Inside the 72-hour Stretch That Extended Kansas Volleyball’s Season
Four short weeks ago, Kansas volleyball’s season was on the brink. The team had lost eight of its previous nine matches and was on the heels of a pair of defeats at West Virginia, a two-day series sweep that saw the visitors claim just one combined set. With a 12-11 record and a 4-8 mark in Big 12 play, KU appeared a postseason longshot entering the final four tilts of its regular season.
So, what changed? What allowed the Jayhawks just one month later to secure their first NCAA Tournament trip since 2017? That answer involves a few emerging stars, some much-needed R&R and a weekend that turned Manhattan, Kansas, into Lubbock, Texas.
Here’s an inside look at the 72-hour stretch that solidified KU’s postseason résumé, as told by head coach Ray Bechard, super-senior outside hitter Jenny Mosser and sophomore middle blocker Caroline Crawford.
Bechard: We were disappointed after that West Virginia trip, but I don’t think we were discouraged — OK, maybe we were a little discouraged. We have a young team, and I think we just hit that proverbial wall. Physically I thought we were OK, but mentally and emotionally, I think we were a little bit drained. You’ve got to remember: We played last fall, this spring and this fall. I’ve had dialogue with other coaches around the country and I think we underestimated the toll those back-to-back-to-back seasons would take on these kids.
Mosser: We have high expectations, so that series at West Virginia was a bummer. We knew we’d given ourselves no margin for error the rest of the way.
Bechard: We gave ’em a little time off, and when we came back, practices became sharper, crisper. I think we just felt like, hey, it’s go time. We looked at where we were in the Big 12 and one of our biggest preseason goals was to earn a top-three finish in the league. It may have looked like a long shot, but it was still attainable.
Crawford: We got some break time to ourselves, got to reset mentally. I think that really helped us come back with a new mindset. At the end of the day you can’t go back and change things from the past, so why dwell on it or worry about it? You’ve just got to keep moving forward.
The Jayhawks responded well to their two-week break, returning to Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena to sweep visiting TCU in a pair of home matches. The table was set for a Sunflower Showdown two-step at rival Kansas State (15-10, 6-8 Big 12), the final chances for either of the NCAA Tournament bubble teams to make a final statement ahead of the selection show.
Crawford: I grew up a KU fan. My dad ran track here and my mom went to school here. That’s how they met. So I’ve grown up not liking K-State. My mom’s side of the family, like half of them live in Manhattan, half of them work for K-State. My cousin played basketball there. Still, they all wore KU gear to the match, which is cool. Well, all of them except my uncle. He’s the doctor for the Wildcat volleyball, basketball and football teams. He just wore neutral colors.
Mosser: The rivalry reminds me a lot of when I was at UCLA, our rivalry with USC. It’s a lot of fun. I like to talk smack and get into it.
Bechard: We always like to look at the Big 12 standings at the end of the year and see Kansas ahead of Kansas State, and we’ve been able to do that nine out of the last 10 years. Growing up in a family of diehard KU fans, it becomes a little bit more important any time you get to compete against those guys. Entering that weekend, we approached it like we controlled our own destiny.
Crawford: When it comes to most teams I’ve played on, more often than not when there’s a tough matchup coming up I can feel or sense a sort of vibe or emotion of unsettledness. I didn’t feel that here at all. I had no worries or doubts.
KU took care of business in Friday’s series opener at Bramlage Coliseum, earning a 3-1 victory (25-22, 21-25, 25-23, 25-14). A pair of true freshmen — outside hitter London Davis and setter Camryn Turner — played key roles in the outcome, with Davis notching seven kills on a team-best 53.8% attack percentage and Turner recording a team-high 20 digs.
Bechard: You could tell just from the intensity of those first 10 points Friday that this wouldn’t be a typical series. The tone was set for the weekend right there. K-State came out playing well, and so did we. It wasn’t going to be a situation where they were more comfortable simply because they were the home team. We were prepared.
Crawford: We served really well as a team. We were able to serve them out of system, and when K-State is out of system they struggle in the high ball battle with us. We really worked on serving depth in practice that week — serving short, deep, left, right and not in their lap — and I think that really contributed to the win.
Bechard: Friday’s boost was London Davis. She came in and created some much-needed offense for us. And then Camryn Turner, she’s done a great job since we switched from a two-setter system to a one-setter look with her as the featured player. We came out on top of a third set that was 23-all, then pretty much dominated the fourth. We went into Saturday knowing, hey, win this match and there’s no way they can keep us out of the tournament.
If the Jayhawks showed in-season resiliency before Saturday, the regular-season finale tested it from an in-game perspective. A raucous crowd of 2,127 provided the backdrop as KU fell into an 0-2 hole, one dropped set away from a defeat that might set the team up for NCAA Selection Show Sunday heartbreak. Memories of being the first team out of the field in 2018 were still fresh in the minds of Bechard and now-seniors Lacey Angello, Audri Suter and Rachel Langs.
