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Posts tagged with Volleyball

Cubs curse dies the night K-State hex marches on

Kansas State president Kirk Schulz laughs after speaking to reporters after the Big 12 conference meeting Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, in Irving, Texas. Schulz will soon leave K-State to become president at Washington State University. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Kansas State president Kirk Schulz laughs after speaking to reporters after the Big 12 conference meeting Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, in Irving, Texas. Schulz will soon leave K-State to become president at Washington State University. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

One old sports curse finally perished Wednesday night, a few hours after a newer one mushroomed. First, a word on the curse that died a stormy death in Cleveland.

William "Billy Goat" Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, purchased two tickets to the 1945 World Series. His second ticket was for his billy goat, Murphy. The goat was denied admission and when Sianis pleaded with Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley for an explanation, Wrigley said, "Because the goat stinks." Legend has it that Sianis was so fumed at Wrigley that he put a curse on the Cubs and said they never would win a World Series so long as the goat was denied admission.

The curse finally died. Although extra innings and a rain delay extended it for a while, the Cubs finally won their first World Series since 1908.

Meanwhile, the Curse of the Kirky Gloat continued when Kansas defeated K-State in five sets. What, you never have heard of the Curse of the Kirky Gloat? That's because I just invented it, but it was inspired by an actual event and what has happened since is downright spooky.

Cue the scary recordings if you have any left over from Halloween.

Here's what happened: Kirk Schulz, president at Kansas State from 2009 to March, 2016, enjoyed sports and the spotlight, so when the Wildcats advanced to the 2011 Sweet 16 in the NCAA volleyball tournament, the prez could not resist gloating. He Tweeted a photograph of the Sweet 16 banner that was unfurled the following season and he typed a message along the lines of, "The only school in the state of Kansas that has one of these."

Mistake. Big, big mistake. Volleyball gods don't dig braggarts.

Since the Tweet that flew off the fingers of Schulz, now the head honcho at Washington State, Kansas has defeated Kansas State in all five trips to Manhattan and has enjoyed its most successful stretch ever. Since the Tweet created the Curse of the Kirky Gloat, Kansas has been to four NCAA tournaments, a Sweet 16 and a Final Four. Kansas State has made it to three NCAA tournaments without advancing past the first round.

It has to be the curse's fault because as was illustrated again Wednesday night inside Ahearn Field House, the Wildcats have outstanding fan support with students doing everything they can to distract the visitor without getting low-class about it. And the well-coached volleyball team is loaded with scrappy, smart, powerful players. Has to be the curse. What else could it be, but the Curse of the Kirky Gloat?

Interestingly, the urban dictionary defines the word, "kirky," as "god of lightweight."

Schulz, no doubt, accomplished many positive things during his tenure in Manhattan, but the Tweet that created the curse was a lightweight move all the way. Will it lead to a 108-year drought? Doubtful, but five years are down with only 103 to go.

Reply 2 comments from Oldjayhawkjack Michael Lorraine

KU volleyball, Royals ride to rescue for last-minute shoppers

Last-minute Christmas shoppers seeking ideas to put a smile on the faces of sports fans on their lists ought to think Kansas volleyball and Kansas City Royals because everybody loves a winner.

1 - Two season tickets for Kansas volleyball, 2016: After becoming the first in the program’s history to make it to the Elite Eight, the Jayhawks (shown above in John Young photo from NCAA tournament victory against Furman) then became just the 18th school in the history of the NCAA tournament to reach a Final Four. Both of KU’s All-American selections, setter Ainise Havili and right-side hitter Kelsie Payne, have two remaining years of eligibility and just two seniors participated in KU’s five post-season matches.

The Final Four is scheduled to take place at Sprint Center in 2017, when Havili and Payne will be seniors. Might as well catch their junior seasons, learn the nuances of the sport as I plan to do, and enjoy watching as exciting a spectator sport as there is.

Watching women’s college basketball doesn’t do justice to the athleticism of the players because the game is played below the net. Volleyball is played above the net Kansas plays an exceptionally exciting brand of it.

If season tickets aren’t for sale yet, I’m sure someone can put your name on a list and call you when they are available. It’s dollar-for-dollar the best sports entertainment in Lawrence.

Denny Matthews points to the radio booth at Kauffman Stadium during
his induction into the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame. Matthews,
the voice of the Royals since the club's inception in 1969, was
honored Saturday in Kansas City, Mo.

