RCW: A class act
The once-in-a-generation 2016 Kansas volleyball senior class will go down as the most successful in program history with over 100 wins, advancing to the first-ever NCAA Final Four and winning the first-ever Big 12 Conference title. But more than on-court success, the tremendous trio of Maggie Anderson, Tayler Soucie and Cassie Wait have the heart and soul of KU’s expectation-shattering era during their time in Lawrence.
“There is a debt of gratitude for this senior class,” Kansas head coach Ray Bechard said. “I don’t know if there is class that has done more to develop a culture of success. They embody and define what Kansas volleyball is all about now.”
With a 103-22 record in the last four seasons, no other senior class in program history has had a better winning percentage (.824).
When Anderson, a fifth-year senior, arrived on campus the Jayhawks were coming off a 3-13 Big 12 campaign in 2011. But during her time in Lawrence, Anderson has been a member of soon-to-be five NCAA Tournament teams, including the 2015 Final Four.
Kansas natives Soucie (Osawatomie) and Wait (Gardner) arrived on campus a year later than Anderson, in 2013, and have simply been one of the best performers at their respective positions in program history.
Soucie, a four-year starter at middle blocker, ranks second in career blocks at Kansas, entering postseason play with 535, and led the Big 12 in blocks per set during league play this season. Wait earned Big 12 Libero of the Year honors after leading the Big 12 in digs per set (5.23) this season. She stands second in career digs (1,918) at Kansas in just three seasons as a starting libero.
The class’ contributions extend well beyond the court to roles as academic leaders on campus, each earning Academic All-Big 12 honors three times.
Anderson will graduate with a degree in supply chain management in December and step into a full-time job in January where she will immediately oversee 25 employees. Soucie is the in the process of applying for physician assistant school with a bright future in the medial field. Wait earned her finance degree in three years and began her first semester at KU’s School of Law this fall.
After an unprecedented 2015 season, it didn’t take long for the senior trio to usher in more unprecedented accomplishments. The Jayhawks finished the 2016 regular season with a 15-1 record in Big 12 Conference play to win the program’s first-ever conference title outright over five-time reigning Big 12 champion Texas. Kansas (26-2) will begin NCAA postseason play with the highest seed in program history (No. 5).
“The success is one thing, but it’s just the type of teammates they are,” Bechard praised of his seniors. “It goes beyond those victories, it’s how they conduct their business. You want all of these guys to babysit your kids, you want your daughters to be around them. We need more people like this in our world. Period. They treat people the right way, they’re gracious, they’re humble and they work hard and represent themselves and their university as good as any group we’ve ever had.”
Rock Chalk Weekly caught up with Anderson, Soucie and Wait to recount their collegiate careers and pathway to Kansas as they prepare for another postseason run starting in the first round against Samford this Thursday night (6:30 p.m., ESPN3):
I was a junior when I started my recruiting process. I started that process by attending camps across the Midwest. I came to camp here at KU knowing that a lot of other small schools come to Lawrence to help run Coach Bechard’s camps — hoping I would get noticed by a college in Kansas or Nebraska.
I had a really great camp experience. I was a commuter camper, so my mom and I would go to a hotel every night that we were in Lawrence. It was kind of like a business trip for me. I was here to play volleyball and market my talents to the coaches. I loved the campus of KU. The KU coaches were so awesome during camp, too — Coach Bechard, Bird, Todd. Coach Bechard reminded me a lot of my high school coach as well.
It ended up being KU that wanted me on their roster, but there wasn’t enough room on the roster at that time. The coaches said that they would keep me in mind moving forward though. That fall of my senior year I ended up committing to Nebraska-Kearney, a Division II school in central Nebraska. But I kind of felt like I was settling — there were really no other options for me. Then, in February of my senior year, I got an email from Bird, and I started the process of joining the roster at Kansas.
When I arrived at Kansas, the theme of my first summer training program was, ‘We are going to get better.’ During two-a-days, the coaching staff was pretty excited to have us newcomers on the team – me, Tiana Dockery and Janae Hall.
In 2014, when our current juniors were freshmen, that’s when we could tell things were really starting to click. That also was a heartbreaking ending to our season — we ended up hosting (the NCAA Tournament first and second rounds) in Topeka and losing the first-round match. That was a big disappointment. But having that experience made the next year so much better. Having a bad experience as a group isn’t always a bad thing. We all learned from that moving forward.
To achieve our big-picture goals, we had to have small stepping stones to success along the way. Coach Bechard’s big saying is, ‘Let’s go 2-0 this week.’ That mentality really helped us to take it point-by-point and not get ahead of ourselves. The times when we needed to have a big-picture mentality is when practices weren’t going well, or when early-morning weights are hard to wake up for. That’s when that big-picture mentality of – this is what we’re doing it for – comes in handy.
