By CONOR NICHOLL
Mulvane senior Karlie Kanaga had always played libero during the younger ranks and club volleyball. As a freshman, Mulvane’s then-coach had Kanaga set. The team didn’t have any setters. Kanaga had never set before.
Mulvane finished 8-29, the ninth straight year the Wildcats finished under .500. The following fall, Mulvane posted a 10-21 record.
Last year, Matt Schmidt took over the program as a Rule 10 coach. Schmidt, known for his analytical mind, had spent years around volleyball. He learned from Shockwave, a highly respected club in the Wichita area, and its co-director, Scott Larkin.
Schmidt wanted to put Kanaga at libero, but lack of personnel kept her at setter. She led Mulvane with 302 assists. Schmidt’s daughter, Emily, a 5-foot-9 outside hitter, suffered a knee injury and finished the year with two kills. Mulvane went 5-26 in 2021.
That changed this fall. Mulvane has a retooled lineup, including two setters with junior Ashlyn Alumbaugh and freshman Charli Richardson.
Kanaga is at libero – and has delivered a record-breaking fall for a much-improved 19-14 team. On Tuesday, Mulvane ran its winning streak to nine with a pair of victories against Winfield and El Dorado. Kanaga now has the rare feat of holding school marks in two sports: volleyball and soccer.
“That allowed me to finally play my real position,” Kanaga said. “I love everything about it. Like starting the play, getting those digs up, it’s honestly, the adrenaline, it gets everyone up and going when you get a good dig. And I love just leading the defense, helping everyone, getting balls up, starting every play.”
Entering Tuesday night, Kanaga was at 374 digs, tied for third all-classes. The 5-foot-4 senior had significantly surpassed the previous school mark of 276 set by Callie Humbolt in 2019, per Kasey McDowell of Mulvane Sports. Entering Tuesday, Kanaga was at 875 career digs and has a possibility to reach 1,000 career digs.
“I have run into a couple walls already this season and some chairs,” Kanaga said of her most memorable digs. “But honestly those are the ones that just get everyone excited and build everyone up.”
Emily Schmidt is healthy and leads Mulvane with 239 kills. She could break the single season school record of 280 set in 1990.
“It’s been a blessing to have her be able to come back,” coach Schmidt said.
In March 2021, Emily had her second knee surgery on her left knee. The first surgery came when she was 11. In the first half of the ’22 season, Emily was the team’s top scorer, though her dad felt like she wasn’t quite completely comfortable on the court yet. She was averaging 2.5 kills a set. In the last 12-14 matches, Emily is up to around four kills a set.
“A lot of that has to do with our setters working hard, getting better,” coach Schmidt said. “Everything is just better, and in a team sport, when everybody is better, it lifts all that up.”
Kanaga is headed to Emporia State for soccer. She holds or is tied for a bevy of school records on the pitch, including 37 goals last spring. The 15-5 record in 2021 is the top mark in school annals. Mulvane has won back-to-back regional soccer championships.
Kanaga’s sister, Katie, holds the Mulvane goalie record for fewest goals permitted in a season, nine in 2018. Karlie has played soccer since age three, participated with a couple clubs and was part of the Kansas vs. Oklahoma high school all-star match in the summer. ESU saw Kanaga played well in a scrimmage.
“I thought I’d just go on a visit, and see how it was, and then I loved it,” she said.
This fall, Mulvane, which opened 2-7, has delivered multiple landmark wins, including against Clearwater on Sept. 10, Buhler on Sept. 13, and Collegiate in three sets on Sept. 27. Mulvane had lost seven in a row to Buhler and six straight to Collegiate. The Wildcats were 2-24 in the last 26 meetings versus Clearwater.
“The difference this year is the girls are just responding,” coach Schmidt said. “They are responding in a way that I can’t thank them enough honestly for how hard they are working for me.”
Last Saturday, Mulvane won the Belle Plaine tournament. Entering Tuesday, Mulvane had won seven straight matches and stood at 17-14.
“It’s great,” Kanaga said. “Matt, he loves the sport, and he wants to teach it, and he wants us to do better. He knows a lot about it, and he’s just been really good with us, talking about what we mentally need to do better, and we just have a really good dynamic with him.”
Emily Schmidt and Alumbaugh earned all-tournament recognition at Belle Plaine. Schmidt delivered 50 kills, Alumbaugh 53 assists and Kanaga 62 digs.
“Moving Karlie to a libero out of a setter has increased our abilities defensively to get the ball up and return and attack,” coach Schmidt said. “And it’s made a big difference for us.”
At the tournament, Mulvane defeated Hutchinson Central Christian in two sets and Attica in three. Central Christian is ranked No. 10 in Class 1A, Division II. Attica is No. 1 in Division II and was 25-0 before the match.
