No. 4 Kansas showcases stout defense entering home opener
LAWRENCE, Kan. – Fourth-ranked Kansas Volleyball opened the season at the Bulldog Invitational last weekend with three clean sweeps to earn its sixth consecutive nonconference tournament title. Although the Jayhawks showed glimpses of an elite offense, which led the nation in kills per set last season, it was the defense that shined the brightest.
As the Jayhawks prepare to host the Kansas Invitational starting Friday in front of a home crowd, Kansas holds the Big 12 lead in blocks per set (3.00), hitting percentage allowed (.014), and kills per set allowed (8.78).
“In general, I think defense can be more deflating to the other team than offense. Last weekend we blocked well, we dug and we pursued well. I thought it came together pretty well for us,” Kansas head coach Ray Bechard said.
The Jayhawks proved how deflating defense can be by overpowering Lamar last Saturday – holding the Cardinals to a negative hitting percentage (-.035) and just two kills in the third set.
Leading the defense efforts are senior middle blocker Tayler Soucie and senior libero Cassie Wait. As the season progresses, the pair will further cement their lasting impression on the Kansas record books. Soucie currently has 413 career blocks and needs only five more to take third on the career blocks list. Wait’s 1,413 digs is only 44 away from second on the career digs list.
Bechard takes pride in having a team that works hard on defense because great defense can lead to great offense.
“Defense has to become part of your DNA as a program – part of your culture and who you are,” Bechard added. “We hope that when teams say ‘Kansas’ that they picture a team that works hard and does the little things defensively to make a difference in a match.”
This weekend’s Kansas Invitational features two of the nation’s top defenses in the early season as Kansas and Maryland rank third and fourth, respectively, in hitting percentage allowed.
This weekend’s Kansas Invitational at Horejsi Family Athletics Center features the fourth-ranked Jayhawks, Arkansas, Chicago State and Maryland. The action begins on Friday with a total of four matches, including KU’s bouts with Chicago State (Noon CST, JTV/ESPN3) and Maryland (7 p.m. CST, JTV/ESPN3). The tournament concludes for Kansas on Saturday against Arkansas (1:30 p.m. CST, ESPN3).
Season tickets to home matches at Horejsi Family Athletics Center have been sold out for months prior to Friday’s home opener, but fans can still purchase single-match tickets through StubHub. Last season, Kansas set a program record with 14 sellout crowds inside Horejsi.
The Jayhawks are 22-1 in home openers since 1993, including a 17-1 (.944) mark under head coach Ray Bechard since 1998. KU’s only home-opening loss during that period came in five sets to Arkansas in 2013 after a string of 20-straight home-opening wins.
This weekend marks the first meeting between Maryland and Kansas, while the Jayhawks hold series leads with both Arkansas, 6-4, and Chicago State, 2-0. Saturday will mark the fourth consecutive season that Kansas and Arkansas will face on the court – KU has won two of three since 2013. The last time Kansas and Arkansas met, the Jayhawks defeated the Razorbacks in straight sets in Fayetteville to clinch the Arkansas Invitational title. Kansas and Chicago State meet for the first time since 1999, when KU swept the Cougars in straight sets.
Andrea Hudy, KU’s Assistant Athletics Director of Sports Performance, played collegiate volleyball at Maryland before becoming a nationally-renowned strength and conditioning coach at UConn and the University of Kansas, where she is entering her 13th season. Hudy played for the Terps from 1990 to 1993 and graduated from UMD with a degree in kinesiology.
RIGDON MVP OF OPENING WEEK
Junior outside hitter Madison Rigdon was named MVP on the Bulldog Invitational after opening the event with 14 kills in a straight-set win over host Mississippi State on Friday and finishing the weekend with seven aces, 1.67 digs per set and 2.78 kills per set on a .333 hitting percentage.
Kansas leads the Big 12 in aces per set (2.0) after pouring in a total of 18 last week, including nine against Eastern Washington and seven – with zero service errors – against Lamar. Junior outside hitter Madison Rigdon leads the aggressive service game with seven aces, followed by junior All-American right-side hitter Kelsie Payne’s four.