Denny Matthews points to the radio booth at Kauffman Stadium during his induction into the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame. Matthews, the voice of the Royals since the club's inception in 1969, was honored Saturday in Kansas City, Mo. by AP Photo

2 -A CD of highlight calls by Denny Matthews, Voice of the Royals: Pat Huges, voice of the Chicago Cubs, has done a series of “Commemorative Audio Tributes to Baseball’s Greatest Announcers.” His latest is on Matthews. Hughes narrates it, interviews Matthews about big moments and runs unedited clips of calls from famous moments in Royals history.

I wrote the biography of the late, great Ernie Harwell, long-time voice of the Detroit Tigers and it was a great experience getting to know such a kind, talented man. But the problem with a book about a broadcaster is that it’s impossible to capture the voice in the printed word. This format does a better job telling the story of a broadcaster’s career.

Hughes’ series also includes compact discs (and digital downloads) on the careers of Mel Allen, Red Barber, Marty Brennaman, Jack Buck, Harry Caray, Milo Hamilton, Russ Hodges, Lon Simmons, Harry Kalas, Dave Niehaus, Bob Prince, Ron Santo, Chuck Thompson and Bob Uecker.

The series is a cool idea well executed by Hughes.

Shop at www.baseballvoices.com or call (847) 867-3682.

Reply 1 comment from Joe Ross

KU volleyball getting red-carpet treatment

The Kansas volleyball team fueled itself for tonight's 8:30 tipoff in a national semifinal vs. Nebraska with a 4:30 meal at the Embassy Suites, the team hotel. The athletes filled their plates by choosing from: salad, roasted-potato wedges, small sirloin strips, small chicken breasts, mixed vegetables (squash, zucchini, carrots), wild rice and dinner rolls.

The close-knit group of competitors began boarding the team bus outside the hotel at 5:45. Two police squad cars — the first a sedan, the second an SUV — turned their lights on at 5:53 and as the lead car turned onto 10th Street its siren began to blare and the six-block, six-minute police escort to the CenturyLink Center began.

The Jayhawks then went from the bus into the arena and onto a red carpet to start a walk (that Journal-World photographer Richard Gwin captured with above photo) to their locker room to get ready for to play a volleyball match in front of a standing-room only crowd in excess of 17,000 people. The winner advances to Saturday's national-championship match. The loser goes home after an outstanding season.

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Jayhawks appreciate men who drove them on road to Omaha

Kansas senior Anna Church (1) keeps the ball in play off a block during Kansas' second round NCAA volleyball tournament match against Missouri on Friday night at the Horejsi Center. The Jayhawks sent the Tigers packing with a three set sweep.

Kansas senior Anna Church (1) keeps the ball in play off a block during Kansas' second round NCAA volleyball tournament match against Missouri on Friday night at the Horejsi Center. The Jayhawks sent the Tigers packing with a three set sweep. by John Young

OMAHA — The road to the Final Four can’t be traveled without bus drivers behind the wheel. The Kansas volleyball team has a way of making fans out of those transporting them.

“My favorite team,” said John Bialek, bus driver for KU’s basketball teams, baseball, softball, soccer, track, cheerleading, swimming and sometimes tennis teams. “They treat me like a king.” Bialek normally is allowed entry to watch the matches, but with tickets so tight at sold-out CenturyLink Center, as of this afternoon, he wasn’t yet sure if he would be able to watch tonight’s 8:30 match vs. Nebraska.

Bialek said he has been driving KU’s teams for “about 12, 13 years. When I first started driving them, I didn’t know the rules real well. After driving them for so many years, I can yell at the referees ‘cuz I know the bad calls when I see them.”

Bialek said he’s made to feel like part of the volleyball team.

“When they have their banquet for senior night, they always invite me and recognize me,” he said.

They don’t just appreciate Bialek, but everyone who drives them, it seems.

“Our bus driver, Jose, did a great job for us,” senior Anna Church said, looking back on their trip to San Diego, the launching pad to the Final Four. “He was giving us motivational speeches. He really emphasized, ‘Play for yourselves. Play for KU. Remember, you’re representing KU and you guys can do this.’ He was just a really great guy."

Shortly after the team arrived at CenturyLink Center for the Nebraska match, Jose sent a text to KU assistant athletic director Jim Marchiony, wishing "the No. 1 volleyball team in the NCAA tournament," luck.

“He gave us a tour of San Diego," Church said of Jose. "He knew everything about the city. He took us to the fish market. There’s a big Navy Ship. I don’t remember what it’s called. The Fish Market’s a restaurant down in the harbor area, and we drove through downtown to get there, so he gave us a tour of downtown.”