“That’s been the biggest thing is just getting them to believe that we deserve to win,” coach Schmidt said. “Because we have worked hard, and we know how to play volleyball now, and we deserve to win. We deserve to be competitive.”
The Wildcats have a great chance for their first winning season since a 21-17 mark in 2010 and second since 1998. With at least five matches left, Mulvane could break the school mark of single season victories, set at 24-9 in 1985.
Schmidt wanted to give credit to the JV and C team, and his assistants Kylie Ferrer and Jennifer Long.
“From the beginning of the season, I have preached to them about how to be a team,” coach Schmidt said. “And how each person is just responsible for taking care of each other, and last season, we didn’t have a good team dynamic.”
Last fall marked Schmidt’s first fall coaching high school. He had some experience coaching volleyball in the younger ranks and played some in high school. Emily has played for Shockwave. When Emily was younger, Matt drove her to practice. He stayed and watched Shockwave for the last several years and tried to implement to Mulvane. Larkin has answered questions and provided advice to Schmidt.
One of the biggest changes came with getting Mulvane to understand how to play out-of-system volleyball. Mulvane ran an out-of-system drill every practice last season that Schmidt picked up from Scott Larkin. Mulvane has used it some this fall.
“How do we control the chaos?,” coach Schmidt said. “Because volleyball is such a chaotic sport, and if you don’t know your role, and you don’t understand what your job is from moment to moment, that chaos, it gets the best of you.
“So we spent a lot of time in the gym training on how to play out of system volleyball,” Schmidt added. “And it’s made a really big difference for our team, and the girls starting to believe that what we are doing is working.”
In addition to Emily Schmidt, Kanaga and the setters, Mulvane has enjoyed solid contributions from sophomores Makenna Treat, Madi and Lexi Cunningham, seniors Avery Clasen, Landry Sanders and Tenley Canfield and junior Teagan Garrison. Kanaga has been impressed with Richardson and the sophomores’ volleyball IQ and ability to score.
“Right off the bat, in the summer, first time we came in, you could just tell they have improved so much, all three of them,” Kanaga said. “They all played club, so that helps, and they have just been working, and I know they have wanted to be on varsity, so they definitely earned that.”
Schmidt, the Cunninghams, Sanders, Garrison and Treat have combined for 635 kills. Last year, they totaled 37. Treat and Lexi Cunningham are 5-foot-10 and 5-9 middles, much taller than recent Mulvane middles. Treat didn’t come up to varsity until around 14-15 matches ago. Garrison has played on varsity at the pin the last couple weeks.
“Young middles, but they are performing very well, and that’s allowing us to open up our offense,” coach Schmidt said. “And that’s made a big change for my pin hitters, too.”
Kanaga has 509 serve-receptions, or 41 percent of Mulvane’s total. Kanaga ranks among the state leaders in serve-receptions and has passed a 2.0 on a 3.0 scale.
“The great thing about Karlie is it helps our pin hitters,” coach Schmidt said. “When we are out of system, like everybody does, depend on the libero to get a hittable ball. But she is really good at it, and she really knows how to get the ball out to my outsides and give them a good hittable ball that they can go and attack and find ways to score on.
“And her having been a setter is beneficial in that way,” he added. “She is very aggressive and just fearless, and she is a big benefit to our team. And combined with her and my daughter, it’s been a really good year. When those two connect, a lot of good things happen.”
Her first contacts are critical to setting up Mulvane’s attack. Kanaga said the team has worked on serve-receive “a lot” and been “really solid.”
“Honestly just staying calm,” Kanaga said. “A lot of people miss because they freak out. The hard serves – it’s just a serve. And usually they come somewhat close to you, so you just stay calm and let it come to you. It’s nothing to freak out about.”
Richardson has 288 assists, and Alumbaugh with 280. Both are setting for the first time, which frees up Kanaga to play libero.
“I knew that’s where she belonged,” coach Schmidt said. “…Putting her in libero, I knew she’d be good, but she’s real good. She’s even better than I anticipated, so it’s been a big, big boost.”
In Kanaga’s eyes, the 16-25, 26-24, 25-23 win against Collegiate was a signature win. Collegiate was 18-9 entering Tuesday. It marked the lone match this fall where Collegiate won the first set, though didn’t capture the match.
Mulvane limited the Spartans to .128 hitting and kills on just 27 percent of swings, fourth-lowest in a single match for WCS this fall. The Collegiate win gave Mulvane confidence for Belle Plaine. At BP, Schmidt continued to stress one point, one match at a time.
“We played amazing in that game,” Kanaga said. “We didn’t start it off great, but that game was by far our most fun, most intense. We all just really stuck together, and we came together, and we came back.”