It is an exciting time to be a part of the Kansas State University volleyball program, Dakota Kaufman said.
The former Hillsboro High School standout is part of a team on the rise.
The Wildcats made it to the sweet 16 in the NCAA volleyball tournament, earning a trip to Honolulu.
“It was an amazing feeling just being among the top volleyball teams in the country,” Kaufman said.
To punch that ticket to Hawaii, the team orchestrated an upset of overall No. 2 seed Nebraska. The Wildcats defeated the Cornhuskers on Dec. 2 in Lincoln in five sets, 25-22, 22-25, 31-19, 22-25, and 15-11. It was in no way a down year for the former Big 12 conference power. Even with defending four-time national champion Penn State in the same conference, Nebraska won the Big 10.
“Honestly, I think it was an advantage not playing them this year,” Kaufman said. “I think they were expecting to play the team from last year. In a way it shocked them.”
In a way, the KSU squad was hoping to be underestimated. They were picked to finish eighth out of nine teams preseason in the conference; they finished fourth only behind nationally ranked Texas, Iowa State, and Texas A&M.
Once on the Sweet 16 stage, the Wildcats could not overcome a daunting Pepperdine squad, losing in three sets.
“Their top hitters were 6-4, 6-3,” Kaufman said. “I knew we had a chance because we played so well against Nebraska. We couldn’t get anything going.
“I think, in a way, we were happy to be there.”
The 2011 season will likely be the last time KSU will be underestimated. Without a senior on the roster, the entire team will return to Manhattan next year.
The Wildcats top setter and hitter battery, Caitylyn Donahue and Kaitlyn Pelger, will return for their senior and junior seasons respectively. Including Pelger, who notched 500 kills on the season, KSU’s top two hitters will be juniors, the same level as Kaufman.
“There’s bigger girls out there,” Kaufman said. “Girls that are studs. There’s just so much to be learned.”
Just on the Kansas State roster, there are eight women listed at 6-foot-1 or taller.
Kaufman was part of the Wildcats regular rotation during the season, but did not see much playing time in the tournament. Among a group of talented hitters, Kaufman is trying to find her place on the team. It has been difficult going from the most athletic player on the court in high school to a role player in college.
The game of volleyball has not changed for Kaufman and neither have her responsibilities on the court. She is still supposed to time her jump, see the ball, and hit it. However,
Division 1 teams employ more quick jumping hits and spikes with precisions. Not only is Kaufman expected to execute these plays, but execute them perfectly.
“As a back row player, you’re expected to pass the ball perfectly; as a setter, you’re expected to set the ball perfectly; and as a hitter, you’re expected to hit the ball perfectly,” Kaufman said.
“It’s a game of mistakes; whoever makes the first mistake, the other team usually scores,” Kaufman added.
During the spring semester and the summer, Kaufman will work on her individual skills, including hitting efficiency.
“It’s just being smart, knowing when to hit,” Kaufman said.
What will not be a worry for Kaufman will be keeping up with her grades. She was a second-team all-academic selection for the Big 12.
Majoring in elementary education, she said it is much easier to concentrate on her studies when the hectic travel, practice, and game schedule of the volleyball season is completed. She said trying to keep up with classes online while missing lectures during the NCAA tournament was especially difficult.
Despite the challenges ahead, Kaufman is looking forward to continuing her Kansas State volleyball career. She said she has formed friendships with many of the girls on the team, who mostly hail from Kansas.
And she knows that there will be more victories ahead for the team.
“We’re kind of a force to be reckoned with,” Kaufman said.