The Kansas University volleyball team finished last season with a 10-19 overall record and a 3-17 last-place finish in the Big 12. In addition, Kansas failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002. But coach Ray Bechard said last season was a valuable learning experience.
"Last year ground us a little bit in the way that we really got to roll up our sleeves and get back to work and understand how hard it was when we were making the NCAA Tournament three years in a row and how difficult that process is," Bechard said.
KU will face some tough competition this year as 15 NCAA Tournament teams are on the Jayhawks' schedule. Nonconference foes include Oregon, Missouri State and Michigan State.
"We felt like maybe we needed to up the pre-conference schedule just a little bit," Bechard said. "We feel like we're more experienced and have a group that can handle it."
KU will open conference play at home Sept. 12 against Kansas State and will square off against Nebraska, last year's NCAA champion, two weeks later. Bechard said that behind Nebraska and Texas the league is wide open.
"I think three through 11, we'd like to think we fit into that mix somewhere," Bechard said. "Not that we're conceding the top two spots, but just from a standpoint of what people have returning, what they have coming in, the league is gonna be great."
Young but experienced
Returning players include senior opposite hitter Emily Brown, sophomore middle blocker Brittany Williams and junior middle blocker Savannah Noyes.
Brown, a native of Baldwin City and a preseason all-conference pick last year, finished her junior season with 336 kills, 265 digs and 10 blocks.
"I think she'll be pretty urgent, this being her last go-round," Bechard said. "I'm sure she wants to have a great season for her team, but also individually a season she can be very proud of and look back on and think highly of the year that she had."
The 6-foot-1 Williams started 27 matches and had 218 kills and 13 blocks in her first season as a Jayhawk. But for Williams, consistency was a problem.
"She was hot and cold, but when she was good she was really good," Bechard said. "And we're hoping we can get those stretches a little closer together."
The 6-foot-3 Noyes started all 29 matches and tallied 331 kills and 18 blocks in her sophomore season. But Bechard said he might utilize her on the outside more this year.
"Savannah seemed comfortable there," Bechard said. "And that'll allow us to get Natalie (Uhart) and Brittany (Williams) on the floor with her at the same time."
Uhart, a 6-foot-2 middle blocker, transferred to KU last season and was named preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. But her season ended during KU's alumni game when she tore her anterior cruciate ligament.
"She won't fully be recovered until she gets an opportunity to play in a game-like situation," Bechard said. "Mentally she can recover, and physically I think she's getting very close."
Bechard has four recruits who will try to make an impact on this year's team in Melissa Manda, Melissa Townsend, Karina Garlington and Jenna Kaiser.
Manda, of Independent High in Wichita, and Townsend, of Shawnee Heights in Tecumseh, are expected to compete with sophomore Melissa Grieb at the libero position.
Garlington is a product of Grandview High in Aurora, Colo., and Kaiser, a product of Kapaun Mount Carmel in Wichita, was a 5A first-team all-state selection. The two will compete for playing time at outside hitter.
"They're both talented," Bechard said. "Certainly there'll be a transition from where they are to the Big 12, but we think they are capable of handling that.
Going for four
KU has made the NCAA Tournament three times in its history (2003-05). And Bechard said this year's squad has the talent and determination to make it a fourth.
"I do think they are bound and determined to play at a higher level and to represent Kansas volleyball in a more efficient way."