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FHSU volleyball looks to continue climb as season starts

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Kurt Kohler has built the Fort Hays State University volleyball team from a well-under .500 program to an above-average team. The next step, and arguably the hardest for any program, is to go from above average to elite. Kohler named several keys for FHSU to reach the next level, including senior leadership and increased production from a large junior class.

"The first thing is leadership out of our upperclassmen," Kohler said. "We have got some talent in that senior and junior class this year. Those kids need to step up and be leaders, not only on the floor, but in everything that we do."

The last three seasons, FHSU has had one, one and two seniors, though only one of the seniors last season, setter Kayla Zoglman, was a significant contributor. FHSU returned all but two of its main players from 2012 and has three seniors in senior middle hitter Jenna Ulrich, senior outside hitter Madison Schwartz and senior libero Makenzie Weinman, all players that have started at least two seasons and earned at least one all-MIAA honor.

"It's a big mental game and with our successful season last year, I feel like we need to carry that through and show the freshmen that we are building a good program and don't be afraid out there," Weinman said. "Be level-headed and be confident."

On Thursday night, the Tigers opened the season with a 3-1 loss to Chaminade (2-1) in the Hawaii Invitational. Fort Hays hit just .068 and lost 26-28, 25-22, 25-23, 25-14. Weinman paced the team with 11 digs, two setters -- newcomers Libby Ary and Kelsey Broadwell -- combined for 32 assists. Junior right side hitter Taylor Mares led the team with nine kills and a .368 hitting percentage, but Ulrich had five kills and and minus .045.

"That tradition that we have built up over the last couple of years, those kids need to take over that and say, 'This is our team, we really want to leave a huge impact on our program when we walk out the doors,' " Kohler said. "Up until this point, we have made some big strides with talented players. But nobody has really said, 'Hey, we want to leave an impact on Fort Hays volleyball.' "

Kohler said the best example of senior leadership in his tenure came three years ago with then-libero Tracie Hileman. She was the leader when FHSU made its first jump from a seven-win team to a 17-16 record. Last year, the Tigers finished 23-14.

"She kind of had that attitude, but with her being the only senior on that team, it was tough for her to really do a whole lot," Kohler said. "Last year, I didn't see that those two seniors that we had really cared to really make that impact."

In addition to the three seniors this fall, FHSU also has Camille Hubert and Sam Ledy, both in their fourth years. Hubert took a medical redshirt last season and Ledy stepped aside from volleyball for a year earlier in her career for personal reasons before she came back.

"It's all going to depend on what direction they want to take," Kohler said. "I really feel their leadership is going to help get us to the next level or keep us pretty stagnant."

The junior class includes Mares and outside hitter Sara Hewson, two players that have seen significant playing time.

"As talent goes, they are pretty skilled, pretty talented kids," Kohler said. "Are they willing to put that extra effort in to improve in our program or are they pretty content with where they have been. Sara Hewson is going to be a big role in that. What kind of leader is she going to be?"