By AUSTIN COLBERT
Combining youth with a constantly changing lineup is usually a recipe for disaster, but it worked for the Fort Hays State University volleyball team Wednesday in its final exhibition match against visiting Bethel College.
"It's kind of hard to get chemistry that way, but the kids responded pretty well," FHSU coach Kurt Kohler said. "That first match we played there were a lot of freshmen on the floor and I saw the typical inexperienced mistakes that you make. We knew we would get some of that, but I thought we cleaned it up a little bit in that second match."
Despite the absence of two key seniors in Taylor Mares and Sara Hewson, the young Tigers were able to win both matches of Wednesday's doubleheader at Gross Memorial Coliseum, 3-2 and 4-0. The teams planned to play four sets each match regardless of the score, with a fifth set occurring only after a 2-2 tie.
Mares and Hewson, both battling minor injuries, were held out more for precautionary reasons.
Kohler hopes to have both ready for the Tigers' season opener Sept. 5 at the Henderson State Tournament in Arkadelphia, Ark.
"It really wasn't that great to have them out, obviously, because they are amazing. But it was fun," freshman Callie Christensen said. "I was pretty nervous, but the adrenaline and the atmosphere was very awesome. I loved the fans and the big, blow up Tiger. That was really cool. Just being there with my teammates made it all the better."
Christensen is one of a handful of newcomers expected to heavily contribute for the Tigers this season. She, along with fellow freshman middle hitter Mikalah Hughes, are easily FHSU's tallest players at 6-foot-2. Many of the less-experienced players saw extended playing time in the first match against Bethel, a 3-2 thriller with set scores of 25-22, 25-15, 21-25, 25-27 and 15-8.
The second set was predominantly the expected regular-season starters, who cruised to the 4-0 win (25-19, 25-17, 25-20 and 25-13). However, because of the absence of Mares and Hewson, numerous newcomers were given the opportunity to play alongside the veterans in the second match, including Christensen, Hughes, sophomore transfer Kristin Conor, freshman Jessie Kujawa and junior transfer Teresa Wade.
"The younger girls really came in and stepped up," said Wade, a St. John native who transferred from Hutchinson Community College. Wade is the sister of Dean Wade, a 6-foot-8 senior forward at St. John High School who is ranked as the No. 107 basketball prospect in the country for his class by Rivals.com.
"It definitely makes us feel good. We have some confidence going into the tournament next weekend in Arkansas. So that's really good. And just getting the feeling of winning is nice."
Kohler expects to see many of the younger players step up and take a significant role for the Tigers this season. Christensen, a native of Raymond, Neb., could compete for time in either the middle or right side. Wade looks to be part of the rotation on the left side with Hewson and sophomore Haley Corkill, although Kohler admits the depth chart is far from stable and could see many variations throughout the season.
"It's hard with a match like this and mixing up some lineups -- we were trying to see who is going to play in what position -- and I still haven't really solidified our starting lineup. And some of that is going to depend on who is healthy and who is not," Kohler said. "It's competitive every day in practice and I think it's going to be a season we possibly change some lineups just depending on whose working hard in practice and who wants to compete and win."
The Tigers will open their season Sept. 5 in Arkansas against McMurry University at noon, and then play Southeastern Oklahoma State later that day at 4 p.m. They will play two matches on Sept. 6 as well, against Union University at 9 a.m. and Henderson State University at 11 a.m.
FHSU's home opener is Sept. 19 against Missouri Southern.