RCW: Learning to take over
A summer stint with Team USA at the Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic yielded a bronze medal and another positive experience to help move All-American Kelsie Payne toward her full potential.
Kelsie Payne is making a name for herself with her play on the volleyball court, but she always has. Payne still fondly embraces the nickname “Puff,” a moniker still present on her Twitter profile which she earned in the early days of her career when her hits registered little more than soft whimper. An all-caps “POW” – the blast of a deafening charge – or “POY” – short for Player of the Year – might be more relevant after the junior outside hitter continues to pace the Jayhawks in kills per set after an All-American effort in 2015. She actually was selected as the Big 12’s Preseason Player of the Year for 2016, the first Jayhawk ever to receive the high praise and expectation that comes with the league’s predicted best.
A whirlwind 18 months that has included stints with Team USA’s Collegiate National Team and Pan American Cup squad, along with the best season in Kansas history that included the program’s first-ever NCAA Final Four appearance, has helped Payne go from people telling her how good she can be to knowing and owning those charges for herself. Most recently, Payne’s ever-growing list of impressive achievements included a near-triple-double – 18 kills, and career highs for digs (16) and blocks (8.0) – on the road at Iowa State last week. That match was part of a 4-1 start to Big 12 play for the top-10-ranked Jayhawks, who host Kansas State in a nationally televised match on ESPNU in Horejsi Family Athletics Center Wednesday night.
The past two summers have helped accelerate the growth of Payne’s confidence, which has naturally progressed as she enters her third year in the Kansas program. Despite playing out of position from her role with the Jayhawks at middle blocker, her most recent Team USA experience yielded more than just a fancy bronze medal.
Payne poses with her Pan American Cup teammates.
“It was a big confidence boost,” Payne, who made the move to outside hitter prior to last season and is a six-rotation player in 2016, recalled. “It was a huge moment because when I started playing volleyball initially, I didn’t know where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do. I was just playing for fun. Once I got to a point I could get an athletic scholarship, I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll play in college.’ Then a chance came to join the national team, so I started to think, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll go to the Olympics.’ Last summer was the first step in that direction. So it opened my eyes, like, ‘Hey you’re able to do this. They see you, they know who you are.’ The doors have kind of been opened so that is cool.”
The Olympics will have to wait another four years and may seem like a lofty goal, but Payne is on the right path as every member of the Rio contingent for USA Volleyball had previous experience playing in the Pan American Cup. Plus, Payne is in the business of achieving lofty goals, serving as one of the pivotal players during KU’s 19-0 start in 2015 while helping the squad to its highest winning percentage (.909; 30-3), highest ranking in program history (No. 4) and best postseason finish (national semifinal), while becoming one of the program’s first AVCA All-America First Team selections along with setter Ainise Havili.
“I think once we made that 19-0 mark, we made the greatest start in Kansas Volleyball history and that was a confidence boost,” Payne said. “From there we made it to the NCAA Tournament, which was our goal. Then we made it to the Elite Eight, which was an even bigger goal. Then we beat the No. 1 team in the country. At that point we were at an all-time high, nothing could bring us down at that point. That was huge for our team last year. I think some of that momentum has carried over to this year too.”
If the momentum truly has carried into the current campaign, the spring and summer served as added heat to keep the pot simmering. Payne, Havili, Madison Rigdon and Cassie Wait all traveled to the U.S. Women’s National Team Open Tryouts held Feb. 19-21 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Out of the nearly 150 women at the tryout – some of the best players in the country – Havili and Rigdon were picked to travel with the Collegiate National Team to China, while Payne and Wait kept a previous invitation-only workout for the Pan American Cup team on their schedule.
Payne and Havili pose with Coach Bechard after receiving their All-America recognition at the AVCA banquet.
The latter duo worked out at the USA Volleyball training center in Anaheim, California, with 19 hopefuls, where Team USA’s staff took notice and projected Payne as a potential target for middle blocker on their team of 12.
“She was projected more for that trip as a middle for USA Volleyball,” Kansas head coach Ray Bechard said. “From an attack standpoint it’s not a drastic difference, but from a defensive standpoint, obviously being in the middle with the footwork involved and the timing of the block versus standing closer to the pin or the antenna is probably the biggest adjustment. Offensively she hits the same balls that any other middle would to side out or score for us. Now in transition it’s a little different when she’s on the right side so there’s some pretty significant differences to that.
“I think what is probably noteworthy about the whole deal is even though USA Volleyball knew that wasn’t her home position right now, they see somebody who maybe in the future could play at the highest level there. So that’s why I think they wanted to give her a look there and train with her this summer.”
After nearly two weeks in Anaheim, Payne was selected for the NORCECA team that would represent the United States at the Pan American Cup in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – a trip that started just four days after the announcement.