Through the years it has been great to have our home court behind us so much. Our crowd gives us a big advantage, especially in those fifth sets. It’s great knowing that you have the entire support of your home in a cozy 1,300-seat space.
When I was a little girl, growing up in Lincoln, I looked up to the Nebraska volleyball players so much as role models. Our match-day experience is more personable and I think that makes a difference with young girls and fans.
I went to camp at Nebraska and here at KU the summer before my junior year in high school and just fell in love with KU — with the coaches and the girls. Cassie (Wait) and Tiana (Dockery) attended camp that year as well. My brother also ran track at KU at that time. After camp, I really wanted to go to KU. Coach Bechard called me up for a visit. We went to practice and took a tour around camps, and they offered me a scholarship. I called the coaching staff the next day and committed!
What also attracted me to KU from the start was seeing girls’ determination to succeed. My brother also knew them personally, and he really respected their determination and work ethic. Their work ethic and determination — there was no doubt that I could fit into a program that would work hard to get where it wants to go.
Since my freshman season, it has been about developing a culture — the seniors passing it down to the underclassmen and setting the tone for the season. We also kept building on to our goals and not settling for the previous goal. It’s not a goal to make it to the NCAA Tournament anymore – it’s a standard. We continually took steps to succeed.
Coach Bechard is big on culture and stressing that it’s not just how you are on the court — (it’s) how well you do off the court. He wants to motivate us and sometimes he relies on outside sources to help out, like the team reading Toughness by Jay Bilas before the season, preseason training with The Program, or team-building exercises with KU LEADS. Our coaches and staff do everything they can to give us that extra edge to compete as a team in an intentional way.
As I have been applying to grad school recently, I had to write a personal statement for the application to talk about my life story. It has made me think of all the people who have helped me along the way to get where I’m at right now. It’s always been a goal for me to strive to be a better person — talking to coaches and family to see what I can do to improve. I take it one day at a time and see what comes. I just try to do my best in practice every day — bring energy and see where it goes.
The coaching staff talks a lot about holding people accountable. The team sets standards and then holds others accountable to that standard. Things like being able to call each other out on certain things, knowing that in the end, we all have each other’s best interests at heart.
Teammate ability is a big thing. When you have team chemistry and you’re all working hard for each other, it makes you get out of your own head when you make a mistake. That’s a huge thing in volleyball, where one point really does matter a lot — you can’t dwell on the last point. When you realize that as a team, it’s a lot easier to move forward.
The KU culture is becoming the best you can be on and off the court. So it’s working hard, it’s putting other above yourself, it’s being a good teammate and continuously working to be better even when knowing how uncomfortable that will be. It’s a hard concept to grasp — no one wants to be uncomfortable. This program has done a good job in showing that it’s OK to be uncomfortable. When you are uncomfortable, you grow. When you grow, you become better.
Winning the Big 12 was very emotional. It makes you think about everything you’ve done throughout the years to get to that point and all the people that came before you to get to that point. I hope it keeps progressing — winning more Big 12 titles and advancing to the Final Four and beyond. I want the program to be the best it can be.
I came to camp my freshman year in high school. Playing outside hitter in high school, I knew with my height, I was looking at the Division I level at a defensive specialist role. My junior year I decided that Kansas was the best fit for me as far as opportunities, resources, the family atmosphere and the competitiveness. I knew this is where I wanted to be. I committed in January of my junior year — when Tayler (Soucie) had committed already. Knowing her was really helpful and knowing that you had the same goals, ideals and fundamental reasons for choosing KU was really an encouragement.
Our fans’ constant support at the matches, on social media and throughout, has been absolutely huge for what we are trying to accomplish.
Every single day someone makes it a point to talk about how blessed we are to be Jayhawks and to have that built-in support system. It really is crazy to know that we have that advantage because our fans are so loud and involved. To go to gyms that are really quiet or empty makes you really thankful to be a Jayhawk.
Home court advantage — if an opponent gets a little sidetracked and misses a serve or they have to talk that much louder when everyone is tired and the gym is really loud. That is so huge for us and what we are trying to do. It might swing two or three points in a set, and that is huge in volleyball.
Our culture has been awesome because of strength in family and competitive chemistry. If one little girl decides that she wants to play volleyball and get an education because they came to a Kansas volleyball match and watch us — that would be the best part. We have all been there ourselves when we were little. To know that this opportunity exists for so many more people in the future is pretty awesome. Getting to build on that and strengthen the program has been rewarding.
To be able to make going to the NCAA Tournament a standard — to make that an expectation that we have to work hard enough to make that an opportunity every single year has really helped build our program and help us move forward.
It’s great to know that other people find joy in what I find so much joy in doing — playing volleyball.