Texas A&M has identified Kansas volleyball associate head coach Laura “Bird” Kuhn as its choice to become head volleyball coach and is expected to announce the hiring after the first of the year, barring any last-minute snag in contract negotiations.
The AVCA named Kuhn national assistant coach of the year in 2015, when sophomore All-Americans Ainise Havili and Kelsie Payne led KU to its first Final Four. The Jayhawks followed that up by winning their first conference title, edging Texas to win the Big 12 in 2016. Missouri bounced Kansas from the NCAA tournament in five sets in the first round this season.
Kuhn played a big role in helping KU to its best stretch of volleyball in school history.
Kuhn served as KU’s recruiting coordinator and was instrumental in landing Havili, Payne and Madison Rigdon, all of whom started as sophomores for KU’s Final Four squad. Kuhn also worked with KU’s middle blockers, including All-American Caroline Jarmoc.
Kuhn joined Bechard’s staff in 2011 and was elevated to associate head coach in advance of the 2015 season.
Kuhn has not made final decisions on her staff but could have an interest in talking to Bechard’s other top assistant coach, Todd Chamberlain, about joining her at Texas A&M. Chamberlain came to KU to work for Bechard one year before Bechard recruited Kuhn onto his staff.
KU’s recent success, coupled with the fact the school is expanding its home court, the Horejsi Center, from a capacity of 1,300 to 3,000 in 2019, make the two openings on KU’s staff attractive ones.
Kuhn, considered for the past few years to be Bechard's successor in waiting, has shut down feelers for other jobs in recent years, but none quite as appealing as the Texas A&M position.
The magic for the Kansas volleyball program started when the Jayhawks made a thrilling run into the 2015 Final Four and continued through winning the 2016 Big 12 title, a pair of program firsts.
Kansas has a number of quality victories since then, but the magic is on hiatus.
Creighton bounced KU from the 2016 NCAA tournament in a second-round, five-set match in Horejsi that went to extra points. Kansas (22-7 overall, 11-5 in conference) finished this season’s Big 12 schedule tied with Iowa State for third, five games behind Texas and two games behind second-place Baylor.
One thing hasn’t changed from the 2015 Final Four team that advanced to Omaha with an extraordinary comeback from a 13-9 deficit in the fifth set of its match against No. 1 overall seed USC: All-Americans Ainise Havili and Kelsie Payne and fellow senior Madison Rigdon, an all-conference player, remain the key trio for the Jayhawks.
Can they rekindle the magic?
KU made the tournament field for the sixth consecutive season. In the previous five, the Jayhawks played the first two rounds at home. This time, they travel to Wichita State and have a first-round match at 6 p.m. Friday against Missouri. Wichita State faces Radford at 8 p.m. and the winners of those two matches meet at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“Last year, I just thought we were maybe a little emotionally gutted because we want to win the Big 12 so bad,” KU coach Ray Bechard said. “We played a lot of five-set matches at the end of the year, so we really backed off our training. I think it being the first time having gone through that process we could have handled that a bit better.”
The inevitable exhale after claiming the first conference title in school history put the Jayhawks at risk of not regaining their edge. It was a different feel from 2015.
“Two years ago we were on a pretty good run (heading into the tournament),” Bechard said. “We were disappointed we didn’t win the Big 12 and we had a lot to prove in the tournament. I think that would resemble this year, the fact that the regular season didn’t work out in some ways like we had hoped.”
Kansas went 30-3 overall and 15-1 in the Big 12 in 2015.
“I’m not sure people remember we didn’t win the Big 12 in 2015,” Bechard said. “They remember the great run that we went on.”
Texas won the Big 12 in 2015. In the Final Four, Nebraska defeated Kansas in four sets and then swept Texas in the national-title match.
Kansas was ranked No. 19 in the AVCA poll released Monday; Wichita State (28-3) No. 20. Missouri (20-11) and Radford (25-4) are not ranked.
The home-court advantage gives Wichita State the favorite role.
KU's refusal to play Wichita State doesn't sit well with Shockers fans, which could lead some in the crowd for Friday's Missouri-Kansas match to root against the Jayhawks.
“I would like to think they’d root for somebody from Kansas, but that’s up to them," Bechard said. "They’re good volleyball fans. We have a good relationship with Wichita State in volleyball, respect what they’ve done. We’ve met, butted heads a couple of times the last few years in the NCAA tournament. We’ve had mixed results, won one of those and lost one. Coach (Chris) Lamb has done a great job and I’m sure the city of Wichita is very excited about the opportunity to host.”
