Chelsea Keating has grown accustomed to playing in the NCAA volleyball tournament, but when Kansas State missed it last season, she secretly worried she had played her final postseason match.
“After last year, I was a little bit nervous, knowing we were going to have younger girls this year,” said Keating, a senior outside hitter. “In the spring, I was nervous about how this year was going to turn out. But it has been nothing but great. It is exciting.”
The quick turnaround produced a 22-8 record, including nine victories in 16 Big 12 matches. It also earned the Wildcats a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, where they will play their first match against Utah at 4:30 p.m. Friday in Lincoln, Neb. A victory would likely advance them to a second-round game against host Nebraska.
It’s similar to the road K-State conquered on its way to the Sweet 16 in 2011, when Keating was a redshirt freshman.
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She has fantastic memories from that run, especially a road victory over Nebraska in the second round that sent her and her teammates to Hawaii for the next stage of the tournament. K-State’s four other seniors will call on those experiences when they take the floor Friday, and coach Suzie Fritz may reference it, as well.
But this is a different, younger team made up of nine freshmen, five sophomores, one junior and five seniors.
Memories may not help it.
“It doesn’t matter what you have done to this point,” Fritz said. “It doesn’t matter what other people have done to this point. You either play well and you win, or you don’t and you lose. There is a sense of urgency that comes with the NCAA Tournament that is really exciting.”
That’s why the focus is simply to build off what the team has accomplished this season, behind a senior core and young talent. They have worked together to create this opportunity.
“This is my third time in Lincoln, and it is nice having that experience under my belt,” Keating said. “I will be calm going in there and not have that super excited feeling, I can stay level headed and help spread that feeling across the team.”
Whatever mindset K-State uses, Fritz is confident it will be a good one.
“There has been no class that we’ve ever had that has made the kind of progress that this (senior) class has made,” Fritz said. “I kind of laughed when I asked them, ‘Do you remember what you were like as freshmen?’ They all laughed. Chelsea, though powerful, was extremely erratic. We used to make fun of her for bouncing balls off the back wall of the gym.
“... They have done it in such a unique and special way, just being themselves and embracing young players and making it about ‘we’ instead of ‘me.’ That is big when you get a group of seniors that is about the team. Chelsea headed that for us. They are in it together.”
NCAA volleyball tournament
WHAT: First- and second-round matches
WHERE: Devaney Center, Lincoln, Neb.
SCHEDULE: Kansas State vs. Utah, 4:30 p.m. Friday; Nebraska vs. Hofstra, 7 p.m. today; first-round winners, 7 p.m. Saturday.