When it was all over, when the Kansas volleyball program had stamped its ticket to the Sweet 16 and the deafening noise inside the Horejsi Family Athletics Center had subsided, KU volleyball coach Ray Bechard took a seat in a padded folding chair and let out a deep breath.
“Just another day at the office, huh?” Bechard said.
It was late Friday night, just moments after KU had advanced to the second Sweet 16 in program history with a three-set sweep over Missouri, just minutes after perhaps the most epic comeback in Bechard’s tenure. The Jayhawks had vanquished their former rivals by dominating, taking the first two sets 25-16 and 25-13, and they had closed out the match with grit, coming back from a 24-20 deficit before winning the final set 27-25.
On the final two points, Kansas’ All-Big 12 setter, sophomore Ainise Havili, had set up KU’s All-Big 12 outside hitter, sophomore Kelsie Payne, and the Jayhawks celebrated with a mosh pit in the middle of the court.
“I think that’s about as thrilling of a finish as you’re ever going to see,” Bechard said. “I’m extremely proud of this group.”
The Jayhawks, 28-2, advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013. As the No. 9 overall seed in the tournament, the Jayhawks will head to San Diego and face Loyola Marymount, who swept the six-time national champion Stanford Cardinal late Friday night.
Two years ago, the Jayhawks went where no KU volleyball had been before. This group, Bechard says, would like to go a little further.
“I think we know what we’re getting ourselves into going there,” said junior middle blocker Tayler Soucie, who led the Jayhawks with seven blocks. “As long as we play Kansas volleyball, I think we can go however far we decide we want to go.”
On Friday, the Jayhawks relied on their usual formula of balance and consistency. Havili finished with 40 assists, engineering the attack, while Payne was a force at the net, finishing with a match-high 16 kills.
In the back, two local products sparked the defense. Junior libero Cassie Wait, a Gardner Edgerton graduate, and defensive specialist Anna Church, a Bishop Miege grad, combined for 29 digs.
With the loss, Missouri finished its season 27-6. The Jayhawks move on, hoping to erase the memory of a third-round loss to Washington in 2013.
“The first time you do something, it’s pretty cool,” Bechard said of the program’s first Sweet 16. “But I just think this team maybe is equipped to make a little deeper run. (We’re) a little more balanced. And we just got a player that can take over a match, like Kelsie Payne did late. And that’s good to have.
“This team is bound and determined to be unprecedented in all things they’re doing, and that would mean hopefully to go to a regional and win a match or two.”