KU volleyball looks forward to hosting NCAA Tournament matches this week
photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo
For the first time since 2016, and for the first time ever in the current iteration of Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena, the Kansas volleyball team will host matches in the NCAA Tournament.
The Jayhawks may not know it, but they are fulfilling a prophecy that was foretold when head coach Ray Bechard picked a password for one of his computer accounts during the offseason.
“I’d used up all the vernacular, I guess, within volleyball and all this,” Bechard recalled Monday. “And I said, hey, let’s make it ‘let’s host.'”
He said that whenever he entered that password, he was reminded of how he had spent the prior months urging his team to “commit to some little things this spring and this summer to where maybe we don’t have to go play a really good team on the road, we’ll play some really good teams in Horejsi.”
That is precisely what they will now do. The Jayhawks, who earned a No. 15 national ranking last week and then won conference matchups against Cincinnati and UCF to close out the season, received a No. 4 seed Sunday from the NCAA in Wisconsin’s quarter of the national bracket. Instead of traveling to face a Creighton or a Nebraska, they will host Summit League champion Omaha on Thursday at 7 p.m., and then, if they win, play a second-round game at Horejsi Friday at 5:30 p.m. against the winner of Penn State-Yale.
KU has won every home match it has played since dropping a five-set thriller in extra points against Purdue on Aug. 31. The Boilermakers ended up becoming a No. 3 seed in the tournament. Quality teams the Jayhawks have beaten at home since include Marquette, Texas State, Houston (twice) and Baylor — all NCAA Tournament qualifiers.
“There’s been a ton of opportunity for us to play good teams throughout this fall and we think this team’s in a really good place to compete favorably once we get the opportunity to do that this week,” Bechard said Monday.
KU also already has a victory against Omaha, on the road at the Mavericks’ Baxter Arena, on its resume. That was a three-set sweep in which Omaha hit .122, with no player tallying more than eight kills, as the Jayhawks were led by 30 assists and 10 digs from setter Camryn Turner and 14 kills by Reagan Cooper.
“I think Cooper has found this year that (she) can be a dominant player, and I think she knows that we believe that she can,” Bechard said.
KU went on to roll through much of the Big 12 Conference on its way to a 23-5 overall record (14-4 Big 12), starting 3-3 but winning 11 of its next 12 matches, including the final five to bounce back from a disappointing marathon loss at Iowa State.
Turner has staked her claim as the most prolific setter in the league with a league-high 10.71 assists per set, which is also No. 16 nationally. While chipping in defensively with 18 double-doubles, she serves as the engine of a powerful offense with experienced attackers in outside hitters Cooper, a graduate transfer (3.76 kills per set), and Ayah Elnady, a junior (3.57). Fellow junior and opposite London Davis has also played her fair share of big games, none bigger than a 28-kill showing against rival Kansas State on Nov. 3.
Beyond Cooper (Texas Tech), the transfer portal was generally kind to KU, as middles Mykayla Myers (TCU) and Toyosi Onabanjo (Iowa) have been big all year. And while the core of the Jayhawks’ production has been upperclasswomen — all of the above, plus defensive specialist Molly Schultz and the versatile Caroline Bien — freshman libero Raegan Burns, from Lafayette, Indiana, has made an immediate impact and earned two rookie of the week nods.
This will be the Jayhawks’ third straight trip to the tournament.
Omaha (15-13, 12-4 Summit), meanwhile, has never been since making the move from Division II. The Mavericks qualified in dramatic fashion after falling behind 2-0 against Kansas City in the Summit League title match and trailing 20-17 in a decisive third set before completing a reverse sweep.
Omaha has a balanced attack with five regular contributors — Shayla McCormick, McKenna Ruch, Kali Jurgensmeier, Amanda Hardt and Rachel Fairbanks — all tallying at least 2.09 kills per set. Similarly, two setters, Ivy Leuck and Olivia Tukuafu, have averaged five assists per set since the midseason departure of Olivia Curry.
In their next match after playing KU back in August, the Mavericks participated in the “Volleyball Day in Nebraska” event at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium that set the record for most fans to ever attend a women’s sporting event. That was part of what Bechard called a “really, really courageous preconference schedule.”
“Their record was a little misleading after 10 matches,” he said. “But they righted the ship in a good league. UMKC and South Dakota and Denver were all very quality teams in the Summit League. They’ve changed their system a little bit from a one-setter to a two-setter but I know they’ve got very good personnel.”
The winner of the KU-Omaha matchup will advance to Friday to take on either Ivy League champion Yale, which went 21-3 and won every conference match it played this season, or No. 5 seed Penn State. Those two teams will face off Thursday in Lawrence immediately before KU-Omaha. The Nittany Lions have never lost a set against the Bulldogs (29-0 all time).
“I think Penn State had hoped maybe they’d be a first-round host, but the committee saw Florida maybe as a 16 seed, and Penn State certainly was right on that bubble,” Bechard said, “so a very quality team, playing against maybe Yale’s best team they’ve had in years.”
The Jayhawks beat Miami in the first round of the tournament last year but lost the following day to host Nebraska.
photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo
photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World
photo by: Carter Gaskins/Special to the Journal-World