Take K-96 far enough west and you’ll run into a tiny town that stretches only a mile long called Ness City.
The town is lined with red-brick roads and has just one four-way stop. The high school typically has around 110 students and competes athletically at the Class 2A level. And if you want McDonald’s, Wal-Mart or a movie theater, you’ll have to drive for another hour.
Coming from this background, Regan Stiawalt never thought of herself as a Division-I volleyball player.
That part didn’t come until Stiawal, a springy, 5-foot-11 outside hitter, caught Chris Lamb’s eye at his summer camp at Wichita State. It was the first time a Division-I coach had talked to her. He couldn’t promise a scholarship, but he could promise she would get better if she came to WSU.
Three years later, Stiawalt has gone from a small-town Kansas walk-on to a starting hitter in Wichita State’s lineup. In the first action of her WSU career, Stiawalt earned the starting nod and registered 16 combined kills against a pair of top-25 teams in Iowa State and Creighton.
“It was absolutely crazy, and I owe a lot of it to (Lamb),” Stiawalt said. “He sees your strengths and your potential before you can even see it. He believed in me before I ever believed in myself. And he still pushes me hard every single day because he knows what I can be, and now I’m starting to believe that myself.”
An idol for these girls
In her time at Ness City, Stiawalt was regarded as one of the top players to come from Western Kansas in quite some time.
Natausha Dreher, who coached Stiawalt in club at Western Kansas Elite, has seen Stiawalt’s lasting impact on up-and-coming volleyball players in Western Kansas since she left in 2016. Stiawalt gave hope to Western Kansas players that Division I was attainable — and that was before she even started playing.
“I had a girl from Hays who watched Regan as a senior (at Ness City) and wanted to be just like her,” Dreher said. “In the volleyball world out here, people know who Regan Stiawalt is. She is an idol for these high school girls and I hope she’s proud of that, because she wears that crown very well.”
It comes as no surprise to Patrick Younger, another one of Stiawalt’s former coaches, to hear that Stiawalt’s work ethic has led to success with the Shockers.
While he never coached her in volleyball, Younger, Ness City’s track and field coach, saw glimpses of the kind of determination Stiawalt has used at WSU. It always came during the 400-meter relay, where he would insert Stiawalt as the team’s second leg to attack the back straightaway.
“One thing I could always rely on was her competitive fire,” Younger said. “To me, holding the lead or chasing down a runner in the 4-by-1 is the same thing as playing in a very tight volleyball match. With her, it was always the same look in her eye that I saw on the volleyball court.”
There are moments
Lamb is considered a tactician and his methods have turned WSU into a Midwestern power and a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament. But he’s also developed a talent for finding overlooked players, identifying their potential and bringing them into an environment for them to excel.
“You look at some of the greatest Shockers ever and small-town girls are a big part of that,” Lamb said. “Girls like Sara Lungren (Caldwell), Darci Vohs (Holstein, Iowa), Andee Hartig (Great Bend), Mikaela Raudsepp (Dundee, Ore.). Those are all small-town girls and we’ve had a lot of them. I love stories like that.”
Stiawalt might be his next discovery.
This summer Lamb took WSU to a scrimmage against Colorado State and Kansas. The teams were split up and Stiawalt was on the court playing a Colorado State team that finished 29-4 and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year.
A long-time coaching friend of Lamb approached him and asked, after WSU’s losses to graduation, who the best player on the team would be. Lamb said the obvious choices would be his top returning hitter, Tabitha Brown, and libero Giorgia Civita, both All-American candidates.
“He looks at me and goes, ‘Well, what about (Stiawalt)?’” Lamb said. “Because on that court he was watching, Regan was tearing up the Rams and that’s a tall order. But he was right. There are moments when she is playing at the top. Now it’s just about being consistent.”
Knocking on the door
It has become an agonizing tradition for Stiawalt to suffer an injury in preseason training.
When she redshirted in 2016, she broke a foot. Then she missed all of last season after breaking her other foot. And just when she thought she would enter a season fully healthy, she badly sprained her ankle, days before the season opener.
“Things were clearly coming together for her and she was rolling and growing confidence, and then she rolls her ankle,” Lamb said. “For her, it was ‘here we go again.’ It was just heartbreaking.”
After so many costly injuries, Stiawalt could have faltered. But she remained resolute, and her competitive fire continued to burn.
She wanted so desperately to be on the court that she put in overtime work during her rehabilitation and her diligence was rewarded last weekend. In her first career start, Stiawalt had eight kills on a .350 hitting percentage against Iowa State to go along with a service ace and eight digs.
WSU (4-4) heads to the North Texas Challenge to play Stephen F. Austin, North Texas and No. 14 Cal Poly on Friday and Saturday.
“I was really discouraged because it seemed like every time I thought I was getting myself into a position to see the court an injury would happen,” Stiawalt said. “It’s so tough seeing everybody else making progress, and there I am on the sideline stuck doing nothing, not getting any better.
“But I think going through all of that has made me stronger. I just had to keep believing that when I get back, I’m going to kick some butt and play like I’ve never been gone.”
Stiawalt is still a walk-on for WSU for this season, but Lamb thinks that has a chance to change with her play this fall.
“This is her knocking on the door for that,” Lamb said. “She’s got the tools, and she’s done everything right since she’s got here.”