RCW: A world of experience
Madison Rigdon and Ainise Havili are naturally another year older and another year wiser, or so the old saying goes, and the already talented duo is already showing that progression on the court for Kansas volleyball. In terms of time, the days that make up the 2015-16 school year make it the same as any other, but the last 12 months have been crammed with a myriad of invaluable experiences that have both stretched and strengthened the pair. That includes helping Kansas reach its first ever NCAA Volleyball Final Four and most recently a summer trip to China as part of USA Volleyball’s High Performance Pipeline.
Rigdon, an All-Big 12 Second Team selection last season, and Havili, an AVCA First Team All-American in 2015, have been contributors since arriving at KU – now in their third season – from their shared home state Texas, but have elevated their play even further after making program history and spending the summer with fellow elite players, competing against some of the best China has to offer on the U.S. Collegiate National Team-China Tour.
Whether it was stressful travel, exotic foods, language and culture barriers, smoke in the arena or general pace of play and gritty-nature of foreign professional play, the pair each grew in their own way and have helped No. 4 Kansas to a 9-0 start to its 2016 campaign.
Although the same age, Havili is a relative veteran of international play, having captured gold medals with the United States Women’s Junior National Team in Guatemala at the 2014 U20 NORCECA Continental Championship prior to setting foot on KU’s campus. Conversely, Rigdon’s trip to China marked her first international experience, outside of the team’s Europe trip last summer, and has been a huge confidence boost for her according to Kansas head coach Ray Bechard.
“It impacted both of them but it was a great confidence booster for Rigdon,” Bechard said. “She hit the ground running this fall and has played at a really high level. I think from her perspective, to get selected for a trip like this really gave a boost to her self-confidence and who she is as a volleyball player and a little bit of her personal brand was enhanced by other people thinking ‘Hey you can play at a high level we believe.’ I think she’s beginning to believe in that more herself, which is great to see.”
That belief has manifested itself in the box scores through the first nine matches with Rigdon averaging nearly a kill per set more (3.71) as the primary outside hitter than she did a year ago when she was third on the team in that category (2.71). She’s also logged a team-best 20 services aces in 31 sets played after notching the team’s second most (29) in 113 sets in 2015 and claimed Bulldog Invitational MVP honors to start her junior campaign.
Havili remains one of the best setters in the country and used the summer trip to broaden her experience setting to different attackers and pushing the pace of play, a frightening thought for opponents after Kansas ranked second in the nation in kills per set (15.1) and fourth in hitting percentage (.299) in 2015. Through nine matches, the reigning Big 12 Setter of the Year is fourth in the league with 11.06 assists per set and ranks only behind Rigdon for service aces per set at 0.42.
“Ainise having the opportunity to train with other attackers and get the sense of what puts them in the best position, that’s a great opportunity for a setter,” Bechard said. “She knows her own team very well, but when you get put in a position in a short turnover like that, you really have to make great adjustments as a setter and I know there was great value in that opportunity for her.”
They’re reaping the rewards now, but in February the pair were sweating it out, along with KU teammates Kelsie Payne and Cassie Wait, as four of approximately 231 student-athletes from 88 colleges at the U.S. Women’s National Team Open Tryouts at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The rigorous, three-day event included four sessions, with three waves per session, and concluded with tournament-style play.
In March, when the U.S. Collegiate National Teams were selected, Rigdon and Havili learned they were headed to China, one of two tours featuring 12 athletes each in the High Performance Pipeline. Wait and Payne each received a call back to try out for the U.S. Women’s National Team Pan American Cup, which Payne earned and participated in over the summer as well.
“To make one of those teams is a big honor,” Havili stated, after saying she was initially surprised when she received the news of making the team. “I was just excited to hopefully get to prove myself.”
“I was just happy to even get to go to the tryouts,” added Rigdon, who had never played for any Team USA affiliate before.
USA Volleyball’s High Performance Pipeline serves as a minor league of sorts, with the U.S. Collegiate National Teams serving as the minor league all-stars or futures players. According to USA Volleyball’s website, “The High Performance Department works to advance volleyball talent and build a broader and stronger pipeline of athletes and coaches for USA Olympic Teams. The High Performance Program bridges the gap between our USA National Teams and youth volleyball programs across the country … The High Performance Program at USA Volleyball is the ‘Pipeline’ for volleyball athletes who aspire to reach the elite level of their sport and is intended to grow the pool of talented young players who may someday compete for a spot on the USA National and Olympic Teams.”
Besides Kansas, Washington was the only other school with more than one representative on the CNT-China squad, and with the collegiate accolades for each athlete on the final roster, it’s easy to see how Rigdon could’ve had an aww-shucks moment.
On the summer squad, K-State’s Katie Brand shared setting duties with Havili. She was an AVCA All-America Honorable Mention and All-Big 12 First Team selection in 2015 and entered the 2016 season as the active Big 12 leader in career assists. Kaz Brown from Kentucky was an All-SEC and AVCA All-Southwest Region performer. Abby Cole, a 6-foot-5 middle blocker from Michigan, was All-Big Ten, All-Region and an AVCA All-America Second Team selection. Audriana Fitzmorris, a 6-foot-6 middle blocker from Stanford was named high school National Player of the Year by several publications after the Overland Park native led St. James Academy to the 2015 state championship. Morgan Heise from SMU was the American Athletic Conference Libero of the Year and an All-America Honorable Mention pick along with All-Region and All-AAC First Team honors. Washington’s Tia Scambray was All-Pac 12 honorable mention and AVCA All-Region honorable mention after leading the Huskies in aces. Jordan Thompson was the American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year while earning unanimous selection to the All-AAC First Team.
