On the heels of the best regular season in program history, the Kansas volleyball program will begin its NCAA Tournament run in familiar surroundings — and perhaps against a familiar opponent.
The Jayhawks, who finished 26-2 overall and earned the No. 9 national seed, will play host to an NCAA regional, opening against Furman, 21-8, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday inside the Horejsi Family Athletics Center on the KU campus. If the Jayhawks advance to the second round, they could face former Big 12 rival Missouri. The Tigers, 26-5, will open the 64-team tournament against Missouri State, 24-10, at 4 p.m. Thursday in Lawrence.
"We are excited to be the No. 9 seed - it is our highest seed in program history," KU coach Ray Bechard told reporters in Lawrence. "We have a lot of really good teams coming to Lawrence, Kansas, and it should be a pretty great week of volleyball. I was also happy that we got five teams for the Big 12 Conference in. I think that speaks well to our conference."
Kansas volleyball earned a national seed for the fourth straight season — the first time in program history that KU has played in four straight NCAA tournaments — and the Jayhawks can seek some postseason redemption after an early exit in 2014. A year ago, the Kansas volleyball program earned the No. 16 overall seed before bowing out to Arkansas-Little Rock in the first round at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka.
In recent years, Kansas has elected to host the regional at bigger venues, including Allen Fieldhouse and the Expocentre. But with Allen Fieldhouse booked this week, KU officials preferred to play inside the cozy Horejsi Center, where the presence of a pep band and sell-out crowds can make for an intimidating atmosphere. Kansas lost just one home match this season, a five-setter against No. 3 seed Texas.
"Horejsi has been great to us over the years and this season," Bechard said. "It was a thrill to play in Allen Fieldhouse (during past NCAA tournaments), but there is a different feel to that for our student-athletes. We are very comfortable in Horejsi. It is the place we practice every day. It is the place we love to compete in. It is the place that gives us the best chance to succeed."
On the whole, the Jayhawks enter the postseason with perhaps their best opportunity for a long NCAA run. Two years ago, the Jayhawks advanced to the Sweet 16 before falling to No. 3 overall seed Washington. This time, they possess a deep, athletic and relatively young roster, a group that dropped its only two matches to Big 12 champion Texas.
The Jayhawks are led by sophomore setter Ainise Havili, who ranks second in the nation in assists per set, and sophomore outside hitter Kelsie Payne, who is averaging more than 4.3 kills per set. On defense, the Jayhawks boast junior libero Cassie Wait, a graduate of Gardner-Edgerton, while middle blocker Tayler Soucie of Osawatomie has grown into an All-Big 12 performer.
Missouri, meanwhile, last reached the NCAA Tournament in 2013. The Tigers have made 12 NCAA Tournaments in 16 seasons under coaches Wayne and Susan Kreklow. The NCAA is doing its best to prop up the Border War. The Jayhawks and Tigers met in NCAA softball regionals hosted by MU in 2014 and 2015 and the rivals also clashed in the NCAA soccer tourney in 2014. The reasons, though, are most pragmatic, with the NCAA putting a large priority on geography while making NCAA fields in Olympic or non-revenue sports.
If the Jayhawks or Tigers can survive the regional, they would be lined up to face No. 8 seed Stanford in a Sweet 16 match in San Diego. Also lurking in the region: No. 1 overall seed Southern California, which enters the tourney with a 30-2 record.