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‘Setter U’: Wade the latest in lineage of dominant ONU setters

Wade sets the ball to a teammate during a home game. She is currently No. 4 in total assists in NCAA D-III. (photo/ONU Sports)

The ONU women’s volleyball program has a history of dominant setters.

The dynasty began with Katie (Weininger) Kuhn, who played on the team from 2005-2008. During that time, she became a two-time All-American and was the 2008 Co-OAC Player of the Year. Kuhn now serves as an assistant coach for the volleyball team, specifically working with setters.

Fast forward to 2013 when Ashley Borchers walked onto the scene.

“Ashley was what we call an attacking setter,” said head coach Kate Witte. “Ashley could dominate a team because of her height and her long arms and her stature at the net, which could be very intimidating for teams.”

Borchers left ONU in 2016 as a Second-Team All-American and was the 2016 OAC Player of the Year, among several other accolades. All of these accomplishments left a significant hole as far as setters go for ONU volleyball.

That’s when freshman Katie Wade of Battlecreek, Mich. sprung onto the scene. In just a short amount of time, she had already filled the starting setter position.

“I knew coming in that I was going to have to work really hard if I wanted to play,” Wade said. “[At] every position there’s someone right above me and I didn’t know how [the team] would feel with me setting [as a freshman], especially after Ashley because she was so good last year.”

But Wade quickly adjusted to her new role, rising to the top of the roster and also the nation. She currently holds the No. 4 position in total assists and No. 5 spot in assists per set in the NCAA D-III rankings.

“She’s really opened a lot of eyes,” said Witte. “On a volleyball team it’s a team score and you can’t bump, set, spike to yourself. As a setter, she contacts every second ball so she’s involved with every play. For her to play consistently and intelligently, that is the difference for why she’s really grown to be a good, solid setter.”

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A lot of Wade’s skill sets carried over from her high school career. She had already established herself as a talented setter at Harper Creek High School, where she was a four-year starter. She led the school in all-time assists at 4,031, a number that put her fourth in the state. She also earned second-team all-state honors her senior year.

Her accomplishments and love for the sport gave her a strong reason to continue playing in college. Wade knew she wanted to go to a small school with a well-established volleyball program, so she set her eyes on Ohio Northern. She knew it was the right fit for her after watching them compete in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year.

“She played in a good high school program and a very good club program,” said Witte. “But when you see kids play, it’s different than when you come to our program because there’s that transition of, ‘Is she going to hit the ground running or is she going to be too intimidated when the lights come on the stage?’”

But Wade showed Witte that she was ready to hit the ground running. Witte quickly realized she was different one night after a match when they were unloading the bus.

Comments like these are not ones that many freshman are brave enough to make, especially to a head coach. But Wade is not afraid to hear the truth and knows that doing so will make her a stronger player.

Witte described her as “naturally bright” and “a student of the game.” She explained that Wade analyzes situations from all angles and asks intelligent questions about strategy. These questions are ones that, according to Witte, Second-Team All-American Borchers would not have been experienced enough to ask as a freshman.

But Borchers led an impressive career by the end of her four years and noticed the potential in Wade, too.

“I can see Katie having a huge impact on the team,” said Borchers. “She is already very good at what she does, but I can also see that she is not even close to reaching her ceiling, or her potential. When seeing the coaches give her feedback, I can see that she is listening very closely and is wanting to perform better. She is starting to attack the ball more in the front row and being more of a threat.  This was something that I loved to do, so seeing her start to get more comfortable with that makes me very happy.”

Wade was named both OAC and AVCA Regional Freshman of the Year this season, the latter an accomplishment that ONU had not seen since two-time First-Team All-American Liz Schnelle did so in 2006. Wade’s courage to ask difficult questions early in her career, combined with a shared honor with one of the top players in ONU history, appears to put her on the right track to adding another All-American to the ONU volleyball program.

“It’d be really cool to be an All-American,” she said. “That’s the main goal. I still have a lot to work on so I’m excited for the offseason so that I can tweak all the little things that Coach Katie [Kuhn] has planned for me.”

Kuhn has had a large impact on the program as a First-Team All-American setter herself, as she coached Borchers and now, Wade. Witte attributes much of the recent success of ONU setters to Kuhn’s coaching.

“I think one of the most powerful things in sports is to be a coach and be really gifted as a player like Katie [Kuhn] was,” Witte said, “and then to be the exemplar for her to then grow a player and share her greatness. [Kuhn] is probably one of the top two players to ever play in our program, and to have the ability to teach a young player the position that she played at a First-Team All-American level is a gift. It’s a gift that she gives to [Wade].”

Having a full-time assistant volleyball coach, let alone a full-time setter coach, at the D-III level is unheard of according to Witte. She explained that Kuhn is a tremendous motivator and great technique coach, and does a good job asking her players open-ended questions to get them to think and grow.

“Katie Kuhn is probably the best coach I have had,” Borchers said. “[She] seemed to know the right things to say if I was frustrated or if I didn’t think that something was going right. She is a very understanding coach, but is also aware of what you are capable of and demands greatness from all of her players.”

Kuhn’s influence on Borchers seems to have trickled down through the generations, as Wade noted that ONU’s history of accomplished setters has inspired her to achieve similar greatness. Her future looks bright, but she believes the legacy of the program far overpowers any award.

“If I can’t make All-American status,” she said, “I’d just want to know that I had a great four years and that there are other freshman behind me [that] look up to me and think that I was a really good setter.”

Witte is confident that having a player like Wade will encourage future recruiting classes, something the volleyball team relies heavily on to be competitive at the regional and national levels. She believes that Wade’s work ethic will help her to improve in areas such as defense and peripheral vision.

“Her projection is really high,” Witte said. “How high? I don’t know.” I think she’ll be very humbled by any award or opportunity [and] I think she’ll just get better.”