2014 in Review: New Look, Same Goals
LAWRENCE, Kan. – When seven seniors graduated in 2013, Kansas volleyball said goodbye to its most successful senior class in program history – but never changed its expectations. Armed with the 15th-best recruiting class in the country, Kansas finished second in the Big 12 Conference and earned a national seed in the NCAA Tournament for the third-straight year.
- The Big 12 awarded a program-record six Jayhawks with all-conference honors – the most of any team in the league.
- Two-time Big 12 Coach of the Year, Ray Bechard, wrapped up his 30th overall season as a head coach in 2014 and his 17th with the Jayhawks. He holds a career record of 1,011-286 and will start the 2015 season just five wins away from his 300th at Kansas (295-226).
- The Jayhawks earned a national seed in the NCAA Tournament for the third-straight season (No. 16). KU joined perennial volleyball powers Stanford, Texas, Washington, Penn State, Florida, Kentucky and Nebraska as the only other teams in the country to earn a national seed in each of the last three years.
- After starting 0-3 in Big 12 play, the Jayhawks won 10 of their last 13 conference contests to finish the season tied for second place in the Big 12. Prior to 2013, Kansas had never finished second – now the team has done it twice in a row.
- During the regular season, KU played 10 teams that received an NCAA Tournament berth in 2014 and the Jayhawks went 7-7 against them.
- Kansas played the NCAA’s sixth-hardest schedule in the country in 2014.
- In the Big 12, the Jayhawk offense led the league in kills (1,627) and ranked second in kills per set (13.79), assists per set (12.82) assists (1,513) and digs (1,811). KU’s overall winning percentage (22-9, .710) tied for second among its conference counterparts.
- The Jayhawks sold-out a program record seven home matches in 2014. KU averaged 1,205 fans per match this season, which ranked fourth in the Big 12 and 31st in the NCAA.
- Freshman setter Ainise Havili set the tone in the conference with her 1,332 assists and 11.29 assists per set, both of which were the best by all Big 12 setters in 2014 and were among the top-20 in the nation. What’s more, her 1,332 assists broke the KU freshman record.
- Havili also chalked up 14 double-doubles on the year (assists/digs) – the third-most DDs in the Big 12 and the most by a freshman. That also tied her for 10th-most in a season at Kansas.
- Sophomore middle blocker Tayler Soucie completed the season as the conference’s blocking leader. Her 1.40 blocks per set ranked 18th in the NCAA.
- Sophomore libero Cassie Wait became the third Jayhawk in program history to surpass 500 digs in a season (Brianne Riley twice, Catalina Suarez). Her 561 digs were the second-most all-time at Kansas in a single season, while her 4.75 dig average was the program’s third-best.
- Senior outside hitter Chelsea Albers became just the seventh Jayhawk in history to post 900-career kills and 800-career digs in a single-season.
- Senior outside hitter Sara McClinton finished her tenure in sixth place on KU’s all-time career kills list. McClinton had 1,272 for four-year career, landing her just 10 kills short of Amanda Reves’ fifth all-time 1,282 kills from 2008-11.
Ready to follow the most successful season in program history, Kansas started the 2014 campaign with its second-straight AVCA preseason ranking. No. 22 in the early poll, the Jayhawks set to begin the season down seven seniors from last year’s class. Bechard and his staff brought in the 15th-best recruiting class in the country, but the crew of freshmen were forced to grow up quick. Six of KU’s opponents were also on the preseason poll, including No. 1 Penn State and No. 2 Texas.
The Jayhawks kicked off the season inside the Horesji Family Athletics Center against Utah Valley. Kansas cruised to a three-set sweep and in doing so, racked up the 700th win in program history. Later that day, Kansas was on pace to start the season 2-0, but a battling Lipscomb team refused to allow it. Kansas dropped the match in a five-set thriller. Following the loss, KU went to work on finishing the first weekend on a good note. Kansas knocked off No. 23 Creighton in the teams’ first meeting since KU defeated CU to advance to the 2013 NCAA Sweet 16.
Next on the docket was the Jayhawks’ first road trip, traveling to Denver, Colorado, for the Pioneer Classic. Squaring off against Bradley and Sam Houston State, the Jayhawks swept their first two opponents to reach the championship match against host school, Denver. Kansas battled against multiple Denver comeback attempts and handed the Pioneers their first loss of the season.
KU returned home to face neighboring UMKC. A four-set win against the ‘Roos provided momentum for the Jayhawks’ second road tournament. This one which featured elite competition in Villanova, Yale, American and the 2013 National Champions, Penn State. KU chalked up a series of wins over host-school Villanova, Ivy League Champion Yale and Patriot League Champion, American. Thus, setting up a meeting with the defending NCAA champs. Kansas was overpowered in the first set, but fought the Nittany Lions to two two-point sets before they claimed the win in three.
