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A Winning Year

volleyball players holding up champions sign

A Winning Year

By Mark Wangrin

Reflections on a record-setting season in volleyball

As one young Texas State Athletics staff member referred to them when speaking to the office occupant, “artifacts.”

To Karen Chisum, Bobcat volleyball coach, they are memories. This is the sum of her Texas State University career as student and coach, spanning more than five decades, four school names, and six university presidents. On one wall are two large picture frames, each with spots for 20 team photos. Thirty-nine are filled. There’s room for one more, which figures to be a very special one, but more about that later.

The back wall isn’t a wall at all, but a giant window. It is the first one Chisum has ever had in an office in 41 seasons coaching at Texas State — she was an assistant in 1978 and 1979 — with a view of Bobcat Stadium and the baseball and softball fields.

On the third wall are a 54-inch flat screen TV, plaques, framed photos, and a 2-by-4-foot collage of snapshots of family, friends, players, coaches, and the random celebrity. There’s a picture of Chisum with country music icon and Distinguished Alumnus George Strait (B.S. ’79), whose father taught her middle school math and science. Here’s a picture of Chisum with action actor Chuck Norris, who graciously posed for photos and signed autographs during a chance airport meeting.

coach karen chisum sitting in office
Karen Chisum - 2018 AVCA Division I Southwest Region Coach of the year, 2018 Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year

It’s an impressive display of achievement, nostalgia — and life. You take it all in and then ask Chisum which of these memories is most special. The answer comes quickly. “That game ball right there,” Chisum says, pointing to a blue-and-white volleyball, signed by coaches and players from the 2018 team. Commemorated in permanent marker — NCAA First Round! vs. Rice — it occupies a prominent spot on Chisum’s desk. It’s the game ball from the biggest victory in school history — and a tease of what’s to come.

That’s where that empty space in the picture frame comes in — it eventually will be filled by a group of smiling young ladies who, if all goes according to plan, will usurp the 2018 team as the greatest in school history.

“That’s the plan,” Chisum says, “and Emily DeWalt is a big part of that.” What goes next on Chisum’s desk, and ultimately to a new trophy case, depends largely on a 5-foot-10 sophomore who plays setter, the most crucial position on the court and the one responsible for deciding in a split second which of her teammates to set up to spike the ball to the floor at her opponents’ feet. DeWalt is an unassuming starter at the beginning of last season, but by its end earned a Sun Belt Conference Player of the Week honor a record 11 times and an honorable VolleyMag.com All-America mention.

Not bad for a player who didn’t even think about a college career until one of her former club coaches talked to her after her high school freshman season about playing at his school. “That’s when I realized that maybe I was better than I thought,” DeWalt says. “I always thought I’d just go to college and get an education. Never really thought much about playing.” Fortunately for the Bobcats, that changed.

Chisum knew she was going to have a strong team last fall. Four seniors provided leadership and two of them, Madison Daigle and Amy Pflughaupt, would earn All-Sun Belt honors.

Then there was the promise of the recruiting class ranked 33rd in the country — some talented freshmen and a 6-foot-3 junior transfer, Cheyenne Huskey, who left Columbus High School (Texas) to play at the University of Florida and wound up setting in the NCAA title game as a freshman, only to decide she wanted a smaller-profile program closer to home.

The freshmen included outside hitters Janelle Fitzgerald of Mansfield and Sarabi Worsley-Gilbert from Orlando, Florida, who made up for her small 5-foot-9 stature with great leaping ability, and defensive specialist Kayla Granado of Round Rock. The prize was Jillian Slaughter, a 6-foot middle blocker from San Antonio’s Madison High School, whose recruitment led to the Bobcats locking in on her club teammate, DeWalt.

DeWalt was supposed to be brought along slowly, with Huskey handling the setting role. Just three days into the season, first-team all-conference outside hitter Megan Porter tore her anterior cruciate ligament and the plan went out the window. Chisum figured Huskey had the size and footwork to take Porter’s spot. That meant giving the setter spot to a freshman. The decision wasn’t as difficult as it sounded. 

emily dewalt standing on volleyball court
Emily DeWalt - 2018 AVCA Division I Southwest Region Team, 2018 Sun Belt Conference Setter of the Year, 2018 Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year

"When I realized Emily could do all she can, we gave her the team," Chisum says. 

Lo and behold, DeWalt excelled, showing a preternatural knack for seeing what was happening on the other side of the net without looking. “My mom would tell you I have terrible vision,” DeWalt says. “Without my contact lenses, I wouldn’t be able to recognize Coach sitting 10 feet away.”

For DeWalt, though, vision isn’t all about seeing. “She’s got great volleyball IQ,” Chisum says. “As a setter, you have to know what the defense is doing, where the block is setting up, even when you have your back to it. Sometimes the things she does are probably not what I would have called — but they work.”

A year ago, DeWalt was just trying to get acclimated and wound up leading the Bobcats to their first NCAA tournament victory in school history. Now she’s got bigger things to think about, like how theBobcats can top that. “I’m still amazed,” DeWalt says. “When you come in, youalways hope for a season like that, butyou never know what will happen. We are extremely proud of what we did last season, and all we can hope for is to do the same next season — and from what I’ve seen so far, we’re on the road to that. It’s going to take each other getting on each other, it’s going to take keeping each other in check more than the coaches keeping us in check.” 

That’s what families do, and the Bobcats are family. Last summer, Chisum asked her

players what Texas State meant to them. Nine of the 12 immediately said “Family.”

“The other three,” Chisum recalls, “said, ‘Everything.’ ”

Asked what it means to her, DeWalt says, “There’s no other place I’d rather be. None,” and Chisum smiles. That’s what she wants to hear.

Chisum arrived at the university in 1968 as a student, played tennis and softball, and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1972 and a master’s in 1978. Except for six years coaching at nearby high school outposts San Marcos and New Braunfels, she’s been here ever since.

“I want to turn their blood maroon, just like mine,” says Chisum, who in December raided her stash of maroon and gold M&M’s to bake cookies to greet new football coach Jake Spavital. “They say I’m the biggest Bobcat in San Marcos, maybe the state.”

Nothing would make her maroon blood run warmer than earning another blue and white volleyball for that special spot on her desk.