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My take on why this KU volleyball team has been so much fun to cover
Unless this is your first visit to KUsports.com in the last month, you're surely aware by now that the Kansas University volleyball team has advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history and will take on Washington on Friday in Los Angeles.
It's a great story about a great team and one that cannot be told too many times.
As is the case with any team that gets hot — at any level — we've jumped all-in with this squad and covered them inside and out during the past few months, partly because they're winning and playing at a high level and partly because they're an awesome bunch.
I've been a volleyball fan for a long time. My wife played volleyball in college, Olympic beach volleyball has taken off in recent years and even when I was covering high school sports volleyball was one of my favorites to watch and write about.
As for the Jayhawks, I've been a fan of this team since the middle of the 2012 season, and I figured now was as good a time as any to explain why.
The No. 1 thing I enjoy about Ray Bechard's 16th squad at Kansas is how hard it competes. It never matters who they're playing or how they're feeling, they always bring it. That's the case when they're up two sets to none and are looking to close out the match with a three-set sweep and also the case when they're down two sets to one and need to win the last two sets to win the match.
It's not just a couple of players either. It's all of them. I'm sure some of that comes from the fact that they're as close as a team can possibly be — five key players even live together — and I'm sure some of it is just who they are and how they're coached.
“The chemistry on our team is so awesome,” said senior libero Bri Riley. “It's funny, when we talk to other girls at other schools it's, 'I hate so and so and I hate so and so,' and I love everyone on our team. It's hard to be mad at someone who you love so much and I think that really does carry over onto the court.”
Another thing I enjoy about this year's roster is their personalities. These girls have fun out on the floor and they're always smiling, laughing, joking around and messing with each other however and whenever they can. That demeanor has helped keep them loose when things have been at their most intense and helped them plow through the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament at Allen Fieldhouse last weekend instead of tightening up and letting the moment and opportunity get the best of them.
Beyond their general personalities, this team has all the parts you would want. A jokester or two, a super-focused senior, a bubbly newcomer, an All-American badass and a lot more.
To help illustrate that, I sought the input of a handful of people inside the program for a couple of quick buzzwords about each of the KU regulars. The words they came up with were a perfect representation of what this team is all about and why they've saved their best for last — fun, ferocious and fearing no one.
Here's a quick look at the way some folks inside the program view the girls who will go down in history as some of the most important volleyball players ever to come through Lawrence:
Senior libero Brianne Riley – immature, pretty, tan
Senior setter Erin McNorton – sleepy, "Eeyore," witty
Senior middle blocker Caroline Jarmoc – blunt, engineering phenom
Junior outside hitter Chelsea Albers – ridiculous, inappropriate
Senior outside hitter Catherine Carmichael – animated
Freshman middle blocker Tayler Soucie – gullible, delicate
Sophomore outside hitter Tiana Dockery – social, therapist, popular
Junior outside hitter Sara McClinton – squeaky, baby giraffe
Senior defensive specialist Jaime Mathieu – miniature ginger
Freshman defensive specialist Cassie Wait – buff, apologetic
As you can see, most of those responses came off the cuff and were shared with an eye toward this team's comedic nature. But as the pressure of following up last season — which, until now, had been the best season in KU volleyball history, statistically speaking — landed on their shoulders from Day 1 of the 2013 season, this team's ability to stay loose and laugh helped allow them to dig in when it mattered most and lighten up when needed.
“Over the summer, we were all thinking, 'Can we do it twice,'” Riley admitted. “Can we figure it out and put all the work in and execute to do it a second time?'”
The answer to that question has been a resounding yes, as the Jayhawks are playing deep into the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever and competing with a keen and hard-to-corral mindset that is equal parts relaxed and driven.
“I think we're really good at focusing on the now,” McNorton said. “Coach B always says the next game is the most important game of the year.”
Never has that been more true than today.