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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Talented freshman class played huge role in KU volleyball program’s return to NCAA Tournament

Kansas freshman Caroline Bien swings at a ball during the Jayhawks' home sweep of Wichita State on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 at Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena.

Kansas freshman Caroline Bien swings at a ball during the Jayhawks' home sweep of Wichita State on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 at Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena.

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On Tuesday, Kansas freshmen Caroline Bien and London Davis were honored by the Big 12 Conference as the 2021 freshman of the year and the rookie of the week, respectively.

The latest accolades were a fitting way to underscore the importance of KU’s freshman class in getting the program back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017.

In addition to the most recent awards claimed by Bien and Davis, freshman setter Camryn Turner also was named to the conference’s all-freshman team (with Bien) and all three earned weekly honors throughout the season.

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KU setter Camryn Turner locks in on the ball during a point in the Jayhawks' four-set win over Oklahoma on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021 at Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena.

None of it came as a surprise to KU coach Ray Bechard, who said Tuesday that he and his staff had high hopes for this class, which also includes defensive specialist Bryn McGehe. But the level at which they have competed and the bond they have built was something Bechard described as a pleasant surprise.

“I stopped them after practice (Monday), all four of them were there, and I said, ‘You guys like each other, don’t you?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, we really do,’” Bechard said Tuesday. “This group has the exact mindset and they’ve created the culture that can sustain itself for a long time.”

Added Bien of that freshman bond: “It’s awesome. We are all so close and it has been so fun to see each other grow and see each other develop as the season’s gone on.”

They haven’t done it by themselves, of course. This Kansas team (16-11 overall, 8-8 Big 12), which will take on Oregon at 4:30 p.m. Thursday in Omaha, Neb., in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, features a good blend of youth and experience, all of it loaded with grit.

Super-senior Jenny Mosser earned second-team all-Big 12 honors and was the most consistently reliable player on the roster from beginning to end. Sophomore middle blocker Caroline Crawford — another regular recipient of the Big 12’s weekly honors — also landed on the all-Big 12 second team. And their talent, leadership and willingness to let the freshman fly has played a huge role in this team’s success, as well.

“I think in the beginning of the season, it did take them a little bit to get used to playing with the upperclassmen,” said junior libero Kennedy Farris. “But them realizing that we trusted them was a big part of them being more successful.”

Added Crawford: “I think they’ve matured a lot throughout the season, and I think that comes from building trust off the court. When you have trust off the court, everything on the court is so much easier. They’re pretty fast learners and they’ve kind of found their own way through it, too.”

Long comfortable with their roles on this team by now, the focus for this freshman class, and their teammates, now shifts to finding a way to advance at the NCAA Tournament.

Bechard said earlier this week that, at this stage in the season, it’s all about confidence and comfort. The teams that arrive with poise and carry that onto the court will have the best chances to advance because the teams are all so talented at this stage.

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Outside hitter London Davis swings at a ball during Kansas' victory over the Kansas City Roos on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021 at Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena.

Seven of the nine Big 12 schools that have volleyball reached the NCAA Tournament, so facing high-level competition will not be new for the Jayhawks, young or old.

But the fact that Mosser (at UCLA) and fifth-year senior Anezka Szabo (at Nebraska) have both experienced the NCAA Tournament before should help as the Jayhawks prepare for the first serve against Oregon on Thursday.

“I think it will definitely help,” Mosser said of the duo’s past postseason experience. “Going into the tournament’s very exciting, but keeping everyone calm and reminding them it’s just another game is important. It kind of seems like the stakes are higher, but you’ve got nothing to lose once it gets to this point.”

Comments

Dirk Medema 1 month, 3 weeks ago

Nice to meet a couple of the players. Thanks

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