Final Four participant in 2015 and outright Big 12 champion in 2016, Kansas volleyball has a legitimate shot to maintain its elite level of play in 2017, senior year for All-Americans Ainise Havili and Kelsie Payne and for Madison Rigdon, first-team All-Big 12 selection.
But the chances of participating in the Final Four, played in nearby Sprint Center, greatly increase if the Jayhawks can bring in one or two more Big 12-ready middle blockers to compensate for the graduation of four-year starter Tayler Soucie.
This late in the recruiting season, Big 12-ready basically means a transfer or graduate transfer. Keep in mind that in volleyball, transfers are not required to sit out a year. If Bechard and his staff can bolster the middle, the coach is confident his team will be every bit as good as his previous two, which combined for a 57-6 record.
“We’ll bite off a much more aggressive pre-conference schedule, so I’m telling you right now our record’s not going to be as good, but that’s OK,” Bechard said.
It’s the only way to improve one's RPI, a rotten tool overused by NCAA tournament committees in multiple sports.
KU's only losses this season were to Purdue, Texas (splitting two matches) and Creighton. Both Creighton and Purdue will visit Horejsi Center in early September.
“They’ve got everybody back and we’ve got other things working, plus Texas will be big-time,” Bechard said.
Unlike at middle blocker, Bechard is confident he has ample depth from which a starter can emerge to fill the libero spot vacated by Cassie Wait, a first-year law student named Big 12 scholar-athlete of the year and Big 12 libero of the year. KU now recruits at an elite enough level that it can reload after losing key contributors.
Part of the improved recruiting can be traced to interest in volleyball exploding to such a degree that the Jayhawks have outgrown their 1,300-seat home facility, constructed thanks to the largesse of the Stewart Horejsi family. Plans are in the works to expand the building to a still-intimate 3,000-seat capacity, the minimum requirement to play host to an NCAA regional.
“The Williams Fund is actively engaged in fundraising to make that happen,” associate athletic director Jim Marchiony said.
He declined to estimate the cost, but given the school’s desire to make it sparkle, it likely would be at least $10 million. It's late in the game for KU to believe the expansion can be completed for the 2017 season, which makes reserving Allen Fieldhouse an absolute must.