Church, who transferred to KU from Saint Louis University for her senior year, couldn’t remember the name of the ship, but Google, the font of all knowledge, knows it: USS Midway.

With Bialek behind the wheel, the volleyball team left Lawrence at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday. Just being in their company put Bialek in a good mood.

“There’s more spotlight on the (men’s) basketball players, more pressure,” Bialek said. “These girls, I’ve been to some of their parents’ houses for dinner and what not. It’s just a lot more fun.

Reply 4 comments from Dirk Medema Dale Rogers The_muser

Flyover country is volleyball country now

This year's NCAA women's volleyball tournament Final Four at CenturyLink Center features four schools from the Central time zone.

This year's NCAA women's volleyball tournament Final Four at CenturyLink Center features four schools from the Central time zone. by Tom Keegan

OMAHA — USC headed to the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament West regional in San Diego last week on a quest to win a seventh national championship. It’s more difficult than ever to win one, isn’t it?

“No question that that’s true,” Trojans coach Mick Haley answered, two days before getting knocked out of the tournament by Kansas University in an Elite Eight match. “It used to be that you felt like the kids on the West Coast would play a little bit more volleyball because they get to play in the summers and outdoors. If you look at the number of matches and the number of practices kids in the Midwest and on the East Coast and the Southwest are playing now, they’re all playing about the same number. It’s amazing.”

As a result, Haley said, “recruiting shifts from each side of the country from year to year. You know, Texas has more than 38,000 high school kids playing. California has 37,000 now. Texas has actually taken the lead.”

Haley also listed Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio as “very strong recruiting areas,” and added, “Iowa, believe it or not, is a very strong state to get talent out of. You don’t have an advantage being on one side of the country or another now. There’s talent everywhere.”

This Final Four at CenturyLink Center features all teams from the Central time zone, two from the Big Ten (Minnesota and Nebraska), two from the Big 12 (Kansas and Texas), meaning that for the third year in a row, the Pac-12 will not have a team playing in the national-title match. The Big Ten had six teams in the Sweet 16.

In every season from 2001 through 2008, the Pac-12 had at least one team in the title match.

“I think it speaks to the parity across the nation,” Kansas coach Ray Bechard said.

Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon cited the same factor.

“Perhaps at one point it used to be a little more West Coast dominated, but it seems that there’s great volleyball players and great volleyball programs everywhere,” he said.

Nebraska coach John Cook talks about defending KU's Kelsie Payne.

Nebraska coach John Cook talks about defending KU's Kelsie Payne. by Richard Gwin

Nebraska, which holds an 86-0-1 series record vs. Kansas, and Texas are far from new to the big stage.

“Way back, Nebraska and Texas kind of opened the door, and then Penn State,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “Now you’re seeing teams like BYU, Kansas, that are breaking the doors down in regards to anybody can get into this Final Four and this NCAA Championship. So I think you’re seeing great balance across the country.”

KU’s recent run has grown the fan base overnight, although that won’t be evident at Thursday’s match vs. Nebraska because each school was limited to 200 tickets. Cornhuskers fans long ago bought up most of the tickets.

“It’s great for the sport,” Cook said of new teams crashing the gates of volleyball heaven. “I think it creates great stories. Similar to what men’s basketball does in the NCAA Tournament, where a Butler can be in the Final Four. ... I also look at Texas, which has been here five years straight, which is an amazing accomplishment.”

Half of the 14 first-team All-Americans are from Final Four teams: Ainise Havili and Kelsie Payne of Kansas, Kadie Rolfzen of Nebraska, Amy Neal and Chiak Ogbogu of Texas, and Daly Santana and Hannah Tapp of Minnesota. Wisconsin’s Lauren Carlini makes it eight first-team All-Americans from Central time zone schools.

Three players — Florida’s Rhamat Alhassan, Ohio State’s Taylor Sandbothe and Penn State’s Haleigh Washington — made it from Eastern time zone schools. Just two, USC’s Samantha Bricio and Washington’s Lianna Sybeldon, are from the Pacific time zone and BYU’s Alexa Gray is the lone first-team selection from a Mountain time zone.

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Flyover country is volleyball country now

This year's NCAA women's volleyball tournament Final Four at CenturyLink Center features four schools from the Central time zone.