Bechard: Which team makes the most adjustments in the second game of a series? The one that loses the night before. So obviously K-State made a few of those, and credit them: They came out and played extremely well. On the other hand, we did just enough to get beat in both of those sets.
Crawford: It was frustrating, that’s for sure. After that second set Nils Nielsen, our volunteer assistant coach, really spoke up and just said, “Take it one point at a time. Win one point at a time. Don’t look at that score. Just attack.” Even being down 0-2, there was a calmness to the team that I think was really built off of what we were able to do the night before.
Mosser: They were really killing us on their serving. So as a passing group we decided we were going to go and attack those passes. We were going to be aggressive with it, do as much as we can and get those balls to the net to get our setter and our hitters in the best position. And on defense we were going to protect the back court. We just told our hitters, “Just go up and take a swing. We’ve got your back. We have nothing to lose. We’re down 0-2. Just put it all out there on the line, because this might be our last game.”
The tide turned in the third set. Locked at 5-all, Langs notched back-to-back kills that kick-started a 6-0 run for the Jayhawks and forced a Wildcat timeout. KU cruised to victory in that set, then pulled away late to take the fourth and send the match into a decisive fifth.
Bechard: Once we caught a little momentum in the third set, during that timeout I just looked at them and I said, “Hey, this feels like Lubbock, Texas, doesn’t it?” I wanted to reference a situation where we’d been down 0-2 or 1-2, and we were in both of those holes in our series at Texas Tech to open Big 12 play. We came back to win both, and that really ignited our season. So I didn’t know who was going to win the fifth set, but I could just tell in that timeout that we were going to play five.
KU raced out to a 7-2 lead in the fifth set and never trailed, as Mosser’s kill secured the 3-2 victory (21-25, 20-25, 25-16, 25-21, 15-12). A celebration ensued, and Bechard was welcomed in the locker room with an ambush of water bottle-wielding Jayhawks. No matter what happened in the next 24 hours, this much was already true: KU had achieved its preseason goal of a top-three finish in the Big 12.
Bechard: Sometimes you win a fifth set because of the other team’s errors or mistakes. We had to earn this one.
Mosser: When you score the first point in a fifth set and lead the entire way, it makes a statement. Candidly, it kind of makes you feel good, like, yeah, we were tied 2-all, but no, we were meant to win this one.
Bechard: Hey, I’ll take that kind of greeting walking into a locker room all the time if it comes at the culmination of a season like that and a match with a finish like that.
KU’s focus then shifted to Sunday and that evening’s NCAA Tournament selection show. A watch party with the entire team was scheduled, and given the exclamation point-style ending to their regular season, it’s fair to say most in the room were bullish on their chances of hearing their name called — though that didn’t mean the day was a stress-free affair.
Bechard: Selection Sunday is the longest day of the year. There are some years, like ’04 and ’18, where the day can feel like a whole year itself. I’ve never understood why we wait until 7:30 at night to do the bracket. It was a nice day, thank goodness, so I just got outside and kept myself busy. I had some yard work to do. I don’t necessarily enjoy that, but it served its purpose. And after I’d studied the RPI thing for the 30th time that day I thought, hey, maybe I should give it a break.
Mosser: Going into it, there are always going to be rumors, people giving their predictions. Because we tied for third in the conference I felt pretty good that we were going to make it, and after I saw Iowa State get a bid, I was like, OK, yeah, we’re getting this. No more nerves.
Crawford: I was pretty confident even before Iowa State was called, maybe too confident. I kind of expected our name to pop up, but I just didn’t know where. It wasn’t surreal until I saw our name on the TV. Once I saw it, I was like, oh my gosh, we’re actually doing this. We’re literally in the NCAA Tournament.
Mosser: There were a lot of tears, a lot of excitement. I don’t know that I even remember them calling the rest of the bracket. I’m not sure anyone does.
Bechard: The joy in their faces, you can’t manufacture that. It’s the culmination of something that you put a lot of time and effort into, and it’s the reaction to an event where it all comes to fruition. You can’t stage that type of stuff. I told ’em, “Somebody told me once that joy delayed is joy forever lost. So whenever you get the opportunity to celebrate, don’t put it off. Just let it be.”
KU will open NCAA Tournament play with a 4:30 p.m. Thursday match against Oregon in Omaha, Nebraska.
Bechard: What I’m excited about is sometimes you have a big senior class that experiences the NCAA Tournament for the first time, and we’ve certainly got a few girls who fit that profile. I’m excited for them, but consider this: We had three true freshmen and two people playing their first year of eligibility on the court in crunch time against K-State. This team is in its youth stage and it’s still experiencing the postseason. This could really be an opportunity to build some momentum on that. Instead of starting over, I think we can pick up wherever we’ve left off — wherever that ends up being.