Back from European trip, KU volleyball team hopes to bring momentum, camaraderie into fall season

photo by: Kansas Athletics

The Kansas volleyball team poses for a photo with members of B1 Volley Modena in Modena, Italy, on Saturday, May 31, 2024.

The Kansas volleyball team fell behind two sets to none on an unfamiliar continent, playing its fifth of six matches in just over a week, and while fielding several players who had just joined the team days or weeks earlier.

It was still able to rally.

“It felt like everyone was just calm, and wanting to fight for that comeback,” recalled setter Camryn Turner.

The Jayhawks won their final two sets against B1 Modena Volley in Modena, Italy, on May 31 by resounding 25-15 and 25-16 margins. No fifth set was played, but to the players present on the offseason international trip, it was a clear sign that the team was already jelling well with nearly three months to go before the start of its regular season.

“I think in the times when it got hard there (in Europe), it’s pretty easy there to just be like, ‘You know what, it’s offseason, we can come back whenever,'” opposite hitter London Davis said. “But I think what was really cool about this trip was even if we were down 2-0, everyone was still competitive, everyone was helping each other out, and I think the big part about this team that I think is going to be really special in the fall is that everyone could listen to everybody.”

Part of why everyone had the opportunity to mesh was that KU specifically timed its trip — May 22 through June 3, with stops in Hungary, Austria, Slovenia and Italy — to allow opportunities for its entire class of six freshmen, as a group ranked as high as No. 5 in the nation, to participate in some capacity.

In fact, Kenzie Dean and Grace Nelson arrived halfway through the trip and practically stepped off the plane directly into a match against the Slovenia under-20 team.

“We had an option to go a little bit earlier, which would have worked better for some camps and some other things,” head coach Ray Bechard told the Journal-World. “We thought, no, we’ve got to set these dates up to give (them) the best opportunity to experience part of that. Which they did, right after their high school graduation.”

Added middle blocker Toyosi Onabanjo: “It was kind of funny having two of them just join us on the trip, but they came in ready to go. They practiced with us for like a day and then just met us in Europe, but still it was really good just to get some new personnel and have everyone go out there and play.”

Heidi Devers and Ellie Moore had joined the team shortly before the trip, while Zoey Burgess and Reese Ptacek were in Lawrence throughout the spring.

Turner said she felt like she had known them all forever and that as a result of the time they spent together, “the connection is so much higher than, I feel like, if we didn’t go on the trip.”

“I know especially when I was a freshman I was so scared,” Turner said, “and so just to get those nerves out of the way and really start to form those connections early, earlier than most people, or other teams in the country have, that’s just a big difference and something I’m thankful for. And they’re doing so good, they’re doing so amazing.”

Part of forming those connections was enjoying the slew of off-court activities the team had planned — sightseeing in Budapest, exploring Vienna, water taxiing through Venice and so on. Maribor, Slovenia, was a favorite destination, though, as players enjoyed riding bikes, taking a slide down a mountain and what Turner called an overall “homey feeling.”

“It was kind of like Breckenridge,” she said, “similar where it’s like a little downtown area, and then I looked outside my window of the hotel and it was like the alpine slide and all of that stuff. There’s gelato a three-minute walk down the road. So it was just very nice, a little small community.”

Meanwhile, the competition intensified as the trip went on. Following two matches in Hungary and two in Slovenia, the Jayhawks had the comeback in Modena and then a final match against the under-22 Italian national team that all agreed featured the highest level of play. Bechard called that squad “one of the best teams in the world at that age,” and added, “We won’t see a more physical team than the Italians.”

It provided a convenient case study for one of Bechard’s primary offseason observations as the season approaches: KU needs to become a better serving team.

“We felt like we were a very good volleyball team this fall, but we still think that was a performance gap for us, our serving,” he said. “Our ace-to-error numbers were good, but we still think we can put more pressure on other teams with that skill.”

He said that because of different rules in Europe, “we were seeing teams, one through six, serve tough at us, time after time.”

“I think we were a little disappointed at times, but we were playing with a different ball, different environment, all that kind of thing,” he added. “But that’ll still be emphasis No. 1 moving forward as we get into the fall.”

There were some matches on the trip in which every available player participated.

“From my experience being a freshman and going in my first game with the team, oh my goodness, I was shaking,” Turner said. “Getting them to get those jitters out already and get familiar in a game-like setting, I think, is very important and will help them.”

On the whole, Bechard, a veteran of several past offseason international trips in his decorated tenure at Kansas (including one that preceded the 2015 Final Four season), said that a trip and the practices that precede it do run the risk of wearing players out somewhat, “but I just think the positives outweigh any other thing you would think about. You get time with your team in environments they’d never get to experience otherwise, both competitively and culturally.”

Part of why facing teams with different styles, working on serving and getting the freshmen acclimated can be so important is that KU is very well situated in other ways, with prominent players like Davis, Onabanjo, Turner, Caroline Bien and Ayah Elnady all back for their senior season.

The team is currently hard at work in player-led open-gym sessions over the summer.

The key, Bechard said, is to prevent complacency from creeping in after a string of NCAA Tournament bids.

“I just told them hey, KU and a lot of generous people afford us the opportunity to go (on a trip),” he said. “The best way we can thank them is preparing like crazy this summer, to where we can have the best fall ever.

“For us, we should have aspirations of winning a Big 12 championship. Sometimes that’s been difficult to say over the last few years when you have Texas in your league, but it’s going to be a wide-open league, there’s going to be some good teams, but why not us? So we’re hoping that the energy and the enthusiasm that we gathered from the trip will create some good concentration and willingness to participate at a high level this summer.”

photo by: Kansas Athletics

The Kansas volleyball team poses for a photo in Lake Como, Italy, on Sunday, June 1, 2024.

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World

Kansas junior Camryn Turner is jubilant after scoring a point against Kansas State on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo

Kansas junior Toyosi Onabanjo (11) is jubilant during the match against Marquette on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023.

photo by: Landon Cory/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas’ London Davis celebrates against Penn State on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in Lawrence.


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