Kansas chancellor Douglas Girod, who attended numerous volleyball matches in the cozy, 1,300-seat Horejsi Center his first two years on the job, had a courtside seat Thursday night for the first-ever competition in the new 2,265-seat Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Girod, KU’s third-year campus leader, said as he headed through the northeast exit of the 30,000-square foot building following the Jayhawks’ 3-0 (25-18, 25-21, 25-18) sweep of Morehead State.
“What I loved about it … even though it’s more spacious and holds more people, we didn’t lose the feel. We didn’t lose the excitement, didn’t lose the noise. A greater fan experience makes for a greater team experience,” Girod added.
The Jayhawks, who on this historic night were led by the 10-kill performance of Zoe Hill and 9-kill outing of Ashley Smith (Sara Nielsen had 24 assists and 13 digs; Allie Nelson 12 digs), appeared energized by a loud, near sellout crowd. There were a few empty seats in the upper deck. No official attendance was listed.
Players and fans alike appeared to enjoy the replays shown on a 324-square foot (12-10 by 25-4) video board located just past the west end line..
“Have you seen it? Oh my gosh we were like 30-feet tall (on the screen),” Nelson, a senior from Chicago, exclaimed after KU improved to 4-2 on the season. Morehead State, which was led by Olivia Lohmeier’s 14 kills, fell to 5-2.
“That was awesome. We wanted a video board since I was a freshman. I remember we were like, ‘We don’t even care we just want a video board.’ It was unreal to see it that big. That was the first time we saw the intro video (prior to match), too. That was super special. I was like, ‘Oh gosh, don’t cry.’ It’s so sweet.
“It’s so unreal,” Nelson continued. “This place is magic. It’s so awesome. It’s so special.”
KU coach Ray Bechard — he is beginning his 22nd season as KU coach — said that the only opening-night snafu was forgetting to put an American flag on the wall. So the Jayhawks had a huge flag appear on the video board during the National Anthem.
“We were talking to the team. We think we’ve got a special opportunity in this building,” Bechard said of the building made possible by a $10 million donation by KU graduate Stewart Horejsi. “I think it gained some amenities certainly (there’s a 2,500-square foot mezzanine, east side, upper deck) but it didn’t lose any of its character. It felt intimate. It felt enthusiastic and it felt really loud. I told the team this place is going to be something special. It’s going to deserve special effort from us each and every night,” Bechard added.
A facility upgrade was made necessary in response to KU’s winning ways of the past several years. The Jayhawks reached the NCAA Final Four in 2015 and won the Big 12 in 2016. They basically outgrew Horejsi Center, KU’s home for 20 seasons.
“The fact we are in a sellout the last three years … I think people come when you are successful. That six or seven-year run we’ve had — you see those banners on the wall — got people enthused about volleyball,” Bechard stated. “Once you get in here, you are going to come back again. I’m proud to be part of it. Our alumni, former coaches and players deserve a ton of credit for our Jayhawks to be able to compete in a facility like this.”
KU will meet Arizona at 6:30 p.m. Friday in the new arena.