Kansas volleyball head coach Ray Bechard doesn’t mind acknowledging that just a month ago, he wasn’t exactly sure the Jayhawks had an NCAA Tournament run in their future.
At the time, KU had lost eight of its last nine matches, and had just four more dates on the schedule to alter its trajectory.
As it turned out, the Jayhawks were on the verge of not only a four-match winning streak to close the regular season, but also becoming one of volleyball’s biggest postseason stories, knocking off 19th-ranked Oregon (22-9) and the tournament’s No. 14 overall seed, Creighton (31-4), on back to back nights to reach the Sweet 16.
“It's hard to predict when you’re 12-11 and you're looking from the outside, in for the NCAA Tournament,” Bechard marveled. “And then suddenly the kids flip the switch.”
As the team turned a corner in recent weeks, and secured the program’s first invitation to the tournament since 2017, sophomore Caroline Crawford said the Jayhawks (18-11) adopted a “why not us” mentality along the way.
Junior libero Kennedy Farris said the players have enjoyed taking on the underdog role and approaching every outing like they have nothing to lose.
“And just playing with an open mind and letting people think we can’t do it, and proving people wrong,” Farris said. “Like, who doesn't love that?”
Bechard, currently in his 24th season as KU’s head coach, can appreciate the benefit of competing in the postseason without much pressure. Just five years ago, the Jayhawks entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 5 overall seed and lost a dramatic five-set match at home to Creighton in the second round, ending the team’s chances of going to back-to-back Final Fours.
The roles were flipped for the two programs Friday night, in Omaha, Neb.
“I’ll tell you what, in ’16 we carried around the expectations of the volleyball world, we felt like,” Bechard said. “So, yeah, we had a lot freer minds tonight.”
Some of KU’s most impactful players this year have been underclassmen, such as Crawford, Big 12 freshman of the year Caroline Bien and freshman setter Camryn Turner. The youth of the roster as a whole has been a frequent topic, too, as the Jayhawks have emerged and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015.
“I think the staff, we had patience with this group. We didn't give up on them. We came to work every day and got a little bit better,” Bechard said of the process. “And we've riding a pretty good wave right now. We're playing extremely well and the newcomers aren’t freshmen anymore. They've got 29 matches under their belt and they're starting to play pretty veteran volleyball.”
As Bechard pointed out, KU’s rotation has some veterans, too, with graduate transfer Mosser, seniors Anezka Szabo, Rachel Langs, Lacey Angello and Audri Suter, and junior Farris all part of the lineup, too.
The chemistry the group has developed, Mosser explained, helped the Jayhawks look like a team of mature veterans as they recovered from a 15-11 deficit in the fourth and decisive set against Creighton in the second round.
“I think we stopped trying to do too much. In the beginning of the set it kind of felt like we were all over the place, like each person was trying to do too much,” Mosser said. “And then we went back to, ‘No, I'm just going to do my own job.’ And that worked out better for us.”
KU will face No. 3 overall seed Pittsburgh in the Sweet 16. The match will be on Thursday at Pitt.