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K-State can’t complete comeback bid in NCAA tournament, Ohio State escapes in five sets

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The Wildcats came within three points of overcoming a 2-0 deficit, but the Buckeyes shut the door on what could have been

The year is 2013.

Katie Reininger has made up her mind — she will transfer away from Saint Mary’s, where she had played her freshman year of volleyball, but she has yet to decide on her next destination.

Kansas State is a strong contender, but Reininger isn’t sure. She consults her mother, who reminds Reininger of the coach who roams the Wildcat sideline, the same woman who has coached in what locals bill the Little Apple since 2001, the same woman whom she knows Reininger loves: Susie Fritz.

That’s all the 2016 K-State senior needed to hear. She picks up the phone and dials Fritz, informing her that she will play at K-State.

Saturday night, then, Reininger hung up the phone with Fritz for good. Ohio State eliminated K-State from the second round of the NCAA tournament in five sets, 25-20, 25-22, 22-25, 23-25, 17-15, laying rest to Reininger and the other five Wildcat seniors’ careers in Manhattan.

“During the match, we had this defensive strategy, and I didn’t even need to ask. I just looked back at (Fritz) and she did the nod,” Reininger said.

It was, perhaps, the match it was supposed to be. The Buckeyes claimed the first two sets, 25-20 and 25-22, dangling K-State over the edge in the third, the home-team Wildcats a set away from winter.

K-State was not having it.

The wood panels of Bramlage Coliseum shook with bedlam as the Wildcats stretched their lead in set three to 10-5, fending off the offseason that beckoned at the exit doors.

K-State won the third set 25-22, and it was back. The sheer, at times illogical confidence Fritz says her senior Wildcats have developed over the years to believe they will come back had returned. It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for K-State, and the Wildcats used it to tear down the door in the fourth set.

Set four was closer than its predecessor, but no different in outcome. The Wildcats clung to one- and two-point leads throughout the set, and they never relinquished the lead. Not when the Buckeyes tied things up at 7-7; not when it was tied at 16-16; certainly not when the set reached a 22-22 tie.

So everything came down to a fifth set, the game for all the dominoes that would decide whether the home team would bathe in glory or watch the rest of the tournament from the loveseat.

It was the latter.

But it didn’t always appear that way, especially not when the Bramlage student section set the gym aflame with roars following Audra Appold’s attack error that gave K-State an 8-6 lead.

But just like the Buckeyes had broken the spirits of K-State in the sets previous, Ohio State ripped off a small two-point run — this one evened the set at eight. K-State later fired back and tied it at 15, met with similar shrieks, but Ohio State laid claim to the final two points of the match and to the Wildcats’ magical season.

“They deserved to take it to the fifth set,” Ohio State head coach Geoff Carlson said. “It was more them than us.”

“It has exceeded my expectations beyond belief. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve loved every moment of it,” senior Kersten Kober said.

It’s magic that saw the K-State seniors, whose exit brought freshman Elle Sandbothe to tears postgame, dump the endeavors of a 21-10 season into a final three sets Saturday night in Manhattan. Brooke Sassin carded 11 kills and 10 digs, Katie Brand finished with a match-best 43 assists, Reininger notched six kills and 10 blocks and Kober dug nine balls, while K-State hit .121 as a team.

“They made me feel like family,” Sandbothe said through tears of her senior teammates. “It’s going to hurt so bad to lose them, but the impact they’ve had on me is unexplainable. They really feel like my big sisters. They taught me so much about fight, and volleyball, and life. Anytime I needed anything, I felt like I could go right to them for anything — volleyball-related, life-related, anything.”

The .121 mark was far from an ideal hitting percentage, but the Buckeyes weren’t much better at .185, only speaking to the defensive match K-State and Ohio State produced Saturday night. The Wildcats totaled 17.5 team blocks, while the Buckeyes blocked 13 of their own.

Junior Bryna Vogel, though not a senior but who will certainly share in the agony that will hover over this K-State club as a whole, came up sublime. The opposite hitter approached a triple-double, with 12 kills, nine digs and 11 blocks, in an effort that kept her team afloat when doom seemed inevitable.

But the stats, the individual accolades, the point-by-point memories, they matter no more. Ohio State is headed on to the Sweet 16 for a rematch with Wisconsin, while Kansas State’s time has come to an end.

“This team, and these seniors in particular, have brought so much to us, and to me, personally,” Fritz said. “They have enriched us in so many ways. They are extraordinary. It’s hard to know that I’m not going to get to see them every day.”

Perhaps the echoes of regret will ring loudest for Fritz & Co. to know that though Ohio State dug a quick 2-0 match hole for K-State, the Wildcats made the Buckeyes’ route far from clear.

In set one, Ohio State’s lead swelled to as large as 16-6, but the Wildcats showed flashes of resurgence. K-State’s comeback bid peaked when it clawed back to within 23-19, but a pair of kills from Taylor Hughes were the nail in the coffin.

The Wildcats got back off the mat yet again in the following set, after the visitors built a 13-9 lead. K-State rallied back within as close as 24-22 when Vogel sent a resounding kill over the nylon, but it happened again — Ohio State stamped out the fire, getting a kill from Appold to seal another set win.

All of it — the finality of the loss, the sinking feeling of bidding farewell to her seniors, knowing how close her team was — it all brought tears to Fritz’s eyes in the postgame press conference, so much so that it took a few moments for the 16th-year head coach to gather her thoughts for an opening statement.

But she did.

“It hurts because it’s good,” Fritz said. “It’s hard to explain. It hurts when it’s over, because it’s really, really good.

“They have created their own culture, and took us along with it.”

Ed. Note: Visit tomorrow for an editorial on the season’s end.