Kansas University volleyball's five seniors hope to accomplish something unprecedented this year.
"Our senior class wants to be a senior class that's been to four NCAA Tournaments," coach Ray Bechard said. "Prior to them coming here, Kansas volleyball had never been to one, and now they've never known anything but NCAA Tournaments."
That goal took a hit when middle blocker Natalie Uhart, the Big 12 Conference preseason newcomer of the year, landed awkwardly during Saturday's alumni scrimmage and tore her anterior cruciate ligament. Although Bechard said she should make a full recovery, Uhart will undergo season-ending surgery in a couple of weeks.
"We are sad to say we've already lost one of our quality people," Bechard said. "It's extremely disappointing for Natalie."
KU has a talented, but young, group ready to replace Uhart. Sophomore Savannah Noyes, junior Caitlin Mahoney and freshmen Paige Mazour and Brittany Williams will compete for Uhart's vacated position with Williams the leading candidate to earn the starting nod.
"It's a deep position," Bechard said. "At this point Brittany Williams seems to have that opportunity."
Despite losing Uhart and seniors Josi Lima, Paula Caten and Andi Rozum, Kansas should have greater depth this season. Last year's 15-15 squad was down to nine players by season's end; this year's team fields 15 active players - featuring seven newcomers and eight returners.
"Our goal this year was to be a little bit deeper at all positions," Bechard said.
Senior outside hitter Jana Correa will add to that depth. After tearing her ACL on Oct. 5 of last year's season, doctors cleared her for volleyball action at the end of May. Correa, who advised Uhart to stay upbeat, cited staying healthy as her personal goal this year.
"I hope it can stay that way," said Correa, who will wear a knee brace during the season. "Just to have the chance to play one more season, I'm really happy."
Although the five seniors will add leadership, opponents likely will focus on Emily Brown. A preseason All-Big 12 player, Brown averaged 2.99 kills and 2.2 digs last year. After not spending much time setting at Baldwin High School, the junior right sight-side hitter spent the offseason improving those skills through offseason drills with the coaching staff and setters Linsey Morningstar and Katie Martincich.
"We worked hard in the spring and summer, getting some touches and working on that part of my game," Brown said.
With Brown and the red-shirt freshman Martincich assuming much of the setting duties, senior Megan Hill and freshman Isadora Rangel will occupy outside hitter roles. Bechard praised the depth of the libero/defensive specialists, including seniors Jamie Mathewson and Dani Wittman, sophomore Liz Ingram and freshman Melissa Grieb.
Ray Bechard's 2006 media day press conference
As the Jayhawks aim for their fourth straight NCAA appearance, they will have to navigate a rigorous schedule. Their opponents include pre-conference matches against Miami (Fla.), Alabama, BYU and Arkansas. Brown said going against such difficult pre-conference opponents would impress the NCAA selection committee and pay off later in the season.
"A stronger preseason schedule really helps out," Brown said. "It gets us ready for Big-12."
Kansas may need that extra preparation. Nebraska is ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll while Texas is ranked No. 8. Kansas likely will compete will the rest of the Big 12 for the spots below those two powerhouses.
"After that, there's a group of five or six teams that are going to be fighting for that upper-tier finish," Bechard said. "We're one of those teams that can make that happen."
Kansas will begin its season Friday against Alabama A&M in the Crimson Tide/Academy Sports Invitational in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Brown cannot wait.
"It will be a good tournament all-around," Brown said. "Oh my gosh I'm so excited."