As with many all-star teams, the time to get to know each other before competition is short, but the squad did have a two day training camp in Los Angeles before departing for Shanghai, China. After a flight that was long enough to watch the movie “Titanic” nearly five times, the Kansas pair finally arrived and was immediately in shock.
“Different,” Havili chuckled when asked about what the culture was like. “Getting used to it over two weeks was really hard.”
Both players did not hesitate to talk about the difference in food. Havili related her food experience to a “family style” type of restaurant, saying there were spinning tables that would hold ridiculous amounts of food that anyone could take at any time. Rigdon, a self-proclaimed picky eater, was quick to note that she tried duck, dumplings, and once had an entire fish, eyes and all, on the plate in front of her as a pregame meal. Thoughts of home-cooked Texas dinners were suddenly dancing around their minds.
In addition to the obvious language barrier and a slightly different ball used in international play, one of the most noticeable differences in their eyes was the venues they played in. The team had to train in hot and humid gymnasiums that did not have air conditioning while travelling to several small towns prior to a culminating tournament in Beijing. To compound the situation, fans were allowed to smoke in the gyms, making the arenas feel like a late 1990’s sports bar.
“The whole gym was foggy by the end of the match,” Rigdon said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Both were reluctant to say that it affected their play during the matches against a mix of professional and junior national teams, but the team was able to overcome the disadvantage in most of the situations. It was a far cry from the Horejsi Family Athletics Center that the KU team practices and plays its matches in. The volleyball-dedicated facility is one of just five like it within the Big 12 Conference. With the 1,300-seat building filled to capacity on any given night, HFAC sets a unique scene for KU volleyball, with no smoking allowed.
“Ainise said the first match went five and everybody in the gym was smoking,” Bechard said. “She said she could not breathe, so that was kind of crazy different. But yeah, you take for granted a little bit about the environments we get to play in here. You never know when you go overseas that obviously it’s going to be – or wherever you go – that it’s going to be a little bit different. You just have to adapt to it.”
Intermixed with their competitions were chances to visit some notable Chinese landmarks and conduct volleyball clinics for the community. The pair visited the Great Wall of China, one of the Eight Wonders of the World, and the Forbidden City among other places.
Athletically, the pinnacle of the trip was the tournament in Beijing, which the team opened with a win before dropping a five-set match to Jiangsu in the second game. The Americans won the third match to force a rematch with Jiangsu and topped their quickly made rival in four sets to win the tournament crown.
“It seems like they never gave up on anything,” Havili said about the competition, noting how the opposition was both talented, yet very scrappy at the same time.
The thing that stood out most was just how fast the pace of international play was. Although the speed of the game did take some getting used to, Rigdon believes that it was good to have a faster game pace, something the Jayhawks have had success implementing.
“Coach (Ray Bechard) wants (KU) to have a faster offense, so I think the speed in China will definitely help transition to having a faster offense here at Kansas,” Havili said. “Getting the ball around faster than I usually do is what I learned over there, so that’s good.”
“I think USA Volleyball, in any event, be it China, or what Payne is involved in,” Bechard explained, “I think they have a pretty standard tempo they want to play at. And obviously it’s different. Everybody’s tempo is different so it’s an opportunity for her, once again in that short turnover time, to try to create opportunities to be the best that she can be at that tempo for USA Volleyball. And then here’s a Kansas team that we’re rolling in with some new players and trying to put our returning players in good situations where we need to talk tempo too. So any time you have to experience that as a player, I think you grow and you make yourself better.”
Additionally, Bechard was thankful to have his players growing and competing under the watchful eye of USA Volleyball and its coaches during a traditionally hands off period for collegiate coaching staffs.
“We’re completely hands off in the summer so most – if not all – of the skill acquisition and skill growth needs to come from opportunities like this or opportunities where they make an effort to get in the gym with their teammates,” Bechard said. “Even though the messages from the coaches they might be getting is different, in some ways technically you’re still playing volleyball and you’re still competing and you’re still getting reps and you’re still creating opportunities for yourself individually and as a team member. It’s a great opportunity.
“You also need to be careful that at times kids play a lot, and sometimes you need to make sure too that they get the amount of recovery they need, but I don’t think this is a situation where it was too taxing for either of them. Maybe for their diet it was, but from a volleyball standpoint, it was an opportunity to see the world, make some new friends and play volleyball at a high level.”
Havili, from Fort Worth, and Rigdon, from Pflugerville, share their Texas roots and an apartment in Lawrence with Payne, a fellow Texan from Austin. Although together most of the time even when not lifting weights, at practice or competing, the pair were thankful to be able to grow together further and share their China experience with a teammate.
“It was nice to know somebody, to be close to somebody and be able to hang out,” Havili said.
Added Rigdon: “I think it was the best thing that could have happened for me and her, to go together. It was awesome to meet other people too, but having each other there made it a lot easier to go to a different country.”
After the trip was over, the two Jayhawks were eager to get back to Lawrence and compete for the Crimson and Blue, as well as return to American food and smoke-free gymnasiums.
The Jayhawks have big expectations for 2016 and look to continue rolling when they close nonconference play at Purdue’s Stacey Clark Classic in West Lafayette, Indiana this weekend (Sept. 16-17). The Jayhawks open Big 12 play at home against Oklahoma on Sept. 21, then get a top-five showdown at No. 2 Texas on Sept. 24. It’s the next step on a now familiar journey for the program to elite status.
“If we do get the chance to make it back to the Final Four – knock on wood – we’re not happy just to be there anymore, we want to win,” Havili expressed.
Their passports have been stamped in Omaha. Their passports have been stamped in China. If they continue learning from their experiences and playing at a high level, a stamp in Columbus, Ohio, home of the 2016 Final Four, could be next.