Kansas Volleyball Unveils Potent 2014 Schedule
|2014 Kansas Volleyball Home Schedule|
|Aug. 29||Utah Valley|
|Sept. 19||North Texas|
|Sept. 19||Cleveland State|
|Oct. 1||Kansas State*|
|Oct. 25||Texas Tech*|
|Nov. 19||Iowa State*|
|Nov. 26||West Virginia*|
|*Denotes Big 12 Conference match.
Times and TV Broadcasts TBA.
LAWRENCE, Kan. – Eight NCAA Tournament teams, five of which finished on the final AVCA coaches’ poll, and the last two years’ worth of National Champions highlight another demanding fall campaign for the Kansas volleyball team, announced by head coach Ray Bechard on Friday.
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Kansas will officially hit the court on August 29 to open the 2014 season after back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances and its first trip to the NCAA Sweet 16. The Jayhawks closed 2013 with a 25-8 overall record, marking its second-straight season of 25+ wins. Ranked No. 17 in the final poll, KU also chalked up a 12-4 mark in Big 12 play, good for a second-place finish – the highest in program history.
Now two-time defending Big 12 Coach of the Year, Bechard in each of the last two seasons, is well-versed in what it takes to find success against an elite list of opponents. The Jayhawks finished the season 12th on the NCAA’s final RPI rankings, and have not been out of the top-20 since 2011. Yet the schedule rises to even greater heights in 2014 as Kansas will face eight teams that advanced to NCAA Tournament play a year ago, including three conference champions and the 2012 and 2013 National Champions in Texas and Penn State.
“We’re at a stage now that we’re not going to duck anybody when we play,” Bechard said. “We’ve got to use some common sense in our scheduling, but at the same time, I think we’ve got to prepare our team to become what we want to be – a team that can advance in the NCAA Tournament and have success in the Big 12 Conference. I don’t think you can do that unless you really step outside your comfort zone a little bit and play some of these teams that will be a challenge early on.”
This time, however, Bechard and the Jayhawks will undergo a lofty schedule without the use of the memorable senior class of 2013, which included the team’s first All-American in Caroline Jarmoc, the program’s all-time digs leader in Brianne Riley and the Big 12 Setter of the Year in Erin McNorton. Instead, seven freshmen will join the mix with the goal of making an immediate impact.
“We’ll just tell them that’s who we always play and see how they react. Yeah, we play Penn State every year,” Bechard laughed. “But the expectation is that we’re a top-20, top-25 team and we’re going to play a schedule that reflects that. We’re going to train in a manner that reflects that and we’re going to compete in a manner that reflects that. It would not be appropriate for us to dial way back who we’re playing or what the expectation is. It’s going to be full speed ahead for us.”
Last season the Jayhawks took on one of the toughest schedules in recent history. To add to it, nine of the first 10 matches were on the road. Not the case in 2014 as Kansas will open the fall with the Kansas Invitational (Aug. 29-30) in Lawrence for the first time since 2005 and only the second time in the 17-year Bechard era.
“That schedule maker needs to get his stuff together,” Bechard joked. “We’ve always gone on the road to start because maybe that’s a good way to galvanize our team and come together as a group. It definitely is unique that we’re hosting for just the second time in 17 years. Plus, the Kansas Invitational is a really good tournament. Utah Valley and Lipscomb both feel like they can win their conference and Creighton has their whole roster back. They were one match away from a Sweet 16 last year so that will be a great way to start the year.”
Starting with the Utah Valley Wolverines on Aug. 29, all three teams in the Kansas Invitational field come to Lawrence with winning records in 2013. In its inaugural year as members of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), Utah Valley went 18-15. Lipscomb went 22-8 a year ago and brings back the Atlantic Sun Player of the Year in senior middle blocker Jewell Dobson. Creighton ended its 2013 campaign in Lawrence in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last December, when the Jayhawks defeated the Bluejays inside Allen Fieldhouse to advance to the Sweet 16. Creighton went 23-9 and tied for second place in its first season in the BIG EAST.
The Denver University Tournament (Sept. 5-6) marks KU’s first road trip destination. Aside from the host, who went 17-14 and played the Jayhawks to four sets last November, KU will also square off against Sam Houston State and Bradley. The Bearkats posted a 17-11 mark a year ago, while the Braves will be one of only two non-conference opponents with a losing record in 2013 (13-15). After a brief stay at home for a meeting with UMKC (15-14 in 2013) on Sept. 9, KU is back on the road for its most elite tournament of the preseason slate.
KU will travel to Philadelphia to play in the power-packed Villanova Invitational (Sept. 12-13). The field includes Kansas, American, Yale, Villanova and defending national champion Penn State. Three of the four teams in the field won their respective conferences: American (15-1 Patriot League), Yale (13-1 Ivy League) and Penn State (19-1 Big Ten), combining for an astounding 88-10 record in 2013.
“We went out and bit off a big chunk of non-conference competition,” Bechard said. “There are names on this schedule that people might not recognize. Lipscomb is a very good volleyball team, Utah Valley, too. People might not know American, but they were a Sweet 16 team last year. Then, of course, Penn State is the national champ. Yale has won their conference the last four years and Arkansas is a very strong SEC school, so the list goes on and on and on.”
