LAWRENCE — Kansas State volleyball’s season hasn’t unfolded as the Wildcats would’ve liked, but none of that mattered when coach Suzie Fritz locked eyes with her redshirt senior outside hitter.
K-State rallied from a two-set deficit to stun rival Kansas, 22-25, 23-25, 25-12, 25-20, 15-9, on Wednesday night and in the process earn a season sweep in the Sunflower Showdown. The Wildcats (14-11, 4-10 Big 12) rode a five-kill performance in the fifth set from the aforementioned fifth-year player, Kylee Zumach, to the upset outcome.
Readying for a post-match interview outside the visiting locker room at Horejsi Family Athletics Center, Fritz spotted Zumach and waved her over. The 18th-year coach smiled wide and gave Zumach a high five before pulling her in for a hug.
“So proud of you kid,” Fritz told Zumach.
Fritz then settled into her post-match obligation, where she explained the exchange that just unfolded.
“You know, it’s been kind of an up-and-down year for her in terms of just finding consistency,” Fritz said of Zumach, who came off the bench to post 15 kills on a team-high 39.4-percent hitting clip. “She was just unbelievable at the beginning of the year and then she hit a slump and has really struggled finding her way back. I thought she was really creative as an attacker. She managed her swings really well.
“She deserved a good night, you know? It’s kind of been a long time coming for her. We need her to do that, she needed to do that, and I’m just really proud of her.”
The 6-foot-4 native of Buffalo, Minn., was “big time” in the fifth set, Fritz said. Four of Zumach’s five kills in the decisive frame helped power an 8-1 run that all but put the match away.
“She just was really good,” Fritz said. “I told her she was like a magical unicorn.”
K-State needed more than magic to dispatch the Jayhawks (15-9, 8-5).
The Wildcats dropped the first two sets by a combined margin of just five points, but Fritz said she didn’t think her squad played well in those frames — “It was one good play, one bad play; two good plays, two bad plays,” she said. The team’s lopsided victory in the third set indicated a fifth set was within reach — if not likely by that point.
“Serves kind of started coming around and passes started kind of coming together. We were pretty good in some of the long rallies,” Fritz said. “We were playing pretty good volleyball by the time we settled in.”
Zumach credited a fiery speech from a teammate for the mid-match turnaround.
“I’m going to shout out Elle Sandbothe,” Zumach said of the Wildcats’ junior middle blocker, who finished with 13 kills and a team-high seven blocks. “She got down in our face after the second (set) and was just like, ‘This is not how we’re going to go out. Let’s go. We have more to give right now. We’re the better volleyball team.’ She kind of fired us up there at the end of that second one.”
The rally was on from that point, as was a raucous celebration unfolding after freshman Gloria Mutiri’s set- and match-clinching kill in the fifth. Brooke Heyne had a team-high 17 kills for the Wildcats, while Rachel Langs and Ashley Smith paced the Jayhawks with 14 apiece.
“As the match wore on, we just looked, physically and mentally, I think we looked tired,” KU coach Ray Bechard said. “That’s not something we’ve really looked like this year. I understand it’s late in the year, but holy cow, when you’re trying to fight for a top-two, top-three finish in the Big 12 and you’re trying to fight for an opportunity to go the NCAA Tournament, that response is not acceptable.”
KU finishes its regular season with a three-game slate that begins at 1 p.m. Saturday at TCU, while K-State will begin the first of two final games with an 8 p.m. Saturday home finale against Texas Tech.
Speaking after Wednesday’s victory, Zumach said her spirited performance off the bench was a mix of a “now-or-never” mentality in her final showdown with the Jayhawks as well as a desire to prove she’s more than a bench player.
“I’ve been through a slump lately. I haven’t been playing my best,” Zumach acknowledged. “I think I was playing really well at the beginning of the season, and obviously I didn’t start (tonight), but I got an opportunity to play and I was like, I’ve got to capitalize on this and earn my spot back. I think I did that tonight. It felt really good.”
Asked her thoughts on any resemblance to a “magical unicorn,” Zumach broke into laughter.
“Um, I was like, that’s not — she also calls me ‘Hulk Smash,’ so I’m like, I think she just throws words out there sometimes,” Zumach said. “But I think she was like, whatever you’re doing is working, so keep it up.”