WICHITA — It was three years ago when freshmen Kelsie Payne and Ainise Havili took the floor together in their first NCAA tournament together. Kansas was the 16-seed, playing host to Arkansas Little Rock, and it was the third straight time Ray Bechard’s team had made its way to the tournament.
It ended in disappointment, a loss to a lower-seeded team and an early exit from the tournament, but Payne led in kills, Havili had 54 assists. Both had three years left and bright futures ahead.
Three years later, the two sat at a podium after the first round of the NCAA Tournament next to fellow senior Madison Rigdon, with red eyes and sniffling noses. An early exit happened again on Friday night, as a five set-loss to former Big 12 rival Missouri booted No. 19 Kansas from the NCAA tournament at Charles Koch Arena, 25-23, 15-25, 25-15, 20-25, 15-10.
This time, their Kansas careers were over.
“(Don’t) take anything for granted,” Payne told the underclassmen after the game. “They’re feeling how we’re feeling, but obviously not the same. Because we’re done, and they still have another year.”
Bechard expected his seven seniors to feel a bit empty after the loss. His team was ranked No. 19 in the country, and after a run to the Final Four in 2015, Kansas now has two consecutive early exits in the NCAA tournament with the loss to Missouri.
Kansas couldn’t close the first set despite a late 23-22 lead but bounced back for a 25-15 win in the second set. Kansas tied it at 2-2 with a strong fourth set where the team hit .400, but six errors and only five kills in the final set buried the Jayhawks.
Even if they hadn’t realized it the emotions of the moment, the steps forward this class of seniors helped the Kansas volleyball take are immense.
“Definitely the best decision I’ve made to come here and play with these girls,” Havili said. “We’ve done amazing things here. We’ve built this program up. We’ve become a national name. And I’m just grateful that I got this opportunity.”
So their careers are over, but the seniors accomplished so much. Havili is the program’s career leader in assists. She also started in all 124 matches. Payne, a right-side hitter, finished as the career leader in kills, hitting percentage and kills per set. And they accomplished feats for the team that once were unthinkable.
Kansas has been ranked for 45 weeks straight. The team has been to six straight tournaments. They won a Big 12 title in 2015 and reached the Final Four in 2016. They’ve garnered enough support to warrant a major renovation to their home, the Horejsi Family Family Athletic Center.
“As you accumulate all of those things, they made Kansas volleyball nationally prominent, that’s a lot to be proud of,” Bechard said. “Now we can get on the phone with recruits and they think, ‘Kansas… they play as good volleyball as Kansas.’”
Besides all of that, the three have lived together for two years and bonded over their Texas roots, all leading to a strong relationship on the court and a similar sentiment: Kansas was the right choice.
“We’ve just kind of leaned on each other,” Havili said. “We’ve grown up together in college, from freshman year to now, we’ve seen each other grow, in every way, shape and form.”
That leaves Kansas in a similar spot that it was in after that loss to Arkansas-Little Rock. It’s saying goodbye to a class of seniors that moved the program forward — though, this time, further than its even been before. And it’s also assuring younger players that the future is bright, even after a season-ending loss.
“That’s what happened to us freshman year, and we bounced right back and built up fire from that,” Rigdon said. “So I hope they take that away from this, even though it’s tough.”