It might not take magic to survive two matches in Wichita to advance, but it will take better volleyball than Kansas played in its final regular-season match, a five-set loss to West Virginia in Horejsi.
The Kansas volleyball team, ranked eighth in the nation in the preseason poll, coming off its first conference title in school history and armed with key seniors who as sophomores played in the Final Four, caught a tough break this week.
Sophomore outside hitter Patricia Montero from Ponce, Puerto Rico, suffered an ACL injury and will be lost for the season, coach Ray Bechard revealed Wednesday. Bechard said the versatile Montero had been performing as well as anyone on the roster during preseason practices. Montero was one of five players who played in all 30 matches for the Jayhawks last season and started in half of them.
“She’s somebody who can do a little bit of everything,” Bechard said. “She has a nice jump serve, she plays the back row well, she could attack, passes well, blocks well. She’s a six-rotation player and those are very difficult to find in volleyball.”
Despite the loss of Montero, the Jayhawks, led by All-Americans Kelsie Payne and Ainise Havili, will remain a fashionable pick to reach the Final Four, which will be in Sprint Center in Kansas City this Dec. 14-16.
"There are 25 teams in the country who think they can get there," Bechard said. "Now we have to (focus on) 'What is it about us that we can do on a daily basis to be one of the teams that gets there?'"
Kansas volleyball has what could be remembered as the school’s most talented and accomplished senior class in school history this coming season, but that doesn’t mean the Jayhawks won’t miss last year’s senior class.
Libero Cassie Wait and middle blocker Tayler Soucie were All-Big 12 players and reserve Maggie Anderson was known as one of the team’s better servers.
“We lost three big-time culture kids who were unbelievable teammates,” KU coach Ray Bechard said. “Maggie didn’t play as much, but she was big-time in the gym and the locker room, as were Cassie and Tayler.”
Winning programs have a way of sustaining themselves in part through winning traits being passed down from older to younger players, traits such as those that made Anderson, Soucie and Wait — recently nominated by the Kansas athletic department for the NCAA Woman of the Year award — “unbelievable teammates.”
Anderson, Soucie and Wait experienced a pair of firsts in KU volleyball history, making it to the Final Four in Omaha in 2015 and winning the Big 12 title in 2016.
The NCAA women’s volleyball Final Four is in Sprint Center, Dec. 14 and 16, so it’s a good year for Kansas to have a roster that has a legitimate shot to make a second run to the sport’s ultimate stage in three years.
A look at key dates on the Horejsi Center schedule:
Sept. 4: Kentucky visits for KU’s home opener. The Wildcats, coming off back-to-back strong recruiting classes, are young but extremley talented and are likely to appear in the preseason top 25.
Sept. 8: Purdue, the second of three opponents in the Kansas Invitational, gives Jayhawks a chance to avenge last season’s four-set loss in West Lafayette.
Sept. 9: Revenge weekend continues with Creighton, the school that bounced KU from the 2016 NCAA tournament in a thrilling match in Horejsi, in for a rematch. Might scalpers holding tickets in the air before this one?
Oct. 11: Texas very well could bring a No. 1 national ranking into this one and will want to pay back Kansas for winning the Big 12 title last season.
Nov. 8: Kansas State visits Horejsi and the rivalry match always brings out the best in the lively crowd.
Nov. 30-Dec. 2: KU likely will serve as host school for first-and-second-round matches in Horejsi.
Dec. 8-9: NCAA Championship Regionals. If Kansas has a strong enough season to merit being one of the host schools for the regionals, Allen Fieldhouse will be availble with basketball games taking place Dec. 6 and 10.
“We have the most competitive home nonconference schedule that we have ever had, paired with challenging lineup of matches away from home,” KU volleyball coach Ray Bechard said. “That jumps out at me initially - the opportunity we have to entertain some really good teams and to make a large footprint on the national stage.”
Having two All-American seniors, right-side hitter Kelsie Payne and setter Ainise Havili, who led their teams into the Final Four as sophomores and then won a school-first Big 12 title as juniors can make a school an attractive destination for transfers and that’s how the offseason played out for the Kansas volleyball program.
Libero Cassie Wait and middle blocker Tayler Soucie are gone but the Jayhawks have an experienced, talented roster joining the two All-Americans as they try to return to the Final Four, which is in Sprint Center this year.
The three transfers:
Middle blocker Taylor Alexander, a 6-foot-4 senior, ranked second on Ole Miss and 11th in the SEC with a .339 hitting percentage last season. Her 115 total blocks gave her the fourth-best single season total in Ole Miss history.
Middle blocker Mmachi Mwoke, a 6-1 sophomore, comes to Kansas from the Dallas area after a spending a year at Arizona State.
