Last Saturday night, in the moments after the Kansas volleyball program clinched its first Final Four in school history, Laura Kuhn sifted through the celebratory scene on the floor of a gymnasium in San Diego. All around her, people were smiling — seniors and freshmen and parents and, of course, longtime KU coach Ray Bechard.
Inside the KU volleyball program, Kuhn is known to everyone as “Bird,” the fifth-year assistant coach and ever-present energy source, the ace recruiter who helped piece together the best team in school history. As the party raged in San Diego, as the Jayhawks reveled in a victory over No. 1 overall seed USC, Bird looked for another person to hug. She came across a woman named Kandi Payne, mother of KU sophomore Kelsie Payne, the Jayhawks’ lethal outside hitter and soon-to-be All American. Bird and Kandi Payne locked eyes. The mother couldn’t stop smiling.
“You told me it wouldn’t be until her junior year!” Kandi Payne screamed, looking toward her daughter.
So let’s start here: If there is something amazing about this Kansas volleyball story, if there is something incredible about a once-forgotten program crashing the Final Four in a college sport usually dominated by goliaths, it is perhaps this: The Jayhawks might actually be a year ahead of schedule.
Four years ago, the Jayhawks finished just 15-14 overall and 3-13 in the Big 12 Conference. This year, the Jayhawks are 30-2, enjoying a fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, and rolling toward the CenturyLink Center in Omaha and a national semifinal match Thursday with Nebraska. The catch? They are doing it with a lineup dominated by sophomores and juniors.
“I think there’s so much more to tap into still,” Kuhn said. “And I think that’s what’s special about the group. They still have a ways to go.”
The story of Kansas volleyball’s resurgence is one of rejuvenation and rebirth. A longtime coach put together a new staff that clicked. The staff built a dynamic roster of overlooked recruits from Texas and underrecruited gems from Kansas. And this year, the blend has been potent and historic.
“It’s a great reflection of what Kansas volleyball is and is to come,” said junior Cassie Wait, the Jayhawks’ starting libero and a graduate of Gardner Edgerton High School. “It’s on the uprise. And I think it’s super important that people start realizing: Kansas can play.”
For outsiders and casual fans, 2015 may be remembered as the year KU volleyball went national. But for most in the program, the turning point came in 2011, the year Kuhn joined a staff that already included Bechard and assistant Todd Chamberlain. That was the year, of course, that KU won just three Big 12 matches.
“We were a good team,” says Bechard, who is in his 18th season at Kansas. “We were losing a lot of close matches. You begin to wonder: What’s going on? You (just have to) stay true to who you are.”
There was talent in the program, Bechard said. The Jayhawks just had trouble finishing matches. The next year, though, Kansas improved to 26-7, returned to the NCAA Tournament, and the building blocks for a breakthrough began to pile up. In 2013, reinforcements arrived in the form of two under-the-radar local recruits. Tayler Soucie was a middle blocker from Osawatomie and the daughter of a high school volleyball coach. Wait was a special athlete from Gardner and the daughter of a high school volleyball coach. Neither player had been recruited hard by national programs, but both had something Bechard and Kuhn loved.
On the first day of practice in 2013, Bechard recalls, he asked his team to “fill it,” meaning six players on each side of the court. Soucie walked right up to the net and took a spot. Two years later, she is an All-Big 12 middle blocker. Wait was the same way, Bechard says. Two years later, after biding her time as a freshman, Wait was on the floor in San Diego, serving out an Elite Eight victory over USC, picking up three crucial digs on an epic final point.
“I think they understand, ‘I got to compete each and every day and earn what I get,’ ” Bechard said.
The Jayhawks advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2013 — another program benchmark — but the most important recruiting class of Bechard’s career showed up on campus the next year. Bracing for an exodus of standouts, Kuhn felt the pressure to land a monster class. The Jayhawks struck gold in Texas, landing the 6-foot-3 Payne, who has grown into an All-American candidate, and setter Ainise Havili, who has become one of the best setters in the country. They were joined by 6-foot outside hitter Madison Rigdon, who had the match-winning kill in the fifth set against USC.
“I think we’ve got as much offensive firepower as we’ve ever had before,” Bechard says. “We feel like we have an elite setter and elite libero, so those two things always give you a chance. And we feel like we’ve got good balance in other places.”
That balance begins with senior Tiana Dockery, who is playing in her fourth NCAA Tournament, and defensive specialist Anna Church, a transfer from Saint Louis University who graduated from Bishop Miege. If you ask Kansas’ players the secret behind the success, you will hear them say words such as “family” and “chemistry” and other elements that are hard to quantify. Payne says she took a recruiting visit to Texas, but when she came to Kansas and felt the family atmosphere, she was hooked. Kuhn, the fifth-year assistant, talks about the daily meetings she has in the office with Bechard and Chamberlain.
Sometimes, Kuhn says, they will last for more than an hour, the coaches just chatting and planning practices. That doesn’t happen everywhere, she says.
But there is another thing you hear from the players, something that has changed in the last couple of years. When most signed to play at Kansas, a Final Four didn’t seem like a sincere possibility. The Final Four was a place for programs such as Nebraska, Penn State and Stanford. The Jayhawks just wanted to find a spot in the upper half of the Big 12.
“I don’t want to say it didn’t seem possible,” Wait said. “But it definitely seemed out there. Kansas was good. But we didn’t know if this was in the future.”
These days, of course, nobody is doubting Kansas volleyball, least of all the players. At 8:30 p.m. Thursday, the Jayhawks will face Nebraska in Omaha, Neb., with a spot in the national championship on the line.
In some ways, the breakthrough took years. In other ways, it is ahead of schedule. But standing inside a gym in Lawrence, Kuhn says she saw this day coming. This is why she wanted to work under Bechard five years ago. This is why she made those promises to recruits’ parents, including Kandi Payne.
The Jayhawks just needed some time.