This year's NCAA women's volleyball tournament Final Four at CenturyLink Center features four schools from the Central time zone. by Tom Keegan

OMAHA — USC headed to the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament West regional in San Diego last week on a quest to win a seventh national championship. It’s more difficult than ever to win one, isn’t it?

“No question that that’s true,” Trojans coach Mick Haley answered, two days before getting knocked out of the tournament by Kansas University in an Elite Eight match. “It used to be that you felt like the kids on the West Coast would play a little bit more volleyball because they get to play in the summers and outdoors. If you look at the number of matches and the number of practices kids in the Midwest and on the East Coast and the Southwest are playing now, they’re all playing about the same number. It’s amazing.”

As a result, Haley said, “recruiting shifts from each side of the country from year to year. You know, Texas has more than 38,000 high school kids playing. California has 37,000 now. Texas has actually taken the lead.”

Haley also listed Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio as “very strong recruiting areas,” and added, “Iowa, believe it or not, is a very strong state to get talent out of. You don’t have an advantage being on one side of the country or another now. There’s talent everywhere.”

This Final Four at CenturyLink Center features all teams from the Central time zone, two from the Big Ten (Minnesota and Nebraska), two from the Big 12 (Kansas and Texas), meaning that for the third year in a row, the Pac-12 will not have a team playing in the national-title match. The Big Ten had six teams in the Sweet 16.

In every season from 2001 through 2008, the Pac-12 had at least one team in the title match.

“I think it speaks to the parity across the nation,” Kansas coach Ray Bechard said.

Texas coach Hugh McCuthcheon cited the same factor.

“Perhaps at one point it used to be a little more West Coast dominated, but it seems that there’s great volleyball players and great volleyball programs everywhere,” he said.

Nebraska coach John Cook talks about defending KU's Kelsie Payne.

Nebraska coach John Cook talks about defending KU's Kelsie Payne. by Richard Gwin

Nebraska, which holds an 86-0-1 series record vs. Kansas, and Texas are far from new to the big stage.

“Way back, Nebraska and Texas kind of opened the door, and then Penn State,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “Now you’re seeing teams like BYU, Kansas, that are breaking the doors down in regards to anybody can get into this Final Four and this NCAA Championship. So I think you’re seeing great balance across the country.”

KU’s recent run has grown the fan base overnight, although that won’t be evident at Thursday’s match vs. Nebraska because each school was limited to 200 tickets. Cornhuskers fans long ago bought up most of the tickets.

“It’s great for the sport,” Cook said of new teams crashing the gates of volleyball heaven. “I think it creates great stories. Similar to what men’s basketball does in the NCAA Tournament, where a Butler can be in the Final Four. ... I also look at Texas, which has been here five years straight, which is an amazing accomplishment.”

Half of the 14 first-team All-Americans are from Final Four teams: Ainise Havili and Kelsie Payne of Kansas, Kadie Rolfzen of Nebraska, Amy Neal and Chiak Ogbogu of Texas, and Daly Santana and Hannah Tapp of Minnesota. Wisconsin’s Lauren Carlini makes it eight first-team All-Americans from Central time zone schools.

Three players — Florida’s Rhamat Alhassan, Ohio State’s Taylor Sandbothe and Penn State’s Haleigh Washington — made it from Eastern time zone schools. Just two, USC’s Samantha Bricio and Washington’s Lianna Sybeldon, are from the Pacific time zone and BYU’s Alexa Gray is the lone first-team selection from a Mountain time zone.

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Where the KU volleyball comeback ranks

Tom Keegan

Tom Keegan by Nick Krug

OMAHA — In the moments after such a devastating volleyball setback to Kansas last weekend in San Diego, USC coach Mick Haley was asked where the loss ranked.

“Yeah, I think the worst,” Haley said. “But you know, the next win will be the best. That’s the way it goes. You start ranking them, you might as well retire. That’s what you do after you quit trying to win the next one. But this one teased us so badly that, just a little hard to get over.”

Conversely, you stop ranking things as a sportswriter and it’s time to retire. It’s in our blood. In roughly 35 years of hacking away, I have had the good fortune of covering many championship teams as a beat writer (1988 Los Angeles Dodgers) and columnist (Michael Jordan’s first three championships; Derek Jeter’s four championships in five seasons; Mario’s Miracle and the Todd Reesing/Aqib Talib Orange Bowl champions).

The most exciting games to watch generally are the most difficult to write because they involve remarkable comebacks on deadline, which requires a last-minute switch from writing a loss to writing a victory.

Five comebacks that I covered live rank as my favorites, which isn’t to say they rank as the biggest to anyone else, just to me.

