For the first time in awhile, the Kansas volleyball team will have a new setter this season.
Ainise Havili, who netted three consecutive Big 12 Setter of the Year honors, has since graduated. Kansas volleyball coach Ray Bechard, who spoke to reporters at Fall Sports Media Day on Thursday in Allen Fieldhouse, believes he has multiple options to help fill that void in 2018.
Redshirt senior Gabby Simpson, sophomore Annika Carlson and freshman Camryn Ennis will all have chances to step into that role.
“Havili was obviously high level for four years,” Bechard said. “Gabby can hit and set. Annika Carlson has done a great job for us as a setter only. Camryn is kind of a hybrid, too, where she can hit and set. The styles will be different, but we still feel like we have high-end attackers for options.”
But it is just one example of how different this season might be for the Jayhawks, who have made it to the NCAA tournament in each of the last six seasons.
Kansas lost several key contributors from last season’s squad, which went 22-8. Returning starters for the Jayhawks include junior libero Allie Nelson, junior middle blocker Zoe Hill and junior outside hitter Jada Burse.
Bechard brought both Simpson and junior outside hitter Patricia Montero to represent the team. Simpson (transfer) and Montero (injury) sat out last fall, which proved to be beneficial as they prepare for larger roles this season.
“It’s especially helpful to watch your same position,” Simpson said. “Having Ainise as a setter, to learn her tendencies, that was pretty neat for me to see an all-american and follow in her footsteps a little bit.”
The Jayhawks will open the season with a home-and-home series against Arkansas on Aug. 24 in Fayetteville and Aug. 26 in Lawrence. Kansas will play 10 matches against 2017 NCAA tournament teams this season.
“After our year in 2015, we had a hard time scheduling in 2016 and 2017,” Bechard said. “Everyone wanted to play us this fall when our roster turned over a bit. We might have got a little more aggressive with our scheduling than we should have.”
Kansas head coach Mark Francis, who is entering his 20th season with the program, has never had a freshman class as big as this one. As a result, Francis has never had as big of a team as the 2018 roster.
The Jayhawks have a total of 30 players on the team this fall, including 11 newcomers. Kansas, which went 8-9-3 and claimed a pair of wins over top-10 opponents in 2017, also returns five players who missed last season due to an injury.
“We have a lot of new faces this year,” Francis said. “Having said that, we return eight starters from last year. We have a lot of returning players who played a lot of minutes.”
The team returns its top offensive options from a year ago. Senior Grace Hagan paced the squad with seven goals and five assists, while junior Katie McClure notched six scores during her sophomore campaign.
Both player represented the team Thursday, as Kansas begins the season with No. 18 Pepperdine at 7 p.m. Friday at Rock Chalk Park.
“You can’t paint a better picture,” Hagan said. “Friday night under the lights, and you are playing a top-25 team as your first game with 30 players that have worked together all summer. We are excited to finally get started.”
Stanley Redwine, who is the coach of the men’s and women’s cross-country team, closed things out at Fall Sports Media Day. Senior Chris Melgares and junior Riley Cooney were chosen to represent the team.
The cross-country team has only been practicing for two days, but Redwine and the two athletes believe the team is right on schedule due to their individual work in the offseason. Redwine noticed that most of the team was running in a pack during the first two practices.
“Last year, we emphasized the success of the team,” Redwine said. “We had some injuries last year, so those injuries had a lot of people out for the season. This year, we are doing a better job of that and making sure we pace ourselves right.”
Melgares, a redshirt senior from Manhattan High, was one of the many athletes that dealt with injuries last fall.
Rather than get bothered by being sidelined, Melgares took the opportunity to be more of a vocal leader for the team. It is a role he plans to fully embrace during practices and meets throughout the 2018 season.
“Last year was a challenging year because I dealt with a lot of injuries,” Melgares said. “A big thing I learned that year is positivity plays a huge impact on a team. Even if you are not actually running with the team, being positive is something you can bring to the team every day.”
Kansas opens the season at 9 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 1, in the Bob Timmons Classic at Rim Rock Farm.