By Alex Folsom
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Standing in Horjesi Family Athletic Center on the campus of the University of Kansas before a recent practice, Erin McNorton presented a humble explanation for how she went from playing sparingly as a freshman and sophomore to becoming the Big 12 assists leader in her first season as the Jayhawks' starting setter-a job she did not know she earned until just prior to Kansas' first match.
"Everything is clicking, which is making it a lot easier for me to do what I need to do," said McNorton. "Bri is up there in digs and Jar is up there in hitting."
McNorton is referring to fellow Kansas juniors Brianne Riley and Caroline Jarmoc. Riley is currently 135 digs shy of the all-time Kansas career record while Jarmoc is hitting .396 with 300 kills so far this season. The Jayhawks also boast two strong middle blockers in Jarmoc, who recently set a career high with 12 blocks against then No. 14 Kansas State, and senior Tayler Tolefree. The experienced Tolefree credits McNorton's success to her unpredictability and timing on the court.
"We have confidence that she is going to deliver us a good ball," said Tolefree of McNorton's abilities as a setter. "In volleyball it might look like everything flows smoothly, but timing is everything."
In her first two seasons as a Jayhawk, McNorton played in 27 matches and compiled 129 assists while providing back up duty for Kansas starters Nicole Tate and Kara Wehrs. It was under the duo's tutelage that McNorton started to understand the game at the college level. It was also where she learned how to lead a team even though she is often the least vocal person on the court.
"People compare our personalities a lot," said McNorton of Tate's mentorship her first two seasons. "We're calm and we're not loud by any means."
Kansas head coach Ray Bechard acknowledges that he would like for McNorton to be more vocal on the court, but says that her quiet demeanor can be a calming influence on her Jayhawk teammates when the game is on the line. So far this season the Jayhawks have competed in four five-set matches-all since stealing a victory from Creighton late in the fifth set on Sept. 19. In each, McNorton has stoically delivered at least six assists, including setting up all 10 of her team's kills in the final set against Creighton, to help Kansas win all four fifth-sets it has played in 2012.
Some of McNorton and the Jayhawks' success this season can be attributed to the team's closeness on and off the court. Prior to the start of the fall semester McNorton and six other juniors on this year's team moved into a house together off campus; a move that originally made Bechard apprehensive.
"We thought the Towers were a great idea," said Bechard referring to the Jayhawk Towers on Kansas' campus which house many of the Jayhawks' student-athletes. "As coaches you always like to have a little bit of control over them. There are some really mature kids in that group and I am sure they have a good time, but at the same time they balance time like it needs to be balanced."
McNorton says that the bonds forged at the residence carry over into the team's play.
"We know how to interact with one another and know what each other need in order to do well," said McNorton. "We know who we need to get in their face and who to back off and talk to and calm down."
The teammates with whom she shares a house are not the only family McNorton has nearby. Though she was raised in Texas, her dad is from Topeka, Kan., and played football at Kansas State while her uncle, Kyle, played at Kansas. It's a friendly family rivalry that allows for her uncle to attend all of KU's home matches along with her grandparents. Her parents, even though they live two states away, make an effort to attend as many matches per year as possible, both in Lawrence and when the Jayhawks travel.
On Kansas' recent four-day road trip to Norman, Okla., and Austin, Texas, McNorton and the team stopped at McNorton's parents' home for dinner. It was the first time that KU's setter had been home since June.
"It was so exciting," said McNorton. "My family kept texting me about it."
As the Jayhawks continue to improve on the court and face a tough Big 12 schedule, McNorton hopes to sustain her consistent play and believes that she has been pretty reliable so far. Beyond maintaining a high level of individual output and leading her team as it forges ahead into the final third of the season, there is one thing on her mind.
"As a team it's been our goal every year to make it to the tournament, and so far we're making a good profile for ourselves," concluded McNorton. "I hope we continue to do that and show people what we can do."