University of Kansas

Coming off Final Four appearance, KU volleyball embraces status as a top 5 team

Kelsie Payne (left) and Ainise Havili were among the players who last season led the Kansas Jayhawks to appearance in the NCAA volleyball Final Four. This season, KU is second in the Big 12 preseason poll (behind Texas) and also is fifth in the national AVCA ranking. That’s the highest starting spot in school history.
Kelsie Payne (left) and Ainise Havili were among the players who last season led the Kansas Jayhawks to appearance in the NCAA volleyball Final Four. This season, KU is second in the Big 12 preseason poll (behind Texas) and also is fifth in the national AVCA ranking. That’s the highest starting spot in school history. Special to The Star

Kansas volleyball coach Ray Bechard was recruiting in Indianapolis a few weeks ago when he was approached by a pair of coaches.

“They introduced themselves, ‘Hey, we’re from Southeast Louisiana. Our team can’t wait to play you guys,’” Bechard said. “And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s interesting. Southeast Louisiana is really jacked about playing the Jayhawks.’”

Welcome to the new reality of the KU volleyball team.

Fresh off a 30-3 season and Final Four appearance, the Jayhawks are adjusting quickly to life as a powerhouse program.

The team has gotten plenty of early respect. KU is second in the Big 12 preseason poll (behind Texas) and also is fifth in the national AVCA ranking. That’s the highest starting spot in school history.

“I was actually pretty surprised. I thought they’d underestimate us again, like usually happens,” KU setter Ainise Havili said with a laugh. “Being up there, it was great.”

Now the challenge will be performing to those expectations.

For Bechard, the first step is embracing that this season will be different for KU’s players. One example: Southeast Louisiana’s volleyball site has the headline, “Match against Final Four participant highlights Lady Lions’ 2016 volleyball schedule.”

“Whether you call it a target on your back or a high RPI opportunity for other people,” Bechard said, “we need to understand each and every team we play will view their match with Kansas probably as something significant.”

From there, Bechard hopes his players remember what brought them success a year ago. The 19th-year coach is a believer that teams don’t raise up their level of play in clutch situations; instead, in those moments, players fall back on their training and what they’ve done in workouts.

This line of thinking, he believes, can help narrow the focus. He’d rather players concentrate on the next point or even next pass as opposed to the challenge of repeating a 30-win season.

“All this preseason stuff is great,” Bechard said, “but at the end of the day, if we get the closest we can to the best version of ourselves, then I think we’ve had a great year.”

KU has three players on the 15-person all-Big 12 preseason team: Havili, junior Kelsie Payne and senior Tayler Soucie. Payne — a 6-foot-3 right side hitter — also was selected as the conference’s preseason player of the year.

The Jayhawks, who open their season on Aug. 26 at the Bulldog Invitational at Mississippi State, were unranked in last year’s preseason AVCA poll. Nebraska, Texas, Minnesota and Wisconsin are the only teams ahead of them in the first ranking this year.

“Instead of having to prove ourselves, we just have to prove we belong there now,” Havili said. “It’s a different type of mentality, but I think we can handle it.”

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell

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