Tourney Champs: Kansas Hands Denver First Loss to Win Pioneer Classic
DENVER, Colo. – Squaring off against the undefeated host team in the championship match of the Pioneer Classic, Kansas battled against multiple Denver comeback attempts to hand the Pioneers their first loss of the season in four sets Saturday night inside Hamilton Gymnasium, 25-15, 26-24, 24-26, 25-22.
Neither Kansas (5-1) nor Denver (5-1) had lost a set entering the tournament finale. In fact, the Pioneers were undefeated before hosting the Jayhawks in their first true road match of the season. A perfect storm for a team that is comprised of half freshmen.
Nevertheless, KU fought off a battling home team with four players in double-digit kills, including Tournament MVP senior Chelsea Albers.
“We had five kids with nine kills or more, four in double-digits and that’s the kind of balance we need to win a match like this,” head coach Ray Bechard said. “I told them after the match that I was most happy with their body posture and how they kept themselves positive throughout the match and continued to battle back to give us an opportunity to win.”
Albers chalked up her ninth career double-double with 13 kills and 10 digs en route to her first Tournament MVP honor. Equally deserving, freshman setter Ainise Havili was named to the All-Tournament Team for the second time in as many weeks. She, too, cranked out a double-double with career-highs in assists (55) and digs (15). She dished out an impressive 12.90 assists per set for the weekend, while Albers paced KU with 3.60 kill average for the tournament.
The senior-freshman combo made up only a portion of the Jayhawk highlights from the evening. Playing in their first true road environment, freshmen Madison Rigdon and Kayla Cheadle combined for 30 kills and seven blocks. Playing older than their class, Rigdon led all players with 16 kills and four blocks, while Cheadle recorded 14 kills on a team-best .550 attack percentage. Sophomore middle blocker Janae Hall rounded out the leaderboard with a career-high 12 kills.
Backing them up was sophomore libero Cassie Wait, who tied her career-best with 27 digs. Alongside her freshman defensive specialist Tori Miller surpassed her career-best mark for the second-straight match, chalking up 10 digs.
Havili needed mere seconds to tally the first kill of the match, taking a pass from junior outside hitter Tiana Dockery and slinging it over the net to set an early tone. Albers’ first ace of the year caught Denver down, 7-3, and forced the home team to use its first timeout in a hurry. KU kept coming with kills from senior outside hitter Sara McClinton and Hall, but the Pioneers provided additional help as back-to-back errors shoved the Jayhawks forward, 15-8. Rigdon quickly swung into action with a series of consecutive kills and a block to double up Denver. With Albers, Cheadle, McClinton and Havili teaming up for 10 kills and no errors, the Jayhawks sailed to a 25-15 win – thus marking the first and last blowout of the night.
Denver immediately reacted, which the Jayhawks expected from the undefeated Pioneers. With the score knotted at 6-6, the Jayhawks took off on the heels of Cheadle’s first career ace. A 4-0 run put the Jayhawks in front, but the feeling was soon erased when Denver answered with the same scoring rally. Now in a back-and forth battle, the teams matched each other point for point. Errors crept in on both sides, but both neither team let it impact their focus. Diving digs kept a long rally going late in the set, but ended with Hall’s shot to the center of the floor to put KU in front, 19-17.
The Pioneers fought right back to tie the set at 20-20, but Albers swung for two-straight kills for the 22-20 lead, giving Denver no choice but to use a timeout. It worked. The home squad immediately came back to tie it, forcing Bechard’s hand on a timeout on his side. KU came out of the break to score the next point, but crucial blocks on the opposing side tied it at 23-23 and again at 24-24. Feeling the pressure of an undefeated home team unwilling to go down 0-2, Kansas reeled against it. Wait covered the entire floor in a frenzied effort to keep the ball off the ground, giving Cheadle and Rigdon the chance to throw the one-two punch to end the set, 26-24.
Denver channeled the same fight to open set three. The Pioneers rattled off a 6-1 rally to start the frame, prompting an immediate timeout from the Kansas bench. The deficit sank to 8-1 before the Jayhawks answered with kills from McClinton and Rigdon. That was only the start, however, as Denver kept charging. Four-straight points from the Pioneers caused Kansas to use its last timeout before the midway point of the set.
With sophomore Maggie Anderson at the serving line and four freshmen on the floor, Kansas fired back with four scores in a row. Rigdon and Cheadle played a major role in slicing the lead down to five, 16-11. Not close enough, KU kept chipping. Hall landed a kill and then joined Rigdon on a much-needed block. Firing away, Rigdon blasted two kills to bring the Jayhawks within a single point, 20-19.
What followed was an all-out brawl. Cheadle hammered kill after kill to tie the set, 22-22. Rigdon and Hall’s swings tie the score again at 23-23 and 24-24, but KU’s resolve gave out. Denver took set three, 26-24.
With the window of opportunity now open, Denver clawed like crazy to break through it. KU scored the first two points of the fourth set, and that’s where the margin of difference would stay for the remainder of the set. Rigdon kept pace, adding to her team-leading kill mark to tie the set at 14-14. Neither team surrendered an inch on either side. In the meantime, the Kansas seniors moved the pressure to themselves. Trailing 22-21, Albers came through with a big swing to tie it. Stepping up in the most key moment, freshman Tori Miller aced a serve. The Tournament MVP took aim for a kill, bringing the Jayhawks to set point and closed on a block with freshman middle blocker Kelsie Payne to lock down the victory, 25-22.
- Head coach Ray Bechard collected career win No. 994 on Saturday against Denver.
- Senior outside hitter Sara McClinton needs 118 kills to pass Jana Correa (1,131; 2003-06) for 10th on the all-time Kansas career list.
- Sophomore middle blocker Janae Hall collected a career-high 12 kills.
- Freshmen Madison Rigdon and Kayla Cheadle recorded career-highs with 16 and 14 kills, respectively.
Kansas returns home to host its first midweek match of the season. The Jayhawks will welcome the ‘Roos of UMKC to the Horejsi Family Athletics Center on Tuesday, Sept. 9. First serve is set for 6:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN3.com.
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