As his 20th season as head coach of the Wichita State volleyball team starts this week with the spring season, Chris Lamb is feeling more motivated than ever.
After WSU sputtered through a 14-18 season in 2018, the program’s first losing record since 2001, Lamb and his staff are obsessed with making sure 2018 proves to be a blip and not a trend.
“We’ve made a mess and now it’s time for us to clean it up,” Lamb said. “I hope to reinstall commitment and team unity. I think we lost some of that last year and I want it back.”
Although WSU was a young team last season, there will be even more new faces this coming season.
Tabitha Brown, the team’s top hitter, will take advantage of a NCAA waiver that Lamb helped obtain to play a fifth season at Rice. Alex Koon, the other starting outside hitter, graduated as a redshirt junior and will not play a senior season. Sophomore Abby Pugh (San Diego State) and freshman Grace Burken (Iowa State), both middles, have transferred, along with sophomore outside Chase Jackson.
That’s five of the nine hitters who took 58 percent of the team’s swings last season all gone.
But after how last season ended, sometimes it’s better to start anew.
“I want to get better at fighting together,” Lamb said. “I think we became a fractured group. I don’t think we had great unity, certainly compared to others. I want us all to look in the mirror and own up to it and take responsibility and commit to having a hand in turning that part around. Because that matters.”
There is still plenty of hitting talent to build around.
Junior Emma Wright has two years of experience in the middle now and sophomore Megan Taflinger is set to become the team’s go-to force after tallying 339 kills last season. Taflinger redshirted her first year at WSU, then became a star. That’s the route Lamb is hoping redshirt freshman Brylee Kelly (outside) and Chinelo Ogogor (middle) take this season. He’s also excited about incoming freshman Sophia Rohling from Neodesha.
“I thought Brylee and Chinelo would have made us better last year, but we decided to keep them as redshirts,” Lamb said. “We’re really excited about both of them. Our middle will not only improving just blocking, but also scoring in the middle. Our setting is going to get much better and in doing so, our middle attacking is also going to get much better.”
Lamb said he plans on running a 6-2 rotation once again next season. Sophomore Kora Kauling ran the offense for the second-half of the season, but she’ll be getting help from transfer McKayla Wuensch, a junior who was the secondary option at setter at Nevada the last two seasons. Lamb is also high on incoming freshman Kayce Litzau, who could see immediate time.
“I’ve known about (Wuensch) for a long time and I’ve always felt she just needed an opportunity,” Lamb said. “I knew what I thought she was capable of and watching the video of her that we have and getting to work with her, she’s a fast competitor and I think she’ll play defense, I think she’ll serve tough and catch on to the randomness of our offense. She’ll be fun to watch.”
The team’s centerpiece is junior libero Giorgia Civita, who Lamb doesn’t hesitate to call the best back-row defender he’s coached. But she’s only a junior and still improving.
After carrying most of the load last season, that shouldn’t be the case for Civita this year. Kara Bown came on the second-half of last season and should be in the rotation as a senior. Lamb hit the recruiting trail hard for defensive specialists and wouldn’t be surprised if incoming freshmen Shea Lauria, Lily Liekweg or Arianna Arjomand make an immediate difference.
WSU begins the spring season with workouts and small-group lessons, then eventually those get bumped up to 20 hours a week of team practice. The Shockers have four available play dates for spring matches and Lamb thinks he will use three of them. Opponents and dates will be announced later.
Lamb is looking forward to the fresh start.
“I thought last season got more and more difficult and I’m real excited to get away from that,” Lamb said. “We’ve been very honest with ourselves and keeping things very real about why we think things like (a 14-18 season) happened. Outside of injuries, there were things that did happen and didn’t happen for us and we need to learn from it.”