Wichita State Shockers

After first AAC loss, WSU volleyball season reaches an early crossroads

Wichita State outside hitter Alex Koon and middle blocker Abby Pugh attempt to block a shot against the Tulane Green Wave during the home-opener in Koch Arena. (Sept. 21, 2018)
Wichita State outside hitter Alex Koon and middle blocker Abby Pugh attempt to block a shot against the Tulane Green Wave during the home-opener in Koch Arena. (Sept. 21, 2018) Brian Hayes

There was no post-match speech following Wichita State’s fifth-set loss to Tulsa last Saturday.

Without a word, the Shockers filed onto their bus and drove home in silence. They were stunned. After a 20-0 march to a championship last season in its inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference, WSU returned to reality last weekend with its first loss in conference play.

It was mentally and physically exhausting. WSU had prevailed in a conference record-setting first set, 41-39, but lost three of the next four and fell to 7-7 on the season. The first set was 10 points shy of a NCAA record.

“The result was a culmination of a lot of leaking oil on our part,” WSU coach Chris Lamb said. “The breakdowns have been there all season, but we kept walking away with wins. While I was doing my interview with (WSU radio announcer) Mike Kennedy, I was wondering if (the players) are going to listen to us now. I wonder if now it’s going to sink in that we need to do X, Y and Z.”

Three previous times this season WSU failed to close out a match in the fourth set but rallied and won the decisive fifth. Lamb complimented the Shockers on their grittiness, but also pointed out winning matches in the fifth set is “no way of making a living.”

That message was received by the players after they finally came up short in one of those matches.

“We were so used to last year never losing a match and then this year we hadn’t lost a fifth set all year,” WSU sophomore Abby Pugh said. “Losing that match we realized things aren’t going to come easy to us at all. This year is definitely different and everyone realized we’ve got to work super hard just to get back to the NCAA Tournament.”

Whether the Shockers play in the NCAA Tournament for an 11th time in the last 12 years could depend on how this upcoming road trip fares. WSU (7-7, 2-1 AAC) plays at South Florida (13-3, 2-1) on Friday night and at Central Florida (12-3, 3-0) on Sunday afternoon.

Will WSU bounce back with a pair of crucial wins? Or will the Shockers’ slide continue?

“In terms of where we’re trying to get to, this is very important,” Lamb said.

“We need to be able to bounce back really fast,” Pugh said. “Not only to get our confidence back up, but also to build momentum for the rest of the season. USF and UCF aren’t going to be easy.”

Not helping matters is a thumb injury that has sidelined middle Emma Wright indefinitely. Lamb said the team could also use Jenna Mak for her back-row defense, but the redshirt freshman is also recovering from an injury.

But the team responded with its best two practices of the season on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to Lamb.

The Shockers may no longer be unbeaten in the AAC, but they are motivated more than ever to prove they can repeat their conference title this season.

“Losing to Tulsa was a huge eye-opener for us,” sophomore Brooke Smith said. “We came straight back from the game and had a team talk. We all recognized we had to get back and work super hard, we needed to focus and bring great energy and urgency and I think we’ve done that in practice this week.”