From there, Kansas hosted the Jayhawk Invitational and faced North Texas, Cleveland State and Arkansas. Kansas swept North Texas in the opening match and the team was set to take on Cleveland State later that night. KU chalked up a four-set victory, but centerstage belonged to coach Bechard. The win marked a new milestone for the Kansas native, as it marked win number 1,000 for his career. Wrapping up the milestone weekend – and non-conference play – KU claimed the Jayhawk Classic crown with a four-set win over Arkansas.
Shifting its attention to the Big 12, Kansas began conference play by dropping its first three matches in battle-fashion to Oklahoma, Kansas State and No. 2 Texas. Looking to right the ship, Kansas traveled to Waco where it picked up its first Big 12 victory over Baylor on the road behind a 19-kill performance from junior Tiana Dockery. After collecting another road win over West Virginia, Kansas came home to defeat TCU. The Jayhawks quickly found themselves sitting at a 3-3 conference record.
Kansas looked to surpass the .500 mark in Big 12 play for the first time, but Iowa State was standing in the way as the Cyclones halted the Jayhawks’ hopes with a five-set win in Ames. A quick sweep of Texas Tech at home put KU in position to again try for a winning record in league play, but a five-set loss at TCU resulted instead. Though the loss stung, Bechard still acknowledges that match as one of the turning points of the season. One that lit a fire under his team.
A fire indeed.
Kansas got hot with back-to-back wins against Baylor and Texas Tech to finally pull above .500 at 6-5. Fighting to repeat its second-place finish, Kansas had no choice but to keep winning – and in-state rival No. 23 Kansas State was next on the list.
When Kansas and Kansas State met in Lawrence on Oct. 1, it marked the first time in their last five meetings that neither team was ranked. It also marked just the second conference match for half of the Jayhawks. In the 2014 Sunflower Showdown finale, however, Kansas certainly looked all grown up as the Jayhawks tallied their third-straight win in Manhattan – and the second consecutive-sweep. McClinton was unstoppable, drilling 18 kills without a single error. While All-Big 12 Freshman Team middle blocker Kelsie Payne was sidelined with an injury, sophomore Janae Hall stepped in for five blocks to help KU double up KSU’s blocking total on the night. With the win, Kansas moved into a tie for third with its rival and held tight to it with a four-set win at home against Iowa State in the following match.
Texas, who would go on to advance to its 10th Final Four in 2014, ended the Jayhawks four-match win streak. The third-ranked Longhorns handed KU its first sweep in Big 12 play in more than two years and just its third over a 73-match span. Nevertheless, Kansas stayed the course and rebounded with a sweep against West Virginia to set up a Senior Day for the ages.
When Oklahoma won the fourth frame during KU’s Senior Day on Nov. 29, it meant Kansas would have to face a dreaded fifth set as the Jayhawks entered the regular season finale 0-5 in five-set matches. As Oklahoma raced out to an 8-5 lead before the teams switched sides, KU’s fifth-set epidemic loomed. Sara McClinton and Chelsea Albers said no.
Together, the class of 2014 was responsible for six of the points that Kansas needed to finish the fifth set on a 10-3 run. Not only did that leave the duo with the most wins (88-37) of any senior class in Bechard’s 17 years at the helm, it also landed Kansas in a tie for a second-place finish in the Big 12 Conference.
KU’s strength of schedule combined with its No. 11 RPI ranking and an impressive 7-3 record in its last 10 matches of the year led the NCAA to awarding the Jayhawks a No. 16 overall seed and rights to host the First and Second Rounds of the tournament for the third-straight season. The difference in 2014 was the venue. With Allen Fieldhouse already locked down for the Kansas men’s basketball team to play host to Florida on Dec. 5, the NCAA Volleyball Selection Committee awarded the Jayhawks the ability to host Arkansas-Little Rock at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka.
On a neutral floor rather than the home court advantage in which they’d grown accustomed, the Jayhawks were led by Payne’s best match of her collegiate career. She put down a career-high 15 kills and another career-best eight blocks. Kansas had multiple standouts on the final box score, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to overcome the most blocks by a Jayhawk opponent in more than two years. While the Senior Day match against Oklahoma had finally removed the winless tag in five-set matches, the Trojans won in five to end KU’s season and extend their win streak to an NCAA-best 25 matches.
