Abbie Lehman didn’t have a ton of college-volleyball options coming out of Newton (Kansas) High School.
But 30 minutes down the road in Wichita, someone thought otherwise — Wichita State’s Chris Lamb, the 2017 VolleyballMag.com Coach of the Year.
“For me, Wichita State was pretty much the only volleyball scholarship I was offered,” Lehman said.
“The fact Lambo was a coach who saw my potential and was willing to take a step out on a limb and say, ‘I want you on my team,’ always will mean a lot to me. No other coach believed in me like he did when I was in high school.”
It certainly paid off for Lamb, Lehman and the Shockers, who went 100-31 the last four seasons, which included winning two Missouri Valley Conference titles before moving to and dominating the American Athletic Conference this season.
Lehman, a senior middle blocker, was named the 2017 American Athletic Conference player of the year as her team finished 29-4, 20-0 in the AAC. Wichita State swept Radford in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Missouri.
Winning is nothing new for Lamb, who has amassed a 413-160 record (.721 winning percentage) since taking the controls at Charles Koch Arena in 2000. This season put him over the top as the VBM national coach of the year in a year that produced plenty of great candidates.
The AVCA couldn’t go wrong when it named Florida’s Mary Wise its national coach of the year. And there were plenty of other worthy candidates we considered, including Nebraska’s John Cook, Michigan State’s Cathy George, and Western Kentucky’s Travis Hudson. And you can’t discount the remarkable jobs done by three first-year coaches, Dani Busboom Kelly at Louisville, Chris Tamas at Illinois and Tom Black at Georgia.
But in the end, for us, Lamb stood out.
“Sometimes, people like to call him the mastermind,” Lehman said. “With Lambo, it’s about how much I learned about the game of volleyball. He teaches his players everything he knows and it’s a lot. You don’t realize there are so many offenses and defenses and plays in the sport and there really is.”
Lehman said Lamb is always looking for an edge.
“He’s willing to try different things to win,” she said. “If a certain lineup is not working, he’ll look for different ways to switch it. He will figure out which player plays well next to the other two players in the rotation. The way he analyzes the game and sees the game of volleyball sets him apart from other coaches.”
Lehman was part of one of those lineup switches this season. She was on the right side to start the season.
“We had prepared all spring with Abbie as a right-side player,” Lamb said. “She started the season there and going into a couple non-con matches we tried to work through some stuff. You might lose some matches that are close but you go with it.
“At one point, we said Abbie is an elite player and we put her back in the middle. We thought we had other players who could play at a high enough level and we got back to who we were and made adjustments from there.”
Wichita State started the season 7-0 before stalling a bit on consecutive weekends. The Shockers lost to at Oregon and to Cal Poly, and then came and split with Creighton and Iowa State.
“We want to schedule tough in the non-con,” Lamb said. “You can’t win them all but you look at your non-con as a whole and you win some and you lose some and even if it happens to be back-to-back, I’m not worried about it. I knew what we wanted to get out of that segment. We had some nice wins and we were playing some good teams. It was all about finding consistency.”
Wichita State didn’t lose again until the Missouri match. During that 21-match winning streak, 17 of the victories were by sweeps.
“We rode the wave just like everybody — the idea of fighting through the ebbs and flows to find wins,” Lamb said. “The other thing was how many three-set wins were in there. We always were fighting to 25 points and trying to win every set. We were able to do that a lot. I’m not saying we always were playing our ‘A’ game during that stretch, but we always were good at fighting and always were finding ways to win.”
Lamb recognized that Wichita State had balance.
“The team had done such a good job with serving and passing,” he said. “The offense always was there. We got better with our defense. Ask me what was good? Our defense improved and that’s why we improved.”
Not only was Lehman the AAC player of the year, setter Emily Hiebert earned top setter honors. Teammates Mikaela Raudsepp and Tabitha Brown joined them on the all-AAC first team.
“We had good team balance,” said Lamb, also the AAC coach of the year. “Emily is such a good setter. We could put a game plan together and trust that we will get what we want rally after really. It was so easy to pass information on and get the offense to where we need in that race for 25.
“Once Abbie moved back to the middle, from that point on, Emily was in the driver’s seat night in and night out and we got what we wanted offensively.”
Lehman said four years after setting foot on campus she’s light years ahead of where she originally was on the court.
“The player development Lambo and his staff do is unbelievable,” she said. “I wasn’t highly recruited at all. I had a lot of room to grow and learn. He helped turn me into a volleyball athlete when I came to college.”
Moving to the AAC after always being in the Valley was a new challenge. The Shockers encountered the likes of Temple, UConn, South Florida, Central Florida, Tulane, Houston, Southern Methodist, Tulsa, Cincinnati and East Carolina. That meant road trips to many new places.
“Going into the new conference was a little different this year,” Lehman said. “We didn’t know the teams real well. We knew Valley teams well. Lambo did a very good job putting together scouting reports. He helped us become familiar with the teams.”
Lamb said the new conference was just part of the game.
“There are some pretty impressive athletes in the conference,” he said. “When you are in a conference for a while, you get a sense of how each coach you play over the years tends to play and the adjustments they make.
“This go-around was like the wild, wild west in terms of what me night expect. We stuck to our basic routine of how we prepare for the things that are important to us and find that stuff throughout a match. It was fun. Everything was so new. Each time out it was a new gym and new cities and new hotels (Wichita State was 18-2 away from home this season). It felt like a whole season of non-conference play.”
With this year’s 29-4 record, Lamb-coached Wichita State teams now have won 20 or more matches 15 times, a streak that began in 2003.
“Kids are committing younger and younger and are committing to people they’ve heard of and know of or to people who are nearby,” Lamb said. “It’s hard to get visits on campus from young people. From the timeline perspective, it’s absolutely gotten more difficult.”
But Lamb, who was an assistant at Arizona and CSU Bakersfield before coming to Wichita State, will begin his 19th season with the Shockers next fall.
“I like Wichita,” he said. “I like my president and I like my bosses. These people have been good to me.
“Everybody asks me why I’m here. I have a good situation. I have lots of friends in this business and many are at shinier places, per se, but I don’t know if everybody is happier. I feel like this is my job. If I wasn’t here, who would do my job? I’m supposed to do my job. I’m wired that way.”
And the sustained success?
“I’d like to think I put in my time studying,” Lamb said. “I like to think I can train and take athletes and make them better at volleyball. I’m all in and I stay all in trying to find ways to win.
“As far as why Wichita State? You bloom where you are planted. Good people who work hard bloom where they are planted.”