Since Dec. 1, Kansas University's volleyball team has felt a sting that's not going away.
"It drives us every day," senior Abbie Jacobson said.
It was on that day that ESPN unveiled the 64-team field for the 2002 NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks, watching the announcement together in the athletic director's suite at Memorial Stadium, waited with high hopes as brackets slowly were shown on the big screen television.
The laughter turned to silence; the silence turned to tears. The Jayhawks were not selected, turning a festive atmosphere into a funeral-like one almost instantly.
The sadness is gone now, replaced by determination to not let 2003 have the same disappointing conclusion.
"The thing we were excited about then was that we were able to see the show and have a chance," said KU coach Ray Bechard, preparing for his sixth season. "Now, we have to go a step beyond that. That's going to mean a very successful pre-conference and conference schedule."
In past seasons, Bechard prematurely could check off the non-conference goal. Not this year.
Bechard decided to cash in non-conference rollovers -- the Jayhawks were a combined 18-1 in non-conference matches the last two years -- for a brutal lineup of opponents designed to strengthen their schedule. Among them are Arkansas, North Carolina, Minnesota and Western Kentucky, four teams that were a combined 124-21 last season.
Add to that an equally potent Big 12 Conference schedule -- which includes five teams that did qualify for the big dance -- and no one dares to doubt Bechard when he calls this schedule the most ambitious KU has ever played.
The Jayhawks open Aug 29. at the Northern Illinois Tournament.
"Our pre-conference season is tough," Jacobson said. "But it should help, because jumping into the Big 12, teams are at that level anyway."
Fortunately for KU, most of its big guns are back from a successful 19-10 campaign a year ago. Among them are sophomores Josiane Lima, a Brazilian native named All-Big 12 in her first collegiate season, and Andi Rozum, a setter whose 12.03 assists per game last season ranked her fourth on KU's all-time single season list, behind three different seasons by Molly LaMere, Rozum's predecessor.
"Andi really held things together for a freshman setter in the conference," Bechard said. "To be able to do that takes a special type of mindset."
Rozum will have a few new options this season, including another native of Brazil, Janaina Correa, who began practicing with the team at the beginning of the year. Her position is outside hitter, different than Lima's middle-blocker role, but Bechard sees similarities that derive from their South American roots.
"She joined us this spring and gained some really valuable experience," Bechard said. "She brings that same type of enthusiasm that Josi does."
Also returning is junior Ashley Michaels, another All-Big 12 selection in 2002, and Sarah Rome, a senior who registered 282 kills last season.
Coming so close to their goal a year ago, the Jayhawks are quick to point the finger at what they want this year -- to eliminate any doubt when ESPN unveils the 64-team field after the regular season, which wraps up Nov. 29 at home against Texas Tech.
"Every year, we've gotten closer and closer," Jacobson said. "I definitely don't want to graduate without going to the big dance."