Kelsie Payne does not know the record. She does not want to know the record. The record is ancient history, she says, and in this case, ignorance is bliss.
The record is also unbelievable. But, no, Payne, a sophomore All-American for the Kansas volleyball team, does not want to know the program’s all-time mark against Nebraska, the Jayhawks’ opponent in Thursday’s national semifinal in Omaha, Neb.
No,” Payne said Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t think I even want to know what it is.”
For the sake of accuracy, though, we will now mention the record: 0-86-1.
That’s not a misprint. In the long history of the Kansas volleyball program, the Jayhawks are winless against the tradition-rich Cornhuskers, the former bullies of the Big Eight and Big 12. The one tie came during a two-set match in the late 1970s. Not that anyone remembers much about it.
“It speaks to some frustration on our part over the years,” said KU coach Ray Bechard, who is in his 18th season in Lawrence.
With the record in the background, and the Kansas program appearing in its first Final Four, the Jayhawks, 30-2, will try to slay Goliath at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, just 60 miles from the Nebraska campus. If Kansas makes history, it would play the winner of Texas and Minnesota in the NCAA title game Saturday night.
As Bechard says, this is a new era. The Nebraska volleyball program left the Big 12 after the 2010 season, and nobody on this KU team has ever stepped on the floor against the Huskers.
“I think this team has never played Nebraska,” Bechard said Tuesday. “So that’s a good thing. And I don’t think all of those are on me. There were some coaches before me. But I think that speaks to the excellence that Nebraska has been.”
Nebraska volleyball, of course, has been nothing short of a juggernaut for decades. The Huskers claimed national titles in 1995, 2000 and 2006. They have churned out All-Americans and are appearing in their 12th Final Four. This year, the Huskers are 30-4 and coming off an Elite Eight victory over perennial power Washington.
“We just had a hard time competing with them over the years on a consistent basis,” Bechard said.
If the Jayhawks are going to score an unprecedented victory, they will do so in hostile territory. The CenturyLink Center holds close to 17,000 fans for volleyball, and each of the four schools was only provided 200 tickets to share among family, staff and boosters. Thursday’s semifinals are now sold out, with a majority of the tickets snatched up by Nebraska fans last weekend.
How scarce are the tickets? On the secondary market, the price for an upper-level ticket for Thursday begins at $148. Needless to say, no Kansas volleyball player has ever played in an environment like the one that awaits Thursday night.
“We play in the Horejsi Center, where it’s like 1,400 people, 1,500 people,” Payne said. “So this will be different for us.”
Bechard believes his team is well-equipped for the moment. Last week, Kansas defeated No. 1 overall USC in San Diego. On Wednesday morning, the Jayhawks arrived in Omaha before spending the afternoon at the CenturyLink Center.
“When there’s more stimulus in the gym, it seems like our team has responded well to that,” Bechard said. “But we haven’t necessarily been in that situation before. So it’s hard to say. But our preparation and our planning will stay the same.”
There is also, of course, the record. The Kansas volleyball program has never beaten Nebraska. But a week ago, the Jayhawks had never been to a Final Four. The past, junior libero Cassie Wait says, means little this week.
“It’s been a while since we’ve played them,” Wait said. “I don’t think that’s anything that we can focus on, because it doesn’t really have a reflection on what this season has been.
“So I definitely think we’ll just stick to our game and hope it all works.”
Two Jayhawks earn All-America honors
The Kansas volleyball program had never had a player earn first-team All-America honors. This year, it has two. Sophomore right-side hitter Kelsie Payne and sophomore setter Ainise Havili were each selected first-team All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association on Wednesday.
Payne, a 6-foot-3 native of Austin, Texas, enters the Final Four as the only player in the nation to rank in the top 35 in hitting percentage (.379) and kills per set (4.4). Havili, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, ranks second in the country in assists per set (12.2) and was named the Most Valuable Player of the San Diego Regional last weekend.
NCAA Volleyball Championship
At CenturyLink Center, Omaha, Neb.
All games on ESPN2
Texas (3) vs. Minnesota (2), 6 p.m.
Kansas (9) vs. Nebraska (4), 8:30 p.m.
Semifinal winners, 6:30 p.m.