By Mark Schnabel
This was said to be the year midwest college volleyball came into its own.
One of the teams that led the coming out party was led by a pair of Newton Railers.
Emily Hiebert and Abbie Lehman helped lead Wichita State to a Missouri Valley Conference championship, a Missouri Valley Conference post-season tournament championship and an NCAA tournament berth, reaching the round of 32, before falling to eventual national champion Nebraska on the Huskers' home court.
Hiebert is a 6-foot setter, while Lehman is a 6-3 middle blocker. Both are red-shirt sophomores and both were starters this season. They helped lead the Shockers to a 27-9 overall record and a 15-3 mark in conference play.
"It was such an awesome experience," Hiebert said of the NCAA regionals in Lincoln. "Especially being able to play in front of 9,000 people in Nebraska. Their fans were awesome."
"The atmosphere was absolutely amazing," Lehman said. "To be able to get a win in that gym and to be able to play Nebraska."
The Shockers had to go through in-state rival Kansas State to get to the sub-regional finals, downing the Wildcats in four sets.
"They're a great team," Hiebert said. "It was a great honor to play a team like that from the Big 12."
"It was cool to play them," Lehman added. "It's a state team we usually don't get to play, so that was awesome."
The Shockers pulled off a double championship (conference title and tournament title) for just the third time in school history (2004 and 2013 were the only other times). Wichita State was down 2-0 in each of its MVC tourney games this year, both times rallying to win three straight sets.
"It was so much fun," Hiebert said. "I don't know if I've ever been on a closer team. It was fun winning it with all your friends."
"Everyone stuck in it," Lehman said. "Even when we were down two sets, everyone stuck with it. It was awesome being able to come back to win. It was a big accomplishment to come back like that and get into post-season play."
They said it was the play of the opponents that got the Shockers down, but both times, the team was able to make the adjustments needed.
"We had to make a lot of adjustments to what we were doing," Lehman said. "Both teams had amazing outside hitters. We couldn't just let them keep hitting at us. We had to get some digs and touches on their hits and slow them down."
"What was going through our minds is 'we are going to win these,' " Hiebert said. "We just pushed through it."
Lehman finished the season as an NCAA All-American honorable mention. Lehman also finished as a two-time AVCA all-region selection. Hiebert was named to the all-conference tournament team. Both were first-team All-MVC selections.
"It was exciting," Lehman said. "It was awesome to get that award. Katie Reilly also got that award, so that was great to get it with her."
They both had a red-shirt year at WSU in 2013 and played their first season with the Shockers in 2014.
"It's such a great program," Hiebert said. "When I went on the visit, I loved all the girls. It's close to home and I'm a big homebody."
"It was close to home, and that was great," Lehman said. "Emily here was a big part of it. Playing Division I was a great opportunity."
Both gave a big part of the team's success to coach Chris Lamb as well as the work they have put into their game.
"A lot of it is how hard we work in the off-season and how well our coaches train us," Hiebert said.
While some athletes don't like sitting out their first year of college play, both said the red-shirt year helped them.
"I really needed it," Lehman said. "It helped me to improved. It was great to learn. I had Ashley Andrade and Elizabeth Field, who were the two middles, to learn under. It was amazing. They were awesome leaders and awesome teammates."
"I'm so glad I did that," Hiebert said. "There were so many amazing people we got to watch and learn from. We were able to just train. I was under Chelsea Feekin, who was an All-American. She took me under her wing and really helped me."
Wichita State was one of a number of midwest teams to do well at the national level this season. The MVC placed four teams in the NCAA tournament this season. All three Kansas Division I programs earned an NCAA berth. The Final Four consisted of Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota and Texas — the first time ever that no West Coast teams reached that level. The only non-Midwest team in the Shocker's sub-regional was Harvard.
The Shockers feature seven in-state players this season with most of them in the three-county area surrounding Wichita.
"The conference was very good this year," Lehman said. "It has really improved."
In their first season of play in 2014, the Shockers were 20-10 overall, 13-5 in the MVC. The team tied for third in the conference and lost in the semifinals of the conference tournament. The Shockers were knocked off the bubble for an NCAA berth.