PAYNE DOUBLE-DOUBLES IN SIX-ROTATION DEBUT
Junior All-American right-side hitter Kelsie Payne owned her new role as a six-rotation player in the season opener against Mississippi State (Aug. 26), recording her first career double-double with 11 kills and a career-high 12 digs. During her first season at Kansas, Payne played the middle blocker position but missed part of the season due to injury. Last season she earned AVCA First-Team All-America honors after moving to the right-side hitter position and setting a KU single-season kills record (496) as a front-row attacker.
WAIT CLIMBING KU’S CAREER DIGS LIST
Senior libero Cassie Wait enters this weekend with 1,413 career digs, ranking third on KU’s career digs list. She stands 44 digs away from tying Melissa Manda (2007-10; 1,457) for second on the list. On Sept. 23, 2015 against K-State, Wait became the third-fastest Jayhawk to reach 1,000 career digs (77 matches; 282 sets).
SOUCIE CLIMBING KU’S CAREER BLOCKS LIST
Senior middle blocker Tayler Soucie enters this weekend with 413 career blocks, ranking fourth on KU’s career blocks list. Soucie has recorded 100 blocks for three-consecutive seasons entering her senior campaign; the only Jayhawk to record four 100-block season was career blocks leader Caroline Jarmoc (2010-13; 555).
2015 NCAA OFFENSE LEADERS
A clerical error noted by the NCAA last week put Kansas in the lead for two 2015 statistical categories. The Jayhawks led all NCAA Division I teams in kills per set (15.10) and assists per set (14.17) last season. Boise State was the previous leader before the error was corrected. It marks the first time Kansas has led the nation in any major statistical category.
Kanas moved up one spot to No. 4 in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll, tying the highest ranking in program history which was set at the end of the 2015 season. The Jayhawks have been ranked in the top-25 for a program-record 16-consecutive times dating back to last season, including 12 consecutive times in the top-10. The Jayhawks debuted the season with a No. 5 preseason ranking in the AVCA Coaches Poll.
Featured on KU’s schedule are No. 3 Texas, No. 22 Creighton and No. 24 Purdue. Big 12 foes Iowa State, Kansas State and TCU are currently receiving top-25 votes.
NO MORE INTERMISSION (HOME MATCHES, BIG 12 MATCHES)
New this season, the Big 12 Conference has implemented a rule that requires three minutes between each set, including the second and third. This rule supplants the longer intermission period of 10 minutes between the second and third sets in the past. The three-minute break between sets will apply to Kansas home matches, including nonconference play, and all Big 12 matches.
KANSAS PICKED SECOND IN BIG 12 PRESEASON POLL
Big 12 Conference volleyball coaches picked Kansas second with one first-place vote in the annual Big 12 Preseason Coaches’ Poll. The No. 2 projection ties for KU’s highest preseason position in the Big 12’s 21-year history. In 2014, the Jayhawks were also picked second with one first-place vote.
Kansas has finished second in the Big 12 regular-season standings for three-consecutive seasons behind preseason favorite Texas.
Junior right-side hitter Kelsie Payne was named KU’s first-ever Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year by the league’s head coaches. Payne joins senior middle blocker Tayler Soucie and junior setter Ainise Havili on the Preseason All-Big 12 Team. The same trio represented Kansas on the 2015 Preseason All-Big 12 Team.
Last season Payne led the Big 12 in kills per set (4.4) and set a Kansas single-season record for total kills (496) on the way to earning some of the top honors in the sport, including AVCA First-Team All-America, All-Big 12 First Team and NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team. In addition, espnW named Payne as one of the nation’s 12 players to watch this season.
It is the third-straight season Soucie has been named to the Big 12 preseason team. In each of the past two seasons she has delivered on her potential by earning All-Big 12 First Team honors in 2014 and 2015. Last season the Osawatomie, Kansas native ranked third in the Big 12 in blocks per set (1.23) and sixth in hitting percentage (.354), while totaling six matches with double-figure kills and 11 matches with five or more blocks.
