It may sound like a bit of typical sports hyperbole, but Kansas volleyball coach Ray Bechard swears the following statistic is true. In two seasons, Bechard says, KU setter Ainise Havili has never lost a joust at the net. The joust, of course, is the volleyball play where the ball is suspended above the net and attackers from both sides converge. And this would be an amazing stat for a few reasons.
Havili, a sophomore, is listed at 5 feet 10 inches and is one of the best setters in the country. Her teammates call her the quarterback of the offense and a team leader. She’s not supposed to be a weapon at the net. She’s not supposed to be the one catching the touchdowns. But there she was against Missouri last Friday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. A ball hung above the net. Missouri’s middle blocker came strong. Havili came stronger.
“I haven’t seen her lose one in two years,” Bechard said.
Havili’s jousting prowess and competitiveness is just one reason the Kansas volleyball program is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013. Another, perhaps more significant reason, would be Havili’s setting, which has catalyzed the Jayhawks’ offense and provided the foundation for the best season in program history.
The Jayhawks, 28-2 and the No. 9 overall seed in the NCAA tourney, will take the floor in the Sweet 16 against Loyola Marymount at 7:30 p.m. Friday inside Jenny Craig Pavilion in San Diego. With a victory, the Jayhawks would advance to an Elite Eight for the first time in program history, facing the winner of No. 1 seed USC and Creighton on Saturday night.
“It would definitely make a statement about our program and how far we’ve come,” Havili said. “We would definitely have had an unprecedented season if we went to the Elite Eight. It would be awesome.”
All season, Havili has been in the middle of the success. The Big 12’s setter of the year, Havili ranks second in the country in assists per set (12.36) while helping Kansas finish third in the country in hitting percentage.
“She gives our hitters exactly what they need,” said junior libero Cassie Wait, a graduate of Gardner Edgerton. “She’s our leader — our quarterback — every single day.”
Havili brushes off the praise. She would much rather talk about Wait’s passing and defense, the play of All-Big 12 middle blocker Tayler Soucie or the dominance of sophomore outside hitter Kelsie Payne. So perhaps others can do the talking for her. Earlier this week, Bechard recalled a story from Havili’s high school days in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
A late bloomer of sorts, Havili didn’t find her way to competitive club volleyball until her final years of high school. As a junior, she was playing for Texas Advantage Volleyball, one of the top clubs in the state. The team also featured another setter who was even more highly recruited than Havili, but one month into the club season, Havili had taken over the starting spot.
“That’s just the way she is,” Bechard said. “She’s going to take over situations. She’s going to will it to happen. She is a quiet assassin in many ways.”
Sometimes, of course, Havili can be a little bit louder. In the moments after winning the joust against Missouri, she dropped to the floor and let out a primal scream, staring across the net. A few days later, Havili laughed at that moment, too.
“I love them,” she said. “They’re my favorite.”