On most nights, the Horejsi Family Athletics Center can pack in just more than 1,300 fans for Kansas volleyball matches. It is an intimate setting, one of the smaller venues in the Big 12. But for Kansas junior Tayler Soucie, the sound inside the building can be unmistakeable. It can seem like a wave of noise, a din that has nowhere to escape.
There is a pep band in the corner, its music echoing off the walls. The fans sit on bleachers on each side, nearly on top of the action.
“It’s always full in there,” said Soucie, an All-Big 12 middle blocker, “and you hear it.”
The environment may not compare to its venerable neighbor, Allen Fieldhouse, but when it comes to raucous and ear-splitting college volleyball venues, the intimate Horejsi Center is tough to beat. So when the Kansas volleyball program earned the right to play host to an NCAA tournament regional, KU coach Ray Bechard was consistent: He wanted to play at Horejsi, where his team has lost just one match this season.
“We’re used to playing in Horejsi,” said senior Tiana Dockery.
In three previous trip to the NCAA tournament, the Jayhawks had hosted a regional and been forced to play in a larger venue. An NCAA rule mandated that venues had to hold more than 2,000 fans. That rule went away this year, and on Thursday afternoon, the Jayhawks will open the NCAA tournament against Furman at 6:30 p.m.
As the ninth overall seed, the Jayhawks, 26-2, will be favored to advance to their first Sweet 16 since 2013. If they can handle Furman, 21-8, they will play the winner of Mizzou-Missouri State (4 p.m. Thursday) at 6:30 p.m. Friday. In a smaller venue, tickets will be at a premium.
Soucie, though, says the Jayhawks will take nothing for granted. A year ago, the Jayhawks played host to a regional at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka. They suffered a first-round loss to Arkansas-Little Rock.
“It was not fun,” Soucie said. “We were very disappointed. Tears were shed, and we didn’t like that feeling, and it doesn’t go away. We’re looking forward to not having that feeling again.”
Based on regular-season accolades alone, Kansas volleyball is arguably in the midst of its greatest season ever. They finished second in the Big 12 for the second straight year, and their only two losses came to perennial Final Four contender 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 Soucie offers a presence at the net.
Playing in their fourth straight NCAA tourney, the Jayhawks would like to erase last year’s disappointment. Bechard, though, wants his team to think less about the big picture and more about the daily routine. From that standpoint, the venue should help.
“When you’re in a situation like this, a lot of people say: ‘You have to rise to the occasion,’ ” Bechard said. “Really, you just got to fall back on your training. And you don’t have to be special, you have to be good like you’ve been all year.”