Penn State volleyball is the definition of dynasty, racking up five national championships in the last seven years. Though they lose three-time All-American Deja McClendon, the Nittany Lions bring back senior setter Micha Hancock, a two-time First Team All-American and last season’s NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player. This will mark the first meeting between Kansas and Penn State.
“Penn State has set the standard for the last decade,” Bechard said. “Now we can get a sense of what that level is like. We see that a bunch in our conference in Texas and other teams, but it will be great to play against a team that we all admire as a program as well as a head coach that has been a great mentor to me in Russ Rose. Not to get lost in that weekend are some other big time matches, but obviously Penn State is someone that everyone gets excited to play.”
One more home tournament will separate Kansas from the start of Big 12 play. On Sept. 19-20, KU will host the Jayhawk Classic. North Texas will make the trip to Lawrence as will Cleveland State and SEC-foe, Arkansas. The Vikings fell victim to the Jayhawks in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament inside Allen Fieldhouse. An even more familiar opponent, the Razorbacks will play KU for the fourth time in the last three seasons. Arkansas has also been in Lawrence for the last two NCAA Tournaments, falling to Wichita State in the first round in 2012 and Creighton in the first round in 2013.
For the second-straight season, the Big 12 finished third in conference RPI – for good reason. The 2012 national champion, Texas, led the quartet of league teams selected to the NCAA Tournament last fall. UT was the No. 1 national seed, while Kansas was seeded 14th. Iowa State and Oklahoma also joined the field. When the Jayhawks and Longhorns advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16, that marked the seventh-straight season that multiple Big 12 teams made the regional round. With all but two schools posting winning records a year ago, the conference shows no signs of slowing down in 2014.
KU found its way to success in 2013, chalking up a 12-4 league record for the second-straight year. The conference mark landed the Jayhawks a second-place finish in the conference standings, the best in program history. The Jayhawks closed the conference slate on the road at Oklahoma in 2013, where the Sooners upset the visitors on Senior Day. KU will look to avenge the loss in its very first opportunity when the Jayhawks travel to Norman, Oklahoma to open league play on Sept. 27.
Conference play keeps rolling with Kansas State (Oct. 1) and Texas (Oct. 4) in back-to-back home matches. Both opponents faced a sold-out crowd in the Horejsi Family Athletics Center last year as KU swept the Wildcats for the second-straight season and forced eventual Final Four contender, Texas, to four sets. In the Active Ankle Match of the Week against Texas (Oct. 4), two-time defending Big 12 Player of the Year Haley Eckerman returns to lead the Longhorns. KU’s return trips to each will also be close with Kansas State on Nov. 12 and Texas on Nov. 22.
“Oklahoma will be a preseason top-half team and Texas will be ranked first, second or third in the country in the preseason polls,” Bechard said of KU’s early start in Big 12 play. “K-State will be very much improved. They got off to a great start last year and then an injury threw them into a little bit of a tailspin, but I know they are going to be great. So that’s probably three of the top four teams (in the conference) that we will face right out of the chute. I think our pre-conference will prepare us for that, but we’ll have to be playing at a high level to have success against that group.”
Road trips to Baylor (Oct. 10) and West Virginia (Oct. 15) will be followed by a quick trip home to face a continuously-improved TCU squad in Lawrence on Oct. 18. From there, Kansas will head to Iowa State (Oct. 22) for an anticipated meeting in Ames, Iowa. Last fall, the Jayhawks knocked off the perennial power Cyclones in Iowa for the first time since 2004 to keep their grip on second place in the Big 12.
“What’s unique about our conference is that there was a little bit of a gap between the top half and the bottom half last year. This year that gap is going to close,” Bechard said. “I see Baylor, West Virginia, Texas Tech, TCU all as teams that are going to be dramatically improved. Then I see Iowa State, Kansas, Texas, K-State as teams that are all capable of being in the top 25. Nine teams are going to into Big 12 play all thinking they have a chance to play in the postseason. That’s going to bode well for our conference, but it’s also going to require that this young Jayhawk team be on point each and every time we’re on the court.”
KU closes October and starts November with a stretch of schools from the Lone Star State with Texas Tech at home (Oct. 2), at TCU (Nov. 1), home against Baylor (Nov. 5) and the return trip to Texas Tech (Nov. 8). A meeting in Manhattan will bring the Jayhawks back to Kansas to face their rival Wildcats on Nov. 12, which kicks off another brutal stretch. After tangling with K-State, KU gets Iowa State at home (Nov. 19) and immediately travels to Austin, Texas to square off against 2013 Big 12 Champ and Final Four contender, Texas, on Nov. 22. Dating back to 2008, the Longhorns have not lost a home match in Big 12 play – an incredible span of 49 matches.
For the third time in the last four seasons, Kansas will close the regular season at home. West Virginia comes in for the last midweek action of the year on Nov. 26, while Oklahoma will be the Jayhawks’ final conference opponent for the second-straight season. The Sooners come to HFAC for Senior Day on Saturday, Nov. 29.
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