CHAMPIONS: No. 4 Kansas captures first-ever Big 12 title

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LAWRENCE, Kan. – Kansas volleyball clinched at least a share of its first-ever Big 12 Conference regular-season title after defeating Iowa State in five sets on Saturday in Horejsi Family Athletics Center (25-18, 25-21, 13-25, 22-25, 15-9).

The build-up to Saturday’s match was a perfect storm. Kansas (25-2, 14-1 Big 12) held a first-place position in the Big 12 standings. The program was set for Senior Day, saying farewell to the winningest senior class in program history. Then, their All-American right-side hitter Kelsie Payne was sidelined with an ankle injury stemming from KU’s match at West Virginia on Wednesday.

“It could have been a disaster, or it could have been the best day ever, and they decided to make it the best day ever,” a gleeful Kansas head coach Ray Bechard said after the match. “That would have been a tough Senior Day had it went the other way. Our seniors weren’t going to let us lose. It’s a perfect storm. Somehow we found a way to beat a very good team.”

KU’s senior class, featuring Maggie Anderson, Tayler Soucie and Cassie Wait, improved to 102-22 in the last four seasons after helping complete the first undefeated home regular-season (12-0) in program history. Soucie recorded nine blocks and eight kills and Wait posted 15 digs. But more than their stat line, the seniors willed their team to victory before taking a bow at Horejsi for the last time (pending the possibility of hosting the NCAA Championship first and second rounds).

Redshirt freshman Ashley Smith made her first career start in the absence Payne (ankle), while freshman Jada Burse embraced her increased role by leading the Jayhawks with 16 kills and Madison Rigdon posted 15 kills with three aces and five blocks. All-American setter Ainise Havili distributed the ball to a different-look offense – playing without Payne for the first time since 2014 – for 50 assists, while adding a match-high 20 digs.

“Obviously we had to have some other people step up today,” Bechard said. “It was new for Ashley Smith out there. She did fine. Jada was great and Soucie kind of takes over from a blocking stand point. Team effort – very proud of representing this group and what they work for and sometimes it’s not the prettiest volleyball, but nobody out-works us and I think that was on display today.”

With the win, Kansas extends its winning streak to 13 matches and its home-court winning streak to 16 matches. Kansas is 33-1 in the last 34 contests inside Horejsi Family Athletics Center.

In the 21-year history of the Big 12 Conference, Kansas is the second team other than Texas or Nebraska to win or share a Big 12 volleyball title. Kansas State won the title in 2003.

Added to the pile of significance attached to Saturday’s match was Bechard’s 350th win as head coach of the Jayhawks – increasing his standing as KU’s all-time winningest coach.

Kansas has the opportunity to clinch sole possession of the Big 12 title with a win at Baylor on Saturday, Nov. 26 to conclude regular season play. Then, the Jayhawks will watch the NCAA Championship Selection Show on Sunday, Nov. 28 at 8 p.m. Central on ESPNU.


Kansas head coach Ray Bechard

On if the reality has hit that this was the seniors’ last regular-season home match:
“I don’t think so. It will be very difficult not to picture them being a part of who we are because they developed the culture here as much as any class we’ve ever had. Two of them (are from) very close to here and Maggie Anderson, her story is a great one too. They’re special people, but the success in their lives is just beginning. Just because of the type of people they are. I told them (in the locker room after the match) we’ve been playing volleyball here 41 years and this is the group to come through and win (the first conference) championship.”

On winning the Big 12 Championship on Senior Day:
“It could have been a disaster or it could have been the best day ever and they decided to make it the best day ever. That would have been a tough senior day had it went the other way. They made the plays. Soucie and Wait, and Maggie got in there and served tough in the end. They weren’t going to let it happen. It’s a perfect storm. We had a senior day against a great team. We’re down a first team All-American and somebody stepped up and the team still found a way to beat a very good team.”

On the senior’s legacy:
“The success is one thing, but it’s just the type of teammates they are. 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.”

On how Kelsie Payne’s injury has affected the team’s momentum:
“I thought our energy at practice was great. I thought before the match the plan was that they were going to win and it was the next person and Ashley (Smith) stepped up. I’ve seen good performances from a lot of people, but it would not have been the right move to put Kelsie Payne out there today because she wasn’t ready to play. We’re going to have her welfare in mind first and she’ll continue to work hard and hopefully get back a week from today.”

