A knee injury suffered earlier this week has likely ended the season for senior setter Kali Eaken, a tough blow for a Wichita State volleyball team in the midst of scrapping for a NCAA Tournament berth.
But the Shockers were pleasantly surprised this past weekend with the emergence of redshirt freshman Kora Kauling at the position. After running a 6-2 system for much of the season, WSU switched to a 5-1 with Kauling serving as the main setter.
The results were encouraging, as Kauling helped direct an offense that posted a season-best .292 hitting percentage in a sweep over East Carolina, then she recorded a career-best 51 assists in a five-set thriller against Cincinnati. Her previous best was 28.
“I was a little intimidated when I first got in there,” Kauling said. “But I just had to calm down and try to act like it was just practice. We have so many good hitters, so I just try to make sure they’re able to attack the balls off my set.”
Despite the loss to Cincinnati, which dropped WSU to 4-3 and three games behind Cincinnati and Central Florida in the conference standings, the Shockers are ranked No. 30 in the latest RPI report thanks to a strength of schedule that ranks No. 4 in the country.
That’s territory to make a case for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, but not if WSU keeps losing games. The Shockers (9-9, 4-3 AAC) can’t afford a loss in the upcoming road swing, a Friday night date with SMU (6-11, 3-4) and a Sunday afternoon match with Houston (13-9, 0-7).
Considering WSU was without three starters in Eaken, middle Emma Wright (thumb) and outside Megan Taflinger (abdomen strain), associate head coach Sean Carter was encouraged by the Shockers taking Cincinnati to five games.
“I’m so proud of the girls and their effort,” Carter said. “They took Cincinnati to five games and the effort was there all the way around. Now if we can get (Taflinger) back and going, we have something to build on.”
One player who has momentum after the weekend is senior outside Tabitha Brown, who Kauling was able to connect with more efficiently than any setter this season.
WSU has funneled a lot of its offense this season to Brown, but she has been forced to take a lot of inefficient swings. After only posting a hitting percentage over .200 twice in her first 16 games, Brown was above that mark in both games this past weekend and registered a season-high 28 kills against Cincinnati.
The Shockers also had success involving their middles, which has been a point of emphasis for Kauling. Against ECU, Grace Burken and Brooke Smith combined for 12 kills, no errors and a .480 hitting percentage and Smith had 14 kills and hit .545 against Cincinnati.