I selected these off the top of my head and then did research to see which ones I either excluded because they didn’t come to mind as quickly or or decided not to include, all from Kansas basketball (KU 108, Iowa State 96, overtime, 2013; KU 88, Texas 84, OT, 2007; KU 85, Kansas State 74, 2009; KU 70, North Carolina 58, 2013).

Now, my five favorite comebacks during 35 years as a sportswriter:

5 - Kansas defeats Ohio State in 2012 Final Four: In the first half, one of Tyshawn Taylor’s better passes was caught by coach Bill Self. Ohio State, with Aaron Craft getting the better of Taylor, jumped to a 26-13 lead. In the second half, no Buckeye could stop Taylor from getting to the hoop. Kansas, which had made similar comebacks throughout the season, won it 64-62 to advance to a national-title showdown with Kentucky.

It remains the only post-Tulsa team that Self has coached that did not have a single McDonald’s All-American on the roster.

4 - The 2008 men’s basketball Final Four in San Antonio remains the only one that featured four No. 1 seeds: Kansas facing North Carolina in one semifinal, UCLA meeting Memphis in the other.

Down nine points with 2:12 remaining, KU forced overtime on Chalmers’ three-pointer with 2.1 seconds remaining and finished with 18 points. Darrell Arthur had 20. Sherron Collins made huge plays. Brandon Rush, as always, played stellar defense.

Cases could be made for Arthur, Chalmers and Rush being the MVP of that team, but there was no debate as to which star was the one Self most wanted taking the big shot and that was Chalmers.

Memphis missed 4 of 5 free throws down the stretch in regulation, but too much was made of that. KU had to do everything right at the end and did so well before Chalmers delivered in the clutch yet again.

The thing about thrilling comebacks in title games, they also mean seasons are over, which keeps this one from ranking higher. That was a phenomenal team that moved the ball, defended and played in transition so well that it was a delight to watch.

3 - Kansas rallies from 19 points down to defeat Missouri in the final basketball game of the Border War series: Thomas Robinson’s blocked shot forced overtime and he had a terrific game. But it was the relentless, under control way that Taylor led the team back that is the first thing that pops into my head when I reflect on that game.

2 - Kirk Gibson, his hamstring burning like a bonfire, rips a two-run homer to lift the Dodgers to a 5-4 thriller in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

Gibson could barely walk when he arrived at Dodger Stadium, where Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire and closer Dennis Eckersley made the Oakland A’s the heavy favorites to win the World Series.

I had covered 144 of the 162 regular-season games, including all of Orel Hershiser’s 59 consecutive scoreless innings, and all of the postseason ones.

Gibson changed the entire tone of the organization during the first intrasquad scrimmage of spring training. Think about that.

Good chance no athlete in history has made his presence felt on a team as quickly as did Gibson. He did so by taking out the second baseman, spikes flying high, to break up a double play. On the day of the first exhibition game at Dodgertown’s Holman Stadium, someone had lined the inside of Gibson’s cap with eye black. While Gibson was running on the field to warm up for the game, the eye black began to run down his face. He figured out what had happened, stormed off the field and left the grounds, sending a loud statement that he nobody was to mess with him at his workplace.

Gibson, once a star wide receiver at Michigan State, had an intimidating presence about him. The next day, manager Tommy Lasorda made the perpetrator of the eyeblack prank apologize to Gibson in front of the whole team. It had to be a difficult admission for reliever Jesse Orosco to make, given that Gibson could have beaten him to a pulp. When asked how one goes about making such an admission to someone like Gibson, Orosco gave one of the all-time great responses: “Easy, I just walked up to him with a loaded pistol, pointed it in his face and said, ‘I did it.’ ”

The Dodgers went on to win the World Series in five games and have not returned to the Fall Classic since.

1 - Down 13-9 in the fifth set, the Kansas volleyball team rallies to win by scoring the last six points to advance to the Final Four.

The final rally lasted for an eternity and featured a Kelsie Payne bullet beautifully defended, two spectacular Cassie Wait digs and Madison Rigdon’s powerful winning kill on a sweet set from Ainise Havili. Down went USC, the No. 1 seed in the tournament the Trojans hoped would end with them winning their seventh national title.

Unlike with the four comebacks listed above, the team that made this one flies commercial, not via chartered airplanes. Also unlike the other teams, only one newspaper, the Journal-World, had a staff member on hand to cover the comeback.

