After enduring the program’s first losing season in 17 years last fall, the Wichita State volleyball team opened practice for the 2019 season on Thursday with a renewed purpose and a new look.
It’s essentially a brand new start for Wichita State, which had 14 players either graduate, transfer or quit playing following last season’s 14-18 debacle. That has left WSU with just eight players and 42 percent of the swings back from last season’s team.
Inexperience will be something WSU battles throughout the season, but that was an acceptable price to “hit the reset button,” as WSU coach Chris Lamb phrased it. The Shockers open their season with a scrimmage against Kansas at Koch Arena next Saturday at 3 p.m.
“It’s like a completely new mindset for everyone in the gym,” said WSU junior middle Emma Wright, one of two starters who return. “We all want to have a season that we are proud of, a season that’s 10 times better than last season. No one was happy with how it went, so we all wanted that clean slate and a fresh start.”
Lamb said the turnaround began this spring when the girls who didn’t want to be there anymore left and the ones who remained committed stayed. Veterans like Giorgia Civita, Wright, Megan Taflinger and Kara Bown were instrumental in helping Lamb build the culture he wanted for a team with 11 newcomers.
“You can’t get a sun tan without a sunny day. If you can’t create the right environment, good luck getting better at much,” Lamb said. “They want to know the girls next to them are on the same page. They want to know the girls next to them want it badly. If you’re capable, you’re obligated. If you can do it, then you need to do it. We’ve got to be able to have some accountability for what we know people can do and then have those things get done.”
Consider that mission accomplished this summer.
“What they did this summer was as good as we’ve ever had around here in terms of weight-room commitment and volleyball commitment,” Lamb said. “We did as good of a job throughout the summer as we could have expected.”
What will the Shockers look like in 2019?
WSU was dealt a blow early this offseason when star libero Giorgia Civita suffered a season-ending right knee injury. For a team desperate for experience, losing Civita, arguably the best back-row player in program history, limits the ceiling for this year’s team.
It’s unclear yet who replaces Civita, but senior Bown surged toward the end of last season and is the early front runner.
Taflinger is a budding star on the outside following a breakout freshman campaign that saw her lead the team in kills per set (2.97) and manage a .206 hitting percentage, while playing all six positions and adding 122 digs and 32 blocks.
Who joins Taflinger on the outside will also be an ongoing competition. WSU has no other experience at the position, although Lamb hopes redshirt freshman Brylee Kelly can break out in a similar way as Taflinger did last season after a redshirt year. Lamb has also been impressed by a strong freshmen class of outside hitters, namely Sina Uluave, a 5-foot-11 hitter from Hawaii, Sophia Rohling, a 6-3 hitter from Thayer, Kansas, and Nicole Anderson, a 6-foot hitter from Texas.
After being a weakness last season, the middle should become a strength for WSU in 2019. Wright led the team with 0.74 blocks per set and is emerging as more of an offensive threat. Damadj Johnson, a 6-foot senior transfer from Indiana State, has made an immediate impact on defense, while Lamb has high hopes for Chinelo Ogogor following a redshirt season. Brooke Smith, a junior, also returns with experience.
Setting is once again up for grabs this season. Kora Kauling, a 6-3 sophomore, led WSU as a freshman with 691 assists and 6.58 assists per set, but McKayla Wuensch, a 5-9 junior transfer from Nevada, and 5-10 freshman Kayce Litzau have made strong pushes for playing time. Lamb said the coaching staff is in the process of nailing down what system the Shockers will run in 2019.