Havili, the reigning Big 12 Setter of the Year and AVCA First-Team All-American, set the pace for one of the most dynamic offenses in the country, which ranked fourth in the country in team hitting percentage (.299) and second in the country in kills per set (15.1). The Fort Worth, Texas native led the Big 12 in assists per set (12.1) and total assists (1,371) for the second-straight season while leading Kansas in total aces (31).
SOUCIE NAMED BIG 12 SPORTSPERSON OF THE YEAR
Senior middle blocker Tayler Soucie was voted Big 12 Female Sportsperson of the Year for the 2015-16 academic year.
• Accumulated over 140 community service hours during the 2015-16 academic year while participating in Big Brothers Big Sisters, along with volunteering at the local hospital and visiting local elementary schools.
• Responsible for creating the Holiday Toy Drive benefiting a local hospital.
• Named to the Academic All-Big 12 First Team in both 2015 and 2014 and has found herself on the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll six times.
• Holds the Community Outreach Chair position on KU’s SAAC and is the Jayhawks’ Female Big 12 SAAC representative.
Kansas Big 12 Sportspersons of the Year
2006-07: Amanda Costner, Women’s Golf
2007-08: Katie Martincich, Volleyball
2008-09: Darrell Stuckey, Football
2015-16: Tayler Soucie, Volleyball
COACHING STAFF CHANGES
KU’s full-time coaching staff, led by head coach Ray Bechard (three-time Big 12 Coach of the Year), associate head coach Laura “Bird” Kuhn (2015 AVCA National Assistant Coach of the Year) and assistant coach Todd Chamberlain remains intact for the sixth-consecutive season. Skyler Yee was named volunteer assistant coach for the 2016 season over the summer. Yee, a junior at KU, joins the coaching staff after serving as a team manager during the 2013, 2014 and 2015 seasons for the Jayhawks. Yee replaces 2015 volunteer assistant Lucas Yanez, who accepted a full-time coaching position at Coastal Carolina in May.
USA VOLLEYBALL EXPERIENCE
This season, four Jayhawks will draw from valuable experiences with USA Volleyball over the summer. All-American setter Ainise Havili and outside hitter Madison Rigdon traveled overseas for a tour of China with the U.S. Collegiate National Team. All-American right-side hitter Kelsie Payne and libero Cassie Wait trained with the U.S. Women’s National Team’s Pan American Cup roster in Anaheim, California. Payne was one of 12 athletes selected to the roster which competed at the 2016 Pan American Cup in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Payne and the team advanced out of Pool B with a 5-0 record and won the bronze medal match.
2015 IN REVIEW
Kansas features five returning starters, including Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year Kelsie Payne, from a 2015 squad that finished the season ranked No. 4 in the nation and advanced to the program’s first-ever NCAA Championship semifinal. The Jayhawks led the Big 12 in kills, assists, aces and defensive hitting percentage during the historic season.
Last season unprecedented marks were met and exceeded during a ground-breaking run. The Jayhawks achieved their highest winning percentage in program history (.909; 30-3), highest ranking in program history (No. 4; AVCA), best postseason finish in program history (made first appearances in a Regional Final and National Semifinal), first AVCA All-America First Team selections (Ainise Havili and Kelsie Payne), program-record four-consecutive seasons of hosting the NCAA Championship First & Second Rounds, best start to a season in program history (19-0), longest winning streak in program history (W19), program’s fastest team to 20 wins (21 matches) and 30 wins (32 matches), ranked top-five nationally in hitting percentage (.299, fourth), kills per set (15.4, second), and assists per set (14.2, second).
The Jayhawks’ only three losses of the season were against the two teams that played for the NCAA title – Texas and Nebraska.
Kansas returns five starters, including Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Kelsie Payne, from a team that finished the season with the best winning percentage in program history (30-3, .909) last season.
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