It launched a program that never had been to the Elite Eight all the way into the Final Four, a program that for the first time is on a four-year run of making the NCAA tournament. The comeback happened so fast, until that final rally, it was almost hard to believe my eyes.

I never thought I would see the day that the Gibson moment dropped to second, but it just did last week.

Reply 7 comments from Matt Lacey Jayhawkmarshall Dirk Medema Len Shaffer Brett McCabe Texashawk10_2

Kansas volleyball squad too good to fit underdog role

Kansas senior Tiana Dockery, right, receives a hug from teammate, junior Janae Hall following Kansas' second round NCAA volleyball tournament match against Missouri on Friday night at the Horejsi Center. The Jayhawks sent the Tigers packing with a three set sweep.

Kansas senior Tiana Dockery, right, receives a hug from teammate, junior Janae Hall following Kansas' second round NCAA volleyball tournament match against Missouri on Friday night at the Horejsi Center. The Jayhawks sent the Tigers packing with a three set sweep. by John Young

SAN DIEGO — They aren’t the new kids brashly crashing the establishment party anymore. The underdog label no longer fits and the Kansas University volleyball players are just fine with that.

Two Sweet 16 appearances in three years. Host school for first-and-second-round matches in each of the past four years, joining an elite list of six others who can say the same. Athletic, smart, talented volleyball players so well suited for their roles. A 28-2 record with both losses coming to Texas. A 10-2 record against teams that made the NCAA tournament. An attention-grabbing .311 team hitting percentage.

That’s not the resume of an underdog. More like a list of accomplishments by a team befitting an Elite Eight appearance, which is what Kansas will make if it defeats Loyola Marymount today (7:30 p.m. Central in Jenny Craig Pavilion on the campus of University of San Diego.)

The Kansas coaching staff recruits nationally at an elite level and polishes the talent with aggressive, smart mental, physical and technique training.

Sure Kansas draws a tough opponent in Loyola Marymount University tonight, but not as tough as LMU draws.

If Las Vegas offered betting lines on volleyball, Kansas would be favored, even though LMU (24-8) is coming off a sweep of Stanford and has gone 15-2 after a shaky start. After all, who’s to say Kansas, the No. 9 seed in the tournament, wouldn’t have swept Stanford, the No. 8. seed.

Nothing about KU’s talent suggests the Jayhawks are anything but legitimate Final Four contenders, even though No. 1 seed USC casts a huge shadow at Jenny Craig Pavilion.

Ainise Havili, Kelsie Payne and Tayler Soucie were named All-Big 12 first-team. Madison Rigdon earned second-team honors. All four return next year, so this is not a temporary elevation of a program destined to fade back into oblivion as quickly as it escaped it.

Kansas can’t sell a long tradition of big-time winning, but in some ways the human factors that draw recruits to the school run even deeper. Listening to Payne talk about her decision to come to KU out of high school from Austin, Texas, made me realize that.

Payne talked about the campus tour she and her parents received from assistant coaches Todd Chamberlain and Laura “Bird” Kuhn.

“We saw everything and met some of the girls and fell in love with all of it,” Payne said. “We met all the administrative people, Scooter (Dr. Scott Ward, associate athletic director for academics and career counseling) and everyone and I said I want to be here. These are people I want to be around. I feel everyone here is just good friends with each other and it’s all relaxed. Down-to-earth people.”

She isn't the first KU athlete I have interviewed who mentioned the impression Ward made during a recruiting visit. His down-to-earth vibe and commitment to helping them down a path toward a degree resonates with recruits and parents. Athletes with similarly humble personalities like the idea he'll be watching over them in a friendly, subtly relentless way.

This group is a grounded one and the players are such close friends that they feel comfortable being blunt when needed. They revel in teammates' successes, so intangibles do play a role. So do very loud tangibles.

Senior Tiana "Dock" Dockery, the only player in Kansas history to participate in four NCAA tournaments, said this is the most athletic team for which she has competed.

“We found that out during the spring,” Dockery said. “We have a fitness test and we blew it out of the water."

The strength of the team starts with the quick reflexes, great leaping ability and strong hand-eye coordination, but blossoms well beyond that.

“Couple that with good volleyball players, too,” 18th-year head coach Ray Bechard said. “Their volleyball IQ is high and they enjoy playing with each other. They really do enjoy competing together, so it’s been a competitive chemistry, too, I think, that has allowed us to create a good season.”

A very good season that very well could end late Saturday night against a loaded USC squad, but something tells me it won’t end tonight.

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