In 6th and final year, how Brylee Kelly wants to make difference for Shocker volleyball

When Izzi Strand arrived at Wichita State, it didn’t take long for her to figure out who was the veteran on the volleyball team.

Thanks to an additional year granted by the pandemic, plus a redshirt year, Brylee Kelly is entering her sixth year in the Shocker volleyball program. The 23-year-old is affectionately known as the team’s “grandma.”

“You could just tell she has been here for a while, just by the way she holds herself and her knowledge of everything,” said Strand, a senior transfer from UC San Diego. “For me coming in as a new player, she has helped me so much.”

Kelly has proven herself through the years, as she has developed into Wichita State’s most potent weapon on the outside. She has earned first team all-conference accolades the past two seasons and was voted the Co-Player of the Year for this upcoming season by American Athletic Conference coaches in the preseason poll.

Entering her final season as a Shocker, a sense of finality has struck Kelly. She isn’t interested in stats, rather using her wisdom and experience to leave a lasting impact on the players around her.

“I’m at the point now where I need to be better for others,” Kelly said. “I know we have an older team, but there are some younger players who may need to learn a little bit more. I want to be the best teammate I can be. I know where my skills are and I’m still improving every day, but a skill I want to be better at is being better for my teammates.”

Kelly said it wasn’t even a question if she was going to take advantage of her extra year granted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She is the latest in a long line of successful developmental stories under coach Chris Lamb. The Monee, Ill. native redshirted her first year in Wichita in 2018, then played sparingly the next two seasons. Her breakout came in the 2021 fall season when she was the only AAC underclassman to rank top-five in both kills (3.54) and points (4.16) per set.

It’s a journey Kelly has enjoyed from start to finish.

“These have been the best years of my life,” Kelly said. “I committed here when I was 16. Wichita has been a home for me. I never would have thought I would love Wichita this much and the people. And Lambo has been here by my side through it all. He has been worth everything. Coming here is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, to be honest.”

Kelly has the most experience on what should be a veteran team, which features two other seniors in Strand and opposite hitter Sophia Rohling and juniors Natalie Foster, a middle hitter, Morgan Weber, a defensive specialist, and Ba Koehler, an explosive outside hitter.

It’s a mix of talent, experience and chemistry the Shockers believe can take Kelly to her first NCAA Tournament and end the program’s five-year drought.

“When you have (veterans) out there, there’s a sense of comfort, of been there, done that,” Lamb said. “They become leaders for their teams. They’ve seen a lot in their time, so there shouldn’t be too many surprises.”

The Shockers could feature their largest lineup in years with Strand (6-foot-1) setting and Weber (5-foot-11) playing the back row. Foster (6-4), Kelly (6-2), Rohling (6-3), Koehler (6-0), Morgan Stout (6-1) and Emerson Wilford (6-2) are all attackers with height on their side. The “littles” will be sophomore Katie Galligan, TCU transfer Gabi Maas and freshman Reagan Anderson on the back row.

Kelly, Foster and Rohling have all earned all-conference honors in the past and Koehler, who was the 2022 NJCAA Player of the Year, is expected to provide an immediate impact.

WSU figures to have an explosive attack and Kelly is a big reason why.

“She’s got so much power,” Strand said. “She’s definitely got a big arm and every team needs a big arm. You know every time she’s going up, she can put a big swing on it and she gives you those points that you really need.”

The Shockers open their 2023 season with three matches in two days in Lubbock, Texas at the Under Armour Challenge. WSU plays Notre Dame (1:30 p.m.) and Texas Tech (7 p.m.) in a Friday doubleheader, then comes back for a match with Houston Christian at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.

While Notre Dame and Texas Tech are power-conference opponents, both finished below the Shockers in the RPI last season. The season-opening tournament offers an early chance for the Shockers to score important wins to build their postseason resume.

“We’re hoping for some nice wins and if that’s not the case, then we hope we can get better as we go and learn some things about our team,” Lamb said.