Kansas Meets Media Amidst Final Practices, Exams Before Final Four Departure
LAWRENCE, Kan. – Janae Hall smiled and answered questions gracefully with her teammates Tuesday afternoon inside Horejsi Family Athletics Center, pushing aside thoughts of the two final projects she had to finish after weights, after practice, and after dinner, but before the volleyball team departs for its first NCAA Final Four early Wednesday morning. What’s another hurdle for a team that’s already achieved unprecedented accomplishments in starting a program-best 19-0, advancing to its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament, moving into the Sweet 16 for the third time in the last four years and knocking off the No. 1 overall seed in the Elite Eight?
Hall and the Jayhawks were available to a throng of local media on the same court they were welcomed home to by hundreds of proud fans Sunday evening, the latest in a whirlwind of activity for a team that shocked the volleyball world by winning the first two sets against top-seeded USC Saturday, then rattled off six-straight points in the fifth set when most had thought the magical run had stalled.
It’s been a dream for the Jayhawks, especially senior Anna Church, who joined the team as a graduate transfer from Saint Louis University and grew up watching the Final Four.
“Growing up, watching volleyball and watching my big sister play, I’ve seen a lot of college volleyball and I’ve always wanted to be in the Final Four or National Championship,” Church said. “When it was in Kansas City I got to go see it live and it was awesome. It’s always been a big dream, but never really one that I imagined myself being in. It’s unreal, it’s a dream come true and a year ago I would not have even guessed that this would’ve happened.”
At 30-2 on the season, with their only two losses against fellow Final Four participant and Big 12 Champion Texas, the Jayhawks have won with relative ease during the 2015 season while going to the fifth set in just one match prior to Saturday’s showdown with USC in San Diego. Kansas showed it belongs among the nation’s best by knocking of the perennial contender, and the toughness the Jayhawks showed was a common topic Tuesday.
“We are really tough,” Kelsie Payne, a member of the San Diego Regional All-Tournament Team, said. “We work on (being down and needing to rally) a lot in practice. The coaches put us in a drill where it’s A-side against B-side, and A-side is down by two and we have to fight back. At that moment (against USC), Cassie (Wait) was back to serve and she’s one of our best servers, we all had a lot of confidence in her.”
Wait, who held service and helped keep the final rally alive while digging barbs from one of the top hitters in the country, added her own take.
“It’s a grit,” Wait said of what sets her squad apart. “There’s a different mentality that’s been developed since we went to Europe and got really close. That competitive chemistry carries over into your play on the court. You decide you’re not going to let the ball hit the ground, no matter what. It doesn’t have to be the prettiest play, we don’t have to jump the highest, be the most athletic or be the most talented if you’re willing to have that grit and hit the ground and decide that the ball isn’t going to hit the floor on your side. That makes the difference in a lot of matches.”
Kansas head coach Ray Bechard again joked with the media about the game being on a neutral court in Omaha, noting that each team gets its allotment of 200 tickets for families, donors and fans, but alluding to a large Nebraska contingent with the Cornhuskers playing nearly 60 miles to the east on I-80 from their home court. That was another hot topic during Tuesday’s session, and the Jayhawks appeared unfazed.
“It’s going to be a huge, crazy environment,” Church said. “We’ve always dreamed of playing in front of thousands of people and being under those lights. That will be amazing. We’ll focus on our side of the court and what we need to do – that’s what we’ve done every road game and that’s how it’s going to feel a little bit, just because there will be so many Nebraska fans there. It will be really fun to play for everybody.”
Payne echoed the sentiment of Kansas taking care of its own approach and not worrying about the number of supporters.
“I don’t think you can, I don’t think there’s any way to prepare yourselves for that,” Payne said, “but we’re going to focus on our side of the net and really get in tune with one another and control what we can control.”
Kansas will match-up with former Big 12 foe Nebraska as all four teams in action hail from the Central Time Zone, with two Big 12 schools – Texas and Kansas – and two Big Ten schools – the Huskers and Minnesota. While Bechard thinks there are similarities between this week’s opponent and former great Husker teams, and all who spoke Tuesday had a great appreciation for the history and tradition of Nebraska, most were quick to note that outside of the coaching staff, none of these players have ever matched up with Big Red. Despite history between the two programs, it will be a new experience for most involved.
“They are very similar,” Bechard said. “I think, defensively, they are better behind the block than they have been before. They are a very physical blocking team. But I see a great libero, a setter that’s turned into an elite setter and great offensive balance. They’re a physical team and they play to a high level in a great conference. It’s a team that’s playing as well as anyone in the country right now.”
Kansas will arrive in Omaha Wednesday and run through the media gamut again before getting in a practice and attending a championship banquet. It will surely be a memorable experience, but what matters most is trying to go 2-0 for yet another week.
“We’re far from being content with where we’re at,” Wait said. “We’re so ready to play Nebraska and couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity.”
First serve against Nebraska in the NCAA Championship Semifinals is set for 8:30 p.m., in Omaha’s CenturyLink Center. The match will follow Texas and Minnesota at 6 p.m., and will be televised nationally on ESPN2 or can be heard live at KUAthletics.com/Radio.
More comments from Tuesday’s media session are available below:
Kansas head coach Ray Bechard
On preparations for the team this week:
“On the plane back to Kansas City from San Diego, I said, ‘Let’s begin to focus on managing this week the best we can.’ We’re in Finals Week, so I told the kids to be selfish with their time, with their social media exchanges with everybody and let’s worry about myself in the best situation to succeed, have a great week, in the classroom as well as for our training preparation for what lies ahead.”
On the Final Four bracket:
“We’re really excited for Texas. Their staff sent a video of their celebration when we won the match point against USC, so we’re all about the Big 12 right now and hoping we can play one more time. Then our enthusiasm for, our allegiance for, their success would end pretty abruptly. It’s two Big Ten, two Big 12 schools that have had great years. Nebraska is probably playing as well as anyone in the country right now, so we have a great opportunity to play against a team that we know will be a great challenge.”
On the Final Four not consisting of any Pac-12 schools:
“(It is) Four teams from the Central time zone, which is exciting. I think that speaks to parody across the entire country. I’m sure it’s been a long time since there hasn’t been a Pac-12 team in this event. But we are thrilled to be a part of it. We’re thrilled that the Midwest is holding up their end of the deal as far as teams represented. And we’re excited it’s at a neutral site. For the Jayhawk fans, we got 200 tickets just like every other school did and I’m sure it’ll be a nice, neutral site, other than those 16,000 other tickets that were picked up, probably, by the Husker fans. It’s the type of environment we need for this event, for our sport. I’m sure it will captivate a lot of people and I’m sure our team will be excited to be a part of it.”
On if the facility and situation fits the team well:
“We play well when there’s more stimulus in the gym. It seems like our team has responded well to that, but we haven’t necessarily been in that situation (so many Nebraska fans with tickets) before, so it’s hard to say. Our preparation and planning will stay the same and I think that will provide some opportunity for our kids to really be excited and get some adrenaline going.”
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