Rock Chalk: Towering Power
Written by Michael Houseman, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Kelsie Payne is easy to spot. Not just for being named to the All-Big 12 Freshman Team, or for her phenomenal playmaking ability – but for her height. The 6-foot-3 right-side hitter is the tallest woman on the Kansas’ volleyball team.
And almost everywhere else.
Being tall while growing up is not the easiest thing. The “tall girl” label all the time got really old, really fast. No one understood what it was like, always relegated to the back row for photos, always struggling to find pants. Not to mention trying to date when you’re taller than every guy, causing instant intimidation. Yet, as her height increased, so did her maturity level. The Preseason All-Big 12 honoree has officially broken free from the “tall girl” syndrome.
Her father, David Payne, played basketball in junior college before taking a break from the game to enlist in the Army, careful to not lose eligibility. While stationed in Fort McClelland, Alabama, David picked up the chance to play ball for the first time in a long time after some smack talk ensued between company mates. What resulted was the 6-8 hoops star landing himself a spot on the All-Army squad when he received guaranteed orders to relocate to Fort Hood, Texas.
Playing on the All-Army Team, David represented his country by playing other countries, including Olympic and Olympic-hopeful teams, and won various military championships along the way. Needless to say, he and his 5-10 wife, Kandi, have brought three athletic children into the world. Payne, her older brother David, who played soccer for Mary-Hardin Baylor (Texas) and her little brother, Drew. According to Payne, all three of them are ballers, but being an athlete was never forced on them.
“I tried every single sport you could think of and they let me do whatever I wanted to do,” Payne said. “They introduced me to sports, but if I decided to play the piano they would have supported me. Whatever me and my brothers wanted to do, they were cool with it.”
All the support in the world was fantastic, but with that kind of height and that kind of athleticism running through her veins, Payne was destined to play sports. Naturally, with her dad excelling at basketball, there was a slight favoritism toward hoops, but first, she had to be sure she could play anything at all.
“She was always a little taller than everyone else,” her father recalled. “But she was like me, she grew and kept getting kind of clumsy, so she really didn’t think she was going to play anything.”
Though she was in a awkward stage, and still growing, her dad reminded her that growth spurts are normal and instead to focus on letting her mind catch up to her body.
“Kelsie probably could have played a couple sports, but I think she would have been a natural (at basketball), she can shoot pretty well. But with her friends all playing volleyball, you usually do what your friends are doing,” her father explained.
By the time her sophomore year came around, Payne was starting on varsity and putting up big numbers. According to the elder Payne, she finally started growing into her body around ninth or 10th grade. As she figured herself out, scouts started catching on, as well. The following year, she was named District MVP and racked up nearly every school record at John B. Connally High School, including most blocks in a match (10), most blocks in a season (136), most career blocks (277) and best single-season hitting percentage (.361)
Kansas head coach Ray Bechard knew it right away. Even on the day she signed, prior to any of her achievements as a Jayhawk, he knew Payne was special.
“We needed help in the middle blocker position,” Bechard said on Signing Day. “Kelsie Payne gives us a level of athleticism there that is Big 12 ready.”
Even though she was from out-of-state, Payne found the transition to college to be smooth. Playing a sport meant coming in and with an immediate team of friends, which was helpful. The change over to college sports, however, took some time.
“I started off not playing in preseason,” Payne said of her freshman season. “I sat the bench and watched. That kind of messed with my head. ‘What am I doing wrong? What do I need to do in practice?'”
Coming from high school and being the “Big One,” she knew she had something to prove. By the time conference play started she was armed and ready to make an impact on the court for the Jayhawks.
“I kept working and I earned my spot,” Payne said. “From then on I knew I had what it takes and I had to keep pushing myself. Through doing that I can do great things.”
That is exactly what she did.
Payne started the last half of the 2014 season and when she ranked fifth on the team in kills and top-10 in the league in attack percentage and blocks per set, the Big 12 coaches took notice. At year’s end, Payne was named to the Big 12 All-Freshman Team, but fame hasn’t gotten to her yet.
“My head is still the same size,” said Payne.
If the close of her rookie year wasn’t enough of a high, Payne and her Kansas volleyball teammates were able to experience a training trip like no other. In May of 2015 a two-week European tour took them through France, Italy and Spain. That allowed the team to play against high-level competition, while also being immersed in new cultures.
“It was really fun. It blows my mind that we got to do that for free. Being able to hang out with all my friends, it was pretty awesome,” Payne explained and then went on to recall a particularly great memory. “We were on the bus and everyone got off to use the bathroom. So, I hid up in the luggage racks where you put your bags. I jumped down and scared them when they got on the bus. I barely fit, but I squeezed myself up there.”
Practical jokes and having fun are the norm for the team, but Payne and the “squad” take it to a whole other level. Comprised of fellow sophomores Ainise Havili and Kayla Cheadle, the squad is always up to something.
“I am for sure the funniest, obviously. You can ask them, and they will say it is them, but it is me,” she laughed. “We usually like to gang up on the other sophomores, mostly my roommate Madison (Rigdon), Addie (Barry), Claire (Carpenter) and Tori (Miller).”
Even though sometimes she will be the butt of the jokes, the squad is always “gassing” on their teammates. Between all the jokes though there is strong bond throughout the team and Payne sees the importance in that.
“If I ever need someone to talk to and be with, I can call one of my teammates up and I know they will help me with whatever I need,” she said.
To cap a year of transitioning to college, forming unbreakable bonds with teammates, a phenomenal freshman season and an once-in-a-lifetime trip, Payne took another step forward when she was named to the U.S. Collegiate National Team (CNT) along with fellow Jayhawks Havili and Tiana Dockery. The CNT program consisted of 35 athletes, split in to three different teams training in New Orleans. The three teams played a round-robin tournament during USA Volleyball Girls’ Junior National Championships, which helps connect the collegiate players of today to the future athletes dreaming to play collegiately. Experiencing so much in one year Payne made sure to also enjoy it.
“It was really fun and I am glad I got to do that,” Payne said. “I played with a lot of high-level athletes and made a lot of friends, too. Being down in New Orleans made it an even greater time.”
As her second year on campus begins, Payne will have to face some changes. With the graduation of outside hitters Chelsea Albers and Sara McClinton and an injury to freshman Patricia Montero, Payne moved to the right side to help fill the void. She had exclusively played middle blocker all throughout club and high school.
“I am very up for the challenge. I like it, it keeps it interesting because sometimes practice can get boring,” Payne joked. “But now that I have switched spots and am seeing the game through a different angle, I have to think more and better my craft. I can play back row now; I pass more and I serve more. I like right side a lot. My passing game is a steady progress, it’s getting there. Being 6-foot-3 makes it a little more difficult, but I get down with the best of them.”
“She’s going to have a great, great year,” Bechard said. “I really think she will. We lost the right side and the left side, so to soften that a little bit we moved Payne. Of course that affects the middle blocker group, but the outside position I feel good about.”
Like Bechard, opposing coaches Big 12 coaches don’t see the position change slowing her down one bit either, already naming her to the 2015 All-Big 12 Preseason Team. Payne is reaping the fruits of her labor. In the infancy of this season, she has transitioned well to the position change. In a three-game span during the Arkansas Invitational, Payne racked up 41 kills, an attack percentage of .438 and All-Tournament Team honors.
The “tall girl” phase that Payne once struggled with is now what defines her and is something that molded her into the powerful right-side hitter for Kansas.
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