On the range of emotions in the locker room after the win:
“There’s relief, there’s joy, there’s holy cow, there’s a lot of different emotions. I think there’s relief. Certainly they didn’t want to let the seniors down and I think you could sense as we got closer to winning the match, that we got a little bit tight. There’s a lot of pressure out there. You’re trying to win the Big 12 at home, you’re trying to get a win for the seniors on senior day. I think they let that all go and just played volleyball in the fifth set.”

On what the seniors did to lead the team to a victory today:
“Soucie had nine blocks that’s just what she does. Wait had 15 digs. Maggie came in and served tough. Wait spearheaded our defense and made some unbelievable plays like she always does. They were just who they are and who they’ve always been. That’s always been good enough for us.”

On where his 350th win ranks among his accomplishments:
“It’s very gratifying because it’s my 19th year and there’s been a lot of good volleyball teams in our league. Obviously, Texas has had their way these past few years. We’ve been in the top two of the Big 12 standings for four straight years. It shouldn’t come as a surprise for all of the hard work we’ve put in, but I just told the team that I’m very proud to be associated with that group and Kansas Athletics has done an unbelievable job supporting me, my staff and this team.”

On how much today means to him:
“Well, a Big 12 Championship, they can’t take that away from you. They put that banner up and that means you were the elite team in the league and in a league that is as good as ours, that has significance. We have our three major team goals on the wall that they look at everyday and Big 12 Championship was the middle one. I’m proud of them, that they put in the work and time to get it done.”

On the momentum to finish the season:
“Right now we just share the title. We don’t want to share it with anybody. We want to be outright champions and we’ll have to beat a very good team at Baylor to do that. We’re going to give them a little time next week. We’re going to train hard. We’re going to get better. We’ll be a better team next Saturday than we are today.”

Senior L Cassie Wait

On winning a Big 12 title:
“It’s amazing. It just goes back to what we did all spring, getting in the gym every single day. Then getting the opportunity to work with Luke (Bradford, strength coach) over the summer and get strong. You can look back to every single thing that we did in preparation for this and it all pays off in the end, so it’s pretty awesome.

“It’s awesome that (Senior Day) happened to be on the same day, but it just goes to show how hard our teammates are willing to work for us.”

On legacy the seniors will leave:
“I think it’s less about us as a senior class, but more what you can do to promote that Jayhawk name. What it means for the next generation of Jayhawk athletes and what does it mean to wear that Kansas across your chest. I think it’s been awesome that we get to go out and volunteer in the community and work hard in school. All the opportunities they’ve given us and to see future goals, now little girls will get that opportunity.”

On what it means to wear Kansas across her chest:
“I think it just means family. It means getting up every single day and knowing I have the support of so many people. Whether it’s in the classroom, on the court or endeavors in life, I think it’s pretty awesome to have that whole network.”

How program has changed since she was a freshman:
“We are the aggressors now. We are not going to do anything to change our side of the net to play opponents. We’re in control of the play every single time. If we do our jobs every time we step out on that court, we have the power to win every match. It’s just that level of confidence, but competitive confidence and competitive chemistry where we’ll do anything for each other at any moment to get what needs to be done.”

On her favorite memory of today:
“The smiles on my teammates faces. Getting to share in that joy of this memory. That competitive passion for the sport we get to play every day. And the fans, they were so awesome all day long, staying loud. We needed them.”

Senior MB Tayler Soucie

On winning the Big 12:
“I don’t know if you could pick a better day for it to happen (senior day). I mean senior day is one thing, but when you win the Big 12 on the same day, it makes it more surreal. It just shows our hard work and dedication. For me and Cassie (Wait) the past four years and for Maggie (Anderson) the past five years and for everyone else the years they’ve been here, it just shows our hard work. It’s a great feeling.”

On the fifth set:
“We weren’t worried, it was just business. We just knew we had to play our game, and that’s what we did.”

On trailing in every set:
“I think that as you go throughout your career, you find your role, and I think my role is to keep everyone energized when we get down, make sure everybody gets out of their heads a little bit. A little bit of confidence and keep energy going.”

On change in program’s culture:
“I think the change starts with what the seniors showed me my freshman year. You fight hard, you don’t give up and you keep working. I was able to grow up not far from here so I was able to watch them the first time (since 2005) they made it to the NCAA tournament in 2011, to see that and just to see it grow. Just to see that and see how far we have come, we just have a lot of energy, we realized we have to work each and every day, and that’s just something we just keep passing on.”

On Coach Bechard:
“Coach B is great. I couldn’t imagine playing for a better coach. Someone who is family-oriented, who cares about you as a person, not just as a player. Everything we do is for him. He instills confidence in us. He’s like a father figure to us.”

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