The Gatorade bath came last, after the Kansas volleyball team had toppled No. 1 seed USC in the West Regional final late Saturday night, after the Jayhawks had rallied from a 13-9 deficit in the final and fifth set, clinching the first Final Four in program history.
As the Kansas volleyball team gathered in a raucous locker room in San Diego, someone picked up the Gatorade bucket and popped off the lid. The target: Kansas coach Ray Bechard, who was the last one in the locker room.
“Everything was soaked but it was so worth it,” said junior libero Cassie Wait. “It was electric in there.”
Less than 24 hours after an epic program breakthrough, the Kansas volleyball team returned to Lawrence on Sunday evening, soaking in the cheers from close to 200 fans inside the Horejsi Family Athletics Center.
On Thursday night, the Jayhawks will take the floor at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., facing off against perennial power Nebraska in a national semifinal. The Jayhawks, 30-2, sit just two victories from an NCAA title — a crazy development in a sport dominated by a handful of programs. But first, as reality sunk in, they just wanted one more night to relish a historic moment for the program.
After having already reached historic heights this season, Saturday night had offered one more step, a five-set thriller against the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. After winning the first two sets, then dropping the next two, the ninth-seeded Jayhawks pulled off the stunning upset, taking down USC 25-18, 25-21 22-25, 19-25, 15-13.
“I hope everybody in the central and eastern time zones stayed up,” Bechard said on late Saturday night. “That was a special, special match.”
The Jayhawks’ eighth straight win — their first over a top-five opponent in program history — turned their first-ever appearance in the Elite Eight into their initial trip to the Final Four. Minnesota and Texas will face off in the other semifinal.
“Nothing felt better than that,” Bechard said.
As the Jayhawks returned to Lawrence on Sunday, Wait, a Gardner-Edgerton graduate, spent the day re-watching the final point, a tense marathon of a rally that capped a six-point burst at the end of the final set. There are plenty of ways to clinch a Final Four berth, of course. The Jayhawks just managed to do it in epic fashion.
“That was kind of who we were all season — that grit,” Wait said, “and I think that was a true reflection of that.”
After winning the first two sets on Saturday, though, the match seemed to be getting away from the Jayhawks.
“We got a little discombobulated in the third and fourth sets, but we weren’t giving up,” said junior Tayler Soucie, a graduate of Osawatomie High School.
Sophomore right-side hitter Kelsie Payne had a team-high 18 kills on Saturday to reach 474 on the year, breaking Allison Mayfield’s school single-season record. Sophomore outside hitter Madison Rigdon, Soucie and junior Janae Hall each had 10 kills while sophomore Ainise Havili had a game-high 48 assists.
In the decisive fifth set, the Jayhawks fell behind 4-0 and trailed 13-9 before rolling off the final six points of the match, sealing it on Rigdon’s 10th kill of the match.
When the final kill hit the floor, the Jayhawks dogpiled on their side of the net. Bechard looked for someone to hug — his “Jimmy Valvano,” he said — and the party was on. One day later, the Jayhawks are hoping the party lasts for one more weekend in Omaha.
“It was crazy,” Wait said. “It was so surreal.”
Ed Wehde, special to The Star, contributed to this report