Emily Adney will play six rotations and Lamb is thrilled with her passing ability. Ball-handling issues that often defined the narrow gap between wins and losses should improve.
If setter play defines the MVC race, Missouri State may grab an edge. The Bears return junior Carly Thomas, a preseason All-MVC pick. Junior Molly Turk will replace Payton and UNI’s offense will look much different without Payton’s scoring ability. Feekin will add scoring to the lineup when she replaces Mary Elizabeth Hooper, a four-time All-MVC pick and WSU’s career leader in assists. Feekin played in 35 matches the past two seasons and the Shockers are confident in her abilities to run the offense and give them assets Hooper lacked.
“I think people have told her she has big shoes to fill,” middle blocker Elizabeth Field said. “I think she’s long since filled them.”
WSU’s offense will look different with Feekin in charge. She is more of a scoring threat than Hooper because she is left-handed (allowing her to strike with her left hand while facing left toward her hitter) and because she is taller. Even in limited play as a freshman and sophomore, Feekin worked smoothly setting the middles, often the most difficult set because of the timing.
“Chelsey scores like crazy,” Adney said. “Even our team that knows what she usually does can’t seem to stop her in practice.”
The Shockers, 21-11 last season, also must replace outside hitter Camri Zwiesler, the MVC’s Defensive Player of the Year and libero Sarah Waldorf. Lamb’s front-row plans are in flux while he evaluates the health of junior Sam Sanders, who missed practice this week with leg and foot pain. When healthy, she will likely play on the right. Freshmen Ashlyn Driskill and Katie Reilly are expected to contribute on the pins. WSU’s middle is in experienced hands with Field and fellow junior Ashley Andrade back. Field is also an option on the right.