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Wichita State volleyball goes to the outside for season-best win to stay in AAC race

GoShockers.com/Courtesy

In the middle is where the Wichita State volleyball team has typically found its advantage.

But in the season’s finest victory, a four-set win over SMU on its home court this past Sunday, the Shockers overpowered the preseason American Athletic Conference favorites with their pin hitters on the outside.

In a vacuum, it’s not surprising that Brylee Kelly (preseason AAC Co-Player of the Year), Sophia Rohling (an all-conference selection) and Ba Koehler (2022 NJCAA Player of the Year) combined for 42 kills on a .337 hitting percentage.

But for all three to bust out of their slumps and deliver superb performances in the same match on the road against a top-40 opponent? That was a welcome surprise for the Shockers, which improved to 9-5 this season and kept their conference championship hopes alive with a road split at SMU to move to 4-1 in AAC play.

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“I told our outside hitters all spring long, if you want to beat (good teams like) Rice and SMU, you’re going to need to (produce),” WSU coach Chris Lamb said Monday on his radio show. “I’ve been preaching it all season long and I’ve been challenging Brylee and Sophia and all of the pin players to really become more of a point scorer. That’s what it takes to beat teams of that caliber. And that’s what they did.”

In the Friday match, the trio of Kelly, Rohling and Koehler combined for 14 kills and a .063 hitting percentage in a three-set sweep (25-19, 25-20, 25-14) for the Mustangs.

Lamb was unsettled by how little resistance his veteran club offered in a crucial league match.

“Right from the start, we didn’t look competitive. We looked completely out of sorts,” Lamb said. “I told them, ‘Did the fans who paid money to watch that, did they get a volleyball demonstration or a volleyball competition?’ I couldn’t tell. It looked like volleyball, but it sure didn’t feel and sound and taste and smell like what a competitive (match) should feel like.”

After being challenged by its coach, WSU responded with a crisp performance less than 48 hours later with a dominant 25-13 victory in Sunday’s opening set.

It was a return to form for Kelly, the sixth-year senior who has been mostly limited this season due to an abdominal injury. After posting a below-average 26% kill percentage in her first eight appearances, Kelly was at her best in the second match against SMU with a season-high 13 kills on 30 swings (43% kill percentage).

Rohling (14 kills on 26 swings) and Kelly were both key in the second set, a 25-22 triumph to put the Shockers up 2-0.

“I think she was in shock. She believed by just coming back everything would go back to normal,” Lamb said. “But it took a while. She was frustrated and she started pressing and that’s something new. She’s never had to go through that before. That was a new reality. Maybe she’s digging her way out of that and getting back to being one of the better outside hitters in the conference.”

No one had more of an emergence than Koehler, the talented outside hitter from Brazil who started the season off with a 13-kill performance against Notre Dame but steadily fell down the pecking order as the non-conference slate progressed.

After SMU pulled one back with a 26-24 win in the third set, Koehler led an improbable comeback in the fourth set to rally the Shockers to their best road win of the season. With WSU trailing 20-14, Koehler helped the Shockers rattle off seven straight points, then scored four of the team’s final five points to close out a 25-23 win.

Koehler notched seven kills without a single error on 15 swings in the decisive fourth set to punctuate a career-best performance, which ended with 15 kills and 17 digs — both career-high marks.

“I’ve talked to her about how she needs to become more of a block-avoider, but in some situations I want her to stick with (what she’s naturally good at) and hit it high and hard,” Lamb said. “You’ve got to calibrate it up a little bit because these girls are more physical and the block and the angle you need to clear it is going to be different. So there’s going to be growing pains. If I’m going to give her the green light, I’ve got to grit my teeth sometimes because there’s going to be some stuff blocks.

“But hey, I’m glad we set her on match point because you knew she was going to hit that thing, and the ball ended up in the top row of the bleachers.”

If WSU can find consistency with its outside hitters, the offense, run by setter Izzi Strand, should only improve with talented hitters like Natalie Foster and Morgan Stout in the middle.

While splitting the pair of road matches with a high-quality team like SMU was considered a victory for WSU, the two matches showed how high of a ceiling and how low of a floor this team has.

The Shockers are in position to continue their momentum with a favorable upcoming schedule that includes a pair of home matches this weekend against Temple (7 p.m. Friday) and South Florida (1 p.m. Sunday), and then back-to-back road matches at Tulane next weekend. All three opponents are currently ranked outside of the top-100 in the RPI rankings.