After 38 years at the helm at Texas State, coach Karen Chisum thought she’d seen almost everything.
But in her 39th year, there have been times in the 2018 season where she’s moved a few players in and out of the lineup, only to notice that suddenly there were five freshmen on the court. That’s usually something coaches do only if they are desperate or trying to send a message.
The Bobcats are indeed sharing some important news –- this batch of newcomers might be made up of unique and even special ingredients.
After beating Little Rock in four on Friday and then sweeping Arkansas State on Saturday, Texas State sits at 13-5 overall and 4-0 atop the Sun Belt Conference, with most of the eight-player freshman class doing some of the heavy lifting.
Chisum felt comfortable with her roster’s makeup from the start, figuring 17-year assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Tracy Smith had the right vision, prompting Chisum to get the newcomers in the mix early and often.
“There’s no doubt, we’ve had a few very good recruiting classes, and this most recent one is probably the best recruiting class we’ve had in 15-20 years,” Chisum said. “We’ve been successful in keeping kids here, and it’s rare to ever have anybody want to leave.”
Chisum has guided the Bobcats to a 113-60 record the past five seasons and has 881 career victories.
“I knew we were going to have to get some early playing time for the freshmen, because they had to get used to our coliseum and to the faster pace, playing above the net. I’ve looked on the court on occasion and seen five freshmen, and I look around and think, what am I doing? But it’s been fun, and they’ve gotten the experience we’ve definitely needed heading into conference.”
One indicator of future success is maturity, and Texas State has certainly displayed that in 2018. In their third match of the season against LSU, senior outside hitter Megan Porter tore her ACL. Aside from the shock and disappointment, the Bobcats had to solve a lineup hole, and they did that with Florida transfer Cheyenne Huskey moving to outside, where she anchors the offense with senior Amy Pflughaupt.
Huskey was one of the setters in the team’s 6-2 offense, but her shift meant freshman Emily DeWalt would become primary setter, and she’s been beyond solid, averaging 10.59 assists per set.
She’s the only freshman to be named Sun Belt setter of the week three times in a season, and that’s only through September.
“When Megan went down, we were all nervous, because she was such a big part of our offense. We came together and said we can’t let this knock us off our (stride), and we are still out there chasing a (championship),” said DeWalt, who played for the powerful San Antonio Magic club and is tasked with replacing one of the program’s all-time greats in setter Erin Hoppe.
“Cheyenne stepped in, transitioned into it fast and has done a great job; we’ve kept trucking and doing want we were from the beginning. I was super excited to see that big freshman class. We were all going to start from the same place, start together and help each other out, and contribute whatever we could for the program.
“I tried not to think about it (replacing Hoppe), and to just trust my game. I wanted to focus on my game and not necessarily who I was replacing, and so far it seems to be working.”
“Emily’s volleyball IQ is very high, and she makes so many great decisions. We expected Emily to be on the court, but we expected her as a back-line setter only,” Chisum said. “We made the move with Cheyenne, and Emily hasn’t hurt us on the block. She’s a delight, and an intense (athlete) who is a likeable kid. She’s got high work ethic, everyone respects her, and we’re lucky to have her.”
Jillian Slaughter, a club teammate of DeWalt’s, has played very well as a freshman, as has Janell Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-1 thumper who is still just 17 years old. Fitzgerald played with Texas Advantage in her club days, making huge strides last year on Ping Cao’s 17 Black squad. Chisum is also getting mileage from walk-on defensive specialist Kayla Granado (Austin Juniors), and loves the potential of 5-9 freshman Sarabi Worsley-Gilbert (OTVA), whose explosive ability allows her to touch above 10 feet.
The Bobcats played a wicked non-conference schedule (losses coming versus Baylor, Marquette, LSU, Texas, and Kentucky), but they’re in a good place in the Sun Belt.
“We learned a lot; first of all, that we could compete with teams like that. Others would be scared to be thrown in against such high-ranked teams, but we took it and learned from it,” DeWalt said. “If we play our game, we can compete with teams as highly ranked as that.”
“I want our kids to see the upper echelon, the (national top 40) level we want to get to; secondly, if they’re not on the schedule, you can’t beat them,” added Chisum. “Anything can happen at any time … but it’s true, after the first two weeks I looked and thought maybe I did over-schedule. We got back on track, and we competed with Texas and Kentucky. We had to move people around, and I could tell the team afterward there’s no one we will face in our conference that’s better than Baylor or Kentucky or Texas.”