The excruciating wait aside, there could not have been a much more fitting year for Kansas University volleyball coach Ray Bechard to finally break through the second round of the NCAA Tournament and reach the regional semifinals.
The feat, after postseason dancing ended earlier than he had hoped for in 2003, ‘04, ‘05 and ‘12, finally came in Bechard’s 16th season — a Sweet 16, indeed.
As the Jayhawks inched closer to a new program high at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday night, junior outside hitter Chelsea Albers said they could tell by looking at “Coach B” they were going to beat Creighton and advance. Once they finished it off, their emotions poured out not just for what they had done, but for the monkey their coach got to toss from his back.
“It was just like overwhelming happiness, excitement for something you have never felt before,” Albers said. “That’s a big accomplishment, to go from 64 teams to 32, and now to 16 teams. Those are an elite 16 in the country.”
Even with all the hugs, tears, high-fives shared by KU (25-7) on that night, Bechard said it wasn’t until the next day, when associate athletic director Jim Marchiony sent him an updated bracket, that it really sunk in.
“Kansas was still in there,” Bechard said, “so that was pretty cool.”
The weight lifted off their coach’s shoulders and the significance of the program history the Jayhawks made became clear in the minutes that followed their second-round victory, sophomore outside hitter Tiana Dockery shared.
“It’s a huge deal. It kind of makes us feel like a special team,” Dockery said. “Every team is special, but when Coach B comes in the locker room and is almost speechless, because he doesn’t know what to say, it’s a good feeling to know that he’s excited.”
Bechard realizes those good vibes will only take them so far as Kansas (the No. 14 overall seed) prepares to meet No. 3 seed Washington at 7 p.m. Friday, in Los Angeles, with the winner advancing to take on either BYU or USC on Saturday night.
“If you win the Pac 12, obviously you’re an elite team,” the coach said of the Huskies. “That’s one of the elite conferences in the country, and they’re 28-2 and very well balanced with a two-setter system, which means they have three hitters out there the whole time.”
In retrospect, Albers said the players now appreciate the tough road schedule Bechard and his staff put together this season, because those experiences (KU finished 10-3 in road matches and 3-1 at neutral sites) should make the next round of the tournament slightly easier to handle.
“We seem to take each environment in,” Albers said. “I don’t think playing on the road should be too much of an issue as long as we can handle the atmosphere.”
The Jayhawks should be able to stay loose, Dockery added, with outsiders expecting Washington to advance, as the favorite.
“It’s kind of nice to not have that much pressure,” Dockery said. “We’re gonna treat it like any other game, kind of keep going through what we’ve been going through for the season.”
Who knows? If Kansas can keep Washington from building too much momentum, maybe the Jayhawks can set a new standard and advance to a regional final. Whatever happens, Bechard will remember this 16th season for a long time.
“I’m just so pleased with our team and the way we showed competitive confidence and competitive composure,” the coach said of the first two rounds. “We made big plays when we needed to.”