“It was like either I’m packing for 10 days or I’m packing for a month and a half or whatever,” Payne laughed. “It was hard to pack for that, but I just put all my stuff in one suitcase and thought hopefully I use all this stuff – if not I’ll come back and have clean clothes.”
Payne and Team USA went 4-0 in pool play in the Dominican Republic and defeated Argentina in straight sets before losing to Puerto Rico and being forced into a third-place game while the host nation claimed the Gold. Still, the bronze medal game, which featured a rematch against a Cuba team that took Team USA to five sets in pool play, served as the competitive highlight for Payne.
“It was at that point, we had lost the match to go to the gold medal match, so we weren’t playing for gold but we were still playing for a medal,” Payne said. “I think we kind of realized that we were never really going to play together again and this was a once in a lifetime thing. We decided to come together and still play as hard as we could and still get a medal, so that was really cool.”
While Havili and Rigdon’s CNT team toured the country side and hosted clinics, Payne’s trip to the Dominican Republic was more of a business trip.
“We didn’t really do fun stuff, I’m not going to lie,” Payne said. “Our basic schedule was like breakfast at 8 a.m., we would leave for the gym at 10 a.m., practice for like an hour and a half to two hours. Then if we had a game that night we would just go back to the hotel and relax. We would have film and dinner at 3 p.m., play the match at whatever time, then come back, have dinner, and go to bed. On our off days, I think we had one or two, we went to the beach, so that was really fun.”
It was during those brief times, outside the comfy confines of their resort accommodations, Payne saw a different side of the D.R., that has helped shape her perspective.
“We stayed in a really nice hotel, but then the area where the gym was, but it was obviously poor and didn’t have as much,” Payne recalled. “It was really interesting seeing how they lived and how they go about their daily lives not having all the stuff that we have here in America or even here in Lawrence. It was really humbling to see that. We took a trip out to the beach one day, I remember driving by houses and houses of just one room. Just like a room, people sitting in it, gathered around talking and doing whatever. That was just so eye-opening that they can have so much happiness without having all the material things that we have.
“I remember the first practice we had there, we played basically outside. There was no air conditioning in the gym, it wasn’t really even a gym. It was like a roof and four walls but the walls weren’t connected so we were basically playing outside. There was no AC – it’s the hottest conditions I’ve ever played in. There were no lights either so you can only play in the daytime – it was crazy. The kids who actually live in that compound, at the center we were playing at, they play sports there on scholarship kind of, so they get school and food and they play. So while we were out there sweating and dying, they were out there having fun and playing around. So that was another eye-opening moment. They were having so much fun playing a sport that I do for a living.”
With plenty of hard work and good fortune, fun and volleyball have been synonymous for Payne over the last two seasons. Bechard and the Kansas staff helped a really good team with three-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances turn their fourth into an unforgettable with a belief that something more was attainable.
“Yeah we played in front of 18,000 people. We were there. That was us. That was us in those uniforms and we competed favorably,” Bechard said. “We did have a chance to win a National Championship last year and to say it is one thing – I mean every team that gets together during two-a-days says we want to win our league, we want to go to the Final Four. You can say that but now having lived it is pretty surreal.
“The most difficult part is to understand how hard it was, because if you do it once then you gather as a team and say, ‘Well let’s just do that again.’ Well OK, that’s a noble goal. Do you really remember how hard it was and how diligent we were in our preparation and how good we were to each other and how hard we worked together? And then you have to create some opportunities that go your way. Can we stay healthy? Can we be playing well at the end? All of those things come in to focus when those things happen, so we had to get away from that the first of the year and wonder how far will this team go? And just begin to kind of capture how good can we be today and how good can we be the next day? And in the end, if we do that every day, we give ourselves the best chance to be the best version of the team we can be by the end of the year.”
It’s that same message that they’re using to try to motivate Payne, who they believe can still be a best version of herself after leading the Big 12 in kills (496) while setting a KU single-season record. Her kills per set are slightly lower than a season ago, when she wasn’t also trying to dig balls on the back row, but her 3.88 kills per set lead Kansas and are fifth on the Big 12 charts just five games into league play.
There are moments, like the second half of the match against the Iowa State Cyclones, when Payne shows glimpses of the nightmare she could be for opposing teams.
“Kelsie took the match over in the last set-and-a-half,” Bechard said after the match in Ames on October 5. “Sixteen digs is a number that jumps out at you. She just took over and was very aggressive the last two sets. That’s exactly what we need her to be.”
Just how high is her talent ceiling?
“As a staff we just have to be careful because there’s so many things we want to put in front of her,” Bechard said. “But I think a little bit at a time. Just given her growth in some areas, I think she can play at any level she wants. I think the next time the Olympics roll around, she could be on the national team. I think she could go overseas at the highest level and make good money. Or she can go into the real word outside athletics and be a success because she’s a really good person.”
Not bad for a girl they once called “Puff,” but now swings with the best in the league and country.