University of Kansas

Long wait for Sweet 16 is over for KU volleyball coach

Early last Sunday, Kansas volleyball coach Ray Bechard looked at his email and saw a message from KU associate athletic director Jim Marchiony.

The night before, in front of 3,052 fans at Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks had defeated Creighton in four sets to clinch their first berth in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Now, here was the proof: Marchiony, Kansas’ volleyball administrator, was passing along an updated NCAA bracket with a brief message:

Kansas looks pretty good on the Sweet 16 line.

If it hadn’t sunk in for Bechard, in his 16th season at Kansas, here was his program alongside some of the top volleyball powers in the country.

“That was pretty cool,” Bechard said.

After a long wait, Bechard has KU volleyball among the nation’s elite, and the Jayhawks’ best season in school history will continue on Friday against No. 3 overall seed Washington, 28-2, at Southern California's Galen Center in Los Angeles.

The Huskies, led by former K-State coach Jim McLaughlin, have gone to three Final Fours and won the 2005 title. If the Jayhawks, the No. 14 overall seed in the tournament, can shock the Huskies, they’ll play the winner of Southern California and BYU on Saturday for a spot in the Final Four.

“We felt like we were right on the edge of that last year, and we didn’t make it happen,” Bechard said. “Obviously, that allowed us to learn a little bit about what it takes to be that.”

For Bechard and Kansas, last season was the breakthrough, a 26-7 record and an NCAA berth providing evidence of a program on the rise. When the Jayhawks went down against Wichita State in the second round at Allen Fieldhouse, it provided plenty of offseason fuel for a veteran team. But in some ways, Bechard has been working to this moment for decades.

When Bechard arrived at Kansas in 1998, the program had recorded just three winning seasons in the previous 11 — and rarely had been much of a factor in the Big 12 race. Bechard, a native of Grinnell, Kan., built a junior college dynasty during a long run at Barton County, winning 92 percent of his games while twice being chosen national junior college coach of the year.

“When he went to Kansas, he had a plan that was very successful at Barton County,” said UMKC volleyball coach Christy Posey, who spent 11 seasons as a KU assistant under Bechard. “Now, Barton County and the University of Kansas are significantly different, but he was able to utilize the same plan and then make adjustments.”

After some incremental improvement during his first four seasons, Bechard took Kansas to three straight NCAA Tournaments from 2003 to 2005, including a second-round appearance in 2004. But for the next six seasons, the program seemed to plateau. The record hovered at or around .500. The Jayhawks couldn’t get back to the postseason.

That’s one reason, Bechard says, this two-year run has been so special. Last Saturday night, in the moments after Kansas’ victory over Creighton, Bechard began to get emotional as he spoke to his team.

“(He said,) ‘I’ve been trying to get us to do this for the past 16 years … and this is the team that got here,’” recalled sophomore outside hitter Tiana Dockery.

The Jayhawks are built around perhaps the most accomplished senior class in school history. Middle blocker Caroline Jarmoc was chosen to the volleyball coaches’ All-America second team for the second straight year and set the KU record for blocks. Libero Brianne Riley is the program’s all-time digs leader with 2,032 in four years. And Erin McNorton earned Big 12 setter of the years honors after leading the league in assists.

But after two straight NCAA Tournament appearances, it appears the program is better positioned for sustained success. Middle blocker Tayler Soucie, an Osawatomie native, was selected freshman of the year in the Midwest Region, and defensive specialist Cassie Wait, a graduate of Gardner Edgerton, is a versatile player who could step in for Riley next season.

“That’s what unique about this team,” Bechard said. “I think kids are taking turns when it’s their turn, and (they’re) stepping up at the right time.”

In the weeks before the season, Bechard began using one word to describe his team’s upcoming season: Significant. The Jayhawks had been successful in 2012, Bechard said, but this season they needed to be significant.

“You can have a great season like we did last year. But it’s not significant,” junior outside hitter Chelsea Albers said. “Significant is doing something we haven’t done before.”

An appearance in the Sweet 16 is plenty significant. But as the Jayhawks prepare to face Washington, they’re hoping for something more.

“I think we learned a lot from last year,” Bechard said. “We learned, at this time of year, you have to go out and take it from people.”