Wichita State Shockers

Wichita State volleyball eyeing a turnaround this weekend behind leader Emma Wright

Wichita State junior middle Emma Wright (left) hopes to lead the Shockers back to their winning ways. WSU plays Houston on Friday and Tulane on Sunday.
Wichita State junior middle Emma Wright (left) hopes to lead the Shockers back to their winning ways. WSU plays Houston on Friday and Tulane on Sunday. Courtesy

The Wichita State volleyball team has won just one of its 10 matches in the last month.

A stretch like this would have seemed preposterous to Emma Wright two years ago when the Shockers lost four matches the entire season, won the American Athletic Conference championship with an undefeated record and hosted a NCAA first-round regional.

But the program has been in rebuild mode following 2017’s peak. WSU finished 14-18 last season, its first losing record in nearly two decades, and is off to a 4-12 start entering a homestand that begins with Friday’s 7 p.m. match against Houston at Koch Arena.

“It’s definitely frustrating because we can see we’re getting better with every match and every practice,” Wright said. “But we just haven’t found out how to win those tough matches.”

WSU has lost loaded senior classes before and coach Chris Lamb has always been able to reload on the fly. So what’s changed these past two years? The conference.

“This team right now would be a good team in (the Missouri Valley),” Lamb said. “But (the American) is a tough conference to learn volleyball. We’re improving, but 11 of 19 players were new for us. We’ll be better in the second half than the first half.

“It reminds me of the first team I coached here (2001). I knew the future was bright, but I also knew it would take us some time to get there.”

WSU is stocked full of up-and-coming talents, such as freshman outside hitter Brylee Kelly, who registered 27 kills in eight sets last weekend. They are why Lamb is so excited about the team’s future, but the players are motivated to start winning now.

“A lot of these girls came here because of the winning program, so it’s disappointing to us we’re not fulfilling that role,” Kelly said. “Of course it’s motivation. All of us want to get back on a winning streak and get Wichita State back to winning.”

This is where Wright takes even more importance. She’s been in the program for four years. She’s seen the Shockers at their peak. She’s an accomplished middle blocker.

Any player could watch Wright in practice and learn from her. But Wright has had to expand her leadership on a team with only two seniors. And Lamb would still like more vocal leadership from his main returners in Wright, senior Kara Bown and redshirt sophomore Megan Taflinger.

“It’s pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Wright said. “I’ve always had those older girls to follow behind. I know I’m a good follower. I do the right things. But being more vocal has been challenging. I’ve never had to be that person that’s leading everybody else. I’m still improving in that area.”

Their experience can be a valuable tool in peer-to-peer leadership. Kelly confirmed that it’s something she asked Wright about last year.

“At first, I wanted to know how it felt like and what you had to do to get there,” Kelly said. “But now it’s kind of in the past because we’re not there right now. We have to build up to that and right now we’re focused on how we can win these next two matches.”

WSU picked up its first conference win last week at Memphis, in part because it found a way to get Wright more involved in the offense. She recorded a career-high 16 kills in WSU’s five-set victory.

“I’ve been working on hitting higher balls instead of quicks,” Wright said. “I’ve been hitting a lot more behind the setter because my numbers are a lot higher behind the setter instead of in front. So that’s been helping a lot too.”

The Shockers can start their turnaround this weekend at home when they play two of the better teams in conference in Houston (10-9, 4-0 AAC) and Tulane (13-4, 3-1 AAC).

In order to do that, Lamb says WSU will need to improve its ball control. So far this season the Shockers have struggled with their setting, digging and passing, but Lamb says they have been rapidly improving.

“We all believe we can do it,” Wright said of a turnaround. “Even though we’re frustrated right now, it’s still a young season. We’ve only played four conference games. We still have time to turn it around and we’re working really hard to do that.”

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