Wichita State volleyball learning tough lessons

On Friday afternoon, I watched Wichita State volleyball muddle through a five-set marathon to defeat Bowling Green and wondered why I drove five hours to Omaha to cover the Bluejay Invitational. By Saturday night, things became more clear after the Shockers defeated Pepperdine 3-1 and lost to Creighton 3-1.

The Shockers are young, and that inexperience showed up when they couldn’t put away Bowling Green with a 2-0 lead and when they faded in set 3and set 4against Creighton. They’re also talented and appear to be the kind of team that will improve as the freshmen and sophomores upon which they lean figure out the grind of college volleyball.

“We’re learning stuff every game, every point,” freshman setter Emily Heibert said.

▪  Coach Chris Lamb found it difficult to get cheery about a 2-1 weekend after the loss to Creighton. The Shockers led late in set 3 and had a chance, perhaps, to break the Bluejays and take charge. Then they led 10-4 in set 4 before surrendering an 11-4 run on their way to a 25-19 loss. Once the more experienced Bluejays got on a roll, the Shockers failed to respond.

“They doubled our score down the stretch,” Lamb said. “Everybody is going to watch this tape, and they’re going to see how to defend us.”

On the bright side, WSU kept plugging away after disheartening losses Bowling Green and bounced back after opening-set loss to Pepperdine to win three straight. It made adjustments after Creighton dominated the first set and won the next one.

“We did a great job with working on every defense Lambo gave us, just dealing with all the adversity,” libero Dani Mostrom said. “What I really enjoyed was seeing how much people developed, specifically our middles. Abbie (Lehman) did a great job in front of and behind the setter.”

▪  Diversifying WSU’s offense will be one of Lamb’s main jobs entering MVC play. Left Ashlyn Driskill excelled against Bowling Green and Pepperdine (36 kills and 14 errors on 88 swings). Creighton possessed the talent and experience to handle her smashes and she hit .056. Other than Lehman, the rest of the offense sagged. Lehman totaled nine, nine and 16 kills with attack percentages of .300, .600 and .538 and earned a spot on the all-tournament team with Driskill.

“Our connection is growing,” Heibert said. “I just have to keep remembering to (set) her high enough so she can over the block.”

▪  Freshman Mikaela Raudsepp moved from the left to the right and played all six rotations. She appears to be a rising star, with an advanced variety of shots and the ability to attack from the back row early in her college career.

▪  It is hard for me to judge WSU’s non-conference resume. The NCAA volleyball RPI comes out Oct. 6 and my guess is WSU will look solid because Lamb knows how to schedule and five of WSU’s 10 non-conference opponents have winning records and two that don’t (Pepperdine and Virginia Tech) play in conferences that will help. However, WSU didn’t grab an obvious marquee victory, unless Butler or Baylor do big things. North Texas is 9-1, its best start, and WSU’s 3-2 loss after winning the first two sets is a painful reminder of the price of inexperience. No MVC team is ranked or receiving votes and it appears the conference is down. Neithern Northern Iowa (5-5) nor Missouri State (6-5) are as strong as usual. Drake (8-3) and Indiana State (8-2) loaded up on weak opponents to build good non-conference records. The MVC may lack the power to produce an at-large team.

▪  In 1998, Creighton’s men’s basketball team averaged 4,941 fans and its volleyball team played in a high school gym. Returning to Omaha is a great reminder about what a school can accomplish, even from an unlikely starting point. Creighton now has a set of facilities that rank with any school in the nation and outstanding community support.

Sokol Arena, where the volleyball and women’s basketball team play, is the perfect size (2,500) for those sports and that school. Next door is the men’s and women’s basketball office, weights and practice facility, featuring courts named after Kyle Korver. It is a first-class facility. Nearby is a top-notch soccer stadium. The CenturyLink Center (basketball) and TD Ameritrade Park (baseball) aren’t close enough to walk to from campus, but they are close enough to be convenient and the whole thing can be sold as a fantastic set of athletic facilities.

Creighton owns several advantages (Omaha’s population, med school, law school, dental school) that most MVC private schools lack. Dramatic transformations are possible, with the right hires, the right leadership and good fortune (hiring Doug McDermott’s dad proved to be a bigger move than anybody believed).

Drake, Loyola, Bradley and Evansville have made investments in athletics in recent seasons. Bradley, Drake and Evansville all have basketball practice facilities. If they lack the motivation to keep building, they need only look at Creighton and the dramatic improvements on that campus in the past 20 years.