Right-side hitter/setter Gabby Simpson, a 6-3, senior, earned Pac-12 honorable mention honors at Colorado last season.
Half of the 16 players on KU’s roster are seniors, so experience won’t be an issue.
In other volleyball news, KU Athletics nominated Wait for the 2017 NCAA Woman of the Year Award. Wait’s final season as a KU player came when she was a first-year law student. She was named Big 12 Libero of the Year and AVCA All-American Honorable Mention after helping Kansas to earn its first conference title.
The Jayhawks have an exhibition match vs. UMKC on Saturday, Aug. 19 at 1 p.m. in Horejsi and open their season at North Carolina State at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25.
Victories and honors never stop pouring in for Kansas volleyball players, past and present.
The Jayhawks have gone 57-6 the past two years with Kelsie Payne earning first-team All-American honors both seasons and Ainise Havili picking up first-team and third-team All-American honors. KU appeared in the Final Four in 2015 and won the outright Big 12 title in 2016, pushing national runner-up Texas into second place.
And the Jayhawks’ hot streak extends beyond the volleyball court.
Catherine Carmichael, who started 27 matches during her five years at Kansas (2009-2013), brought more pride to the program with a recent accomplishment in a competitive arena of another sort.
Carmichael was crowned Miss Kansas USA 2017 after a three-day competition (Nov. 25-27) in Mulvane. She also won the swimsuit award. Wearing her sash and winning smile, Carmichael was on the scoreboard waving as she was introduced to the Allen Fieldhouse crowd during Tuesday night’s 90-88 men's basketball victory.
A graduate of KU and Manhattan High, where she was a two-time all-state selection in basketball, Carmichael is assistant director of recruiting for David Beaty’s football program. Her contributions at Kansas have been to the volleyball and football programs, but her first love was basketball, a sport her mother played at Bemidji State and her brother played at Illinois State.
Kansas volleyball coach Ray Bechard first became involved in recruiting Carmichael when he was scouting a high school teammate.
“I don’t even know if she played that night,” Bechard said of Carmichael. “We watched her warming up and she stood out. I did a home visit with her and she and her mom looked at me like I was crazy: ‘Coach, you’re the only one recruiting us.’ I told them you’ll redshirt a year, you’re going to begin to figure it out and we think by your third year, you’ll be a Big 12 volleyball player.”
That’s how it played out.
Carmichael turned down basketball offers from Creighton and Pittsburg State to come to KU as a preferred walkon and now calls that, “the best decision I ever made.”
A 6-foot-2 outside hitter during her playing days, Carmichael uses her organizational skills as assistant director of football recruiting. That job entails arranging the schedules (academic meetings, etc.) and other details (lodging, etc.) for recruits who make visits to campus. During the season, Carmichael flies ahead to road football games to make sure that everything in the team hotel — meal plans, meeting rooms, etc. — are in working order.
Lindenwood University in Missouri, where Beaty was wide receiver and class president, supplied scholarship money for the winner of the competition. Carmichael said she intends to use it toward a Masters degree from the school in a to-be-determined field via online classes.
Carmichael said she first competed in a pageant at the age of 18 and didn’t return to that arena of competition until finishing her volleyball career.
“I got back into it to feed my competitive spirit and got a coach,” she said. “A lot of people view doing pageants as a whole different realm from playing volleyball and working in football recruiting, but it really isn’t.”
Success in all three fields, she said, requires the same qualities, which she defined as, “hard work and determination.”
It took plenty of that in volleyball considering that Carmichael was recruited on potential.
“I messed up every drill in practice my freshman year and I’m sure the rest of the girls were thinking, ‘What in the world?’ There were times I even thought, ‘What am I doing?’ But it ended up being the best experience I’ve ever had,” she said.
Carmichael said the contestants for the Miss USA pageant expect to find out when and where it will take place in the next month.
Her schedule has her making appearances at various fundraisers, including ones near and dear to her heart, those that benefit pediatric cancer. Her younger brother is a two-time cancer survivor.
Reunion night for Bechard
Carmichael was not the only former Bechard volleyball player in the crowd Tuesday night.
K-State sophomore forward Dean Wade’s mother, Trish, was a two-time juco All-American volleyball player for Bechard at Barton County Community College.
Bechard visited with Wade’s parents, Jay and Trish Wade, before Tuesday’s game. Trish, volleyball and track coach at St. John High school, coached her volleyball team to state titles in 2008, 2010 and 2011. Jay lettered in 1985 as a wide receiver at Kansas State before transferring to Western Illinois.