"It makes me mad, a little bit saying it, but it was a rebuilding year," Hiebert said. "We wanted to do well because we are all very competitive, but we lost four very good seniors and had a bunch of freshmen playing. We still did pretty well."
"After not getting in (the NCAA) last year, it made us really want to get in this year," Lehman said.
This season, the Shockers opened the season with a 2-1 finish at the Rainbow Wahine Invitational in Honolulu, dropping a four-set match to then no. 18 Hawaii. The Shockers rebounded from a 1-2 finish at the Texas A&M Invitational with a 4-1 finish at the Shocker Classic, losing to no. 7 Illinois in the finale. The Shockers then finished out non-conference play with a 2-1 finish at the Marquette Classic, beating NCAA selection Marquette, but losing to Indiana-Purdue at Indianapolis.
The Shockers then won 11 of their first 12 MVC matches.
"We kept talking about how awesome the teams we were playing were," Lehman said. "That really motivated us to work hard. In pre-season in Hawaii was amazing, as well as the other places we went. After beating Oregon State, they were in the Sweet 16 the year before. Then we beat Kentucky. After all that it was like, 'Hey, we can play with these teams."
"We worked really worked hard in the spring and I remember the day our coach gathered us together and said we're starting the season in Hawaii for our first tournament," Hiebert said. "That was really good motivation. We knew how good the teams were going to be at Hawaii and how good Hawaii was. We wanted to give it our best shot. We took a set off Hawaii, which was really good."
Both said the success of this season will make them hungry to go farther next year. The Shockers lose just two seniors.
"To make it back to the Sweet 16 would be awesome," Lehman said.
"The conference is getting better and better," Hiebert said. "To keep winning that would be awesome."
The two said you had to rely on your teammates to get through the long grind of college volleyball.
"You're exhausted and tired and have a ton of homework," Lehman said. "They do too. So you do it for each other."
Both credited the team's athletic academic services director Gretchen Torline for helping them balance school and volleyball life.
"She helps us keep on track and she actually went to Hawaii with us," Hiebert said. "Sometimes, we have study hall."
Hiebert intends to major in physical education and special education. Lehman intends to major in exercise science.
Both players helped the Railers to state tournaments in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. Newton was state runner-up in 2011. They both said they took lessons learned at Newton to the Shocker program.
"It was awesome playing at Newton," Hiebert said. "Coach (Jamie) Dibbens is such a great coach, and all of her assistants. They taught me a lot about volleyball. It was team oriented. There was a lot of team unity and hard work. It was taking what we were being taught — coachability — all the coaches taught us a lot at Newton."
"Even the basketball coach, (Randy) Jordan taught us a lot," Hiebert said. "They taught us about working hard, being pushed."
Both had older siblings who played at Newton and went on to college. Emily's sister Amanda played basketball and volleyball at Bethel before knee injuries ended her career. Abbie's sister Kate was an NCAA Division II All-American basketball player at Fort Hays State, who is the team's all-time leading blocked shot leaders.
"When I was little, I would go to all my sister's MAYB (basketball) games and just watch her," Hiebert said. "We're six years apart."
"It was great to go to Hays and see the atmosphere," Lehman said. "I got to learn a lot about college sports."
Hiebert played club volleyball before college, reaching the nationals with the Wichita Power and taking third. Lehman played for several club teams. She spent a season with the Power as a teammate of Hiebert. Current Shocker Jody Larson also was a member of that team.
Both are gearing up for spring and summer conditioning to prepare for the 2016 season.
"Once we go back to school for spring semester, we start conditioning," Hiebert said. "Then we play a few spring tournaments."
"In June and July, we have open gym with our teammates," Lehman added. "They send a workout plan when we're on our own. They expect us to do it five days a week."
Both room together with another teammate.
"We all hang out, go to movies and do a lot of shopping," Hiebert said. "We play Uno. We play a lot of Uno. We're really competitive."
"We even have a score sheet of who wins," Lehman added.