HEAD COACH RAY BECHARD
On reflecting on the season as a whole and if he thinks Kansas volleyball has made the shift from successful to significant:
“Last year’s team, the expectation was ‘We’ve got all of these people back, things should be better and we should make more progress.’ This year’s team had so many unknowns with only half of the team returning. For our team to not take a step back, get a second-place finish in the Big 12, advance to our third-straight NCAA Tournament and to be considered a host school with half of your roster not returning – in a lot of ways this was a very successful season. Sometimes coaches get a little tunnel vision and put too much emphasis on the last match and what we could’ve done a little bit different. We felt like if we had played better, then we could have advanced, but I don’t think we should neglect everything that happened prior to that match. If you look at it in the big picture, it was a pretty successful season.”
On if having success with a roster comprised of 50 percent freshmen surprised him:
“I think they surprised themselves at times. I was so pleased with how Kayla Cheadle started off the year, she was vital in us getting off to a good start. I was obviously pleased with Kelsie Payne’s improvement throughout the year and you can even add in Janae Hall holding us together for the four matches that Payne was out. All Tayler Soucie did was make all-conference and lead the Big 12 in blocking. Chelsea Albers, Sara McClinton and Tiana Dockery, for the most part, were pretty consistent, Madison Rigdon, at times, was our best player on the floor. Then Ainise Havili set the all-time freshman record in assists. Cassie Wait elevated and continued our superb play at the libero position and then there were three little freshmen that could come in and help us out at any time. Maggie Anderson was the energy bus that she always is. It was unique in that we had people play roles in which they didn’t foresee, but that speaks well for how we could look forward to some opportunities for them in the future.”
On the challenges associated with teaching a young team new systems:
“Going in, we thought about how our communication and our competitive chemistry would be. How would we react to each other was something we paid attention to. We tried to tailor some things early in the year to create opportunities in that way. You don’t know these things until you’re in it. Kelsie Payne took some big swings as a freshman and in late game situations. Ainise Havili set every ball for us in almost every match, and there were others that came through in big times. Madison Rigdon led us in kills against Penn State. So we thought there would be some transition there, but the skill level/technical level, from a volleyball IQ level, was higher than what we thought it would be. They know how to play volleyball, now we just have to integrate people into the system we want to run and we were able to do that pretty successfully.”
On his best moments of the season:
“It was important to bounce back and beat Creighton after losing a tough match to Lipscomb. It was important to have success against good teams at the Villanova Invitational and then we played really good volleyball – even when we were 0-3 to start Big 12. At times we played our best volleyball at OU; we take a set here against Texas; we were up 2-1 against K-State. It would have been very easy to say we’re 0-3 and then there were times when we were really good. We beat Baylor and West Virginia on the road and road wins in this conference are hard to come by. I think that created the momentum we needed and we backed that up with another road win and were 3-3 real quick. We went back-and-forth and couldn’t decide if we wanted to go above .500 or not. We had some tough five-set losses that we responded to. Our record in five-set matches was not good, but it got better each time we played one, for the most part. That culminated with an opportunity at home to finish second in the league against a good team (Oklahoma). What do you know? It goes five and we find ourselves with a little gap, but we came back and finished out that match. One of the highlights would have to be, beyond that, going right into K-State’s home court when they’re ranked and there’s a great deal to play for – and we go in and dominate that match. It was an important part of who we are. I think that solidified who we are and some of the things we were trying to drive home and gain some confidence there, too.”
On winning his 1,000th career victory:
“That’s a lot. Once again, it’s a little tilted in that we played so many matches for so many years at Barton, but you still have to win and we won a lot more than we lost. Just to see it happen over the past few years when there’s been a little sort of a renaissance in the program, it’s been good. So I guess if we don’t win 26 and 25 (in the last two years), we wouldn’t be in that position. If you would have told me four or five years ago I would be in a position to win my 1,000th-career match in 2014 I would have said, ‘Wow. We must be doing well.’ Hopefully the 1,000th win was more about the momentum, and hopefully the credibility, we’ve gained over the last three years.”
On if his team has become one of reloading instead of rebuilding, even with the losses of seniors Chelsea Albers and Sara McClinton:
“They were one and two in kills and it’s a significant loss. We also have people coming back like Madison Rigdon, and we have newcomers in Ashley Smith and Patricia Montero. Then, if we move Kelsie Payne to the right side that means Janae Hall and Kayla Cheadle will be back in the middle, so there’s going to be key returners. Those returners are going to have to create more opportunities for themselves. It’s full speed ahead right now for us. We’ve been third, we’ve been second and second again in the Big 12 Conference. There’s a gap right now between first and second and we understand that. We have to figure out, not only how to maintain our position, but to close that gap.
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