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2014 Fall Sports Preview: Women's Volleyball

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Kansas volleyball has been surging over the past two seasons. Here's what to expect in 2014.

Overview

The Kansas women's volleyball program looks to build on its recent success under Head Coach Ray Bechard (aka HCRB, right?).  KU has been to the last two NCAA volleyball tournaments, and last year advanced to the program's first ever Sweet 16 where they fell to #3 overall seed Washington.  Kansas spent all of 2012 and 2013 ranked in the top-15 in the RPI.  Also, since 2012, KU has either been in the Top 25 or has been receiving votes in 24 of the last 27 national polls.  Combined with their 2014 preseason ranking of #22, KU has appeared on the poll for 12 consecutive weeks.  HCRB has won the last two Big 12 Coach of the Year awards.

As the KU volleyball program has improved, television exposure has increased as well.  For the second straight year, every home match will air on ESPN3.  In addition, the Oct. 5 match in Lawrence vs Texas will be aired on FSN and the Oct 22 match at Iowa State in Ames will be aired on ESPNU.

The Jayhawks will open the 2014 at home on August 29 vs Utah Valley State.

The 'Hawks will host their annual Crimson and Blue match on Saturday, Aug. 23 at 1 PM, inside the Horejsi Family Athletics Center (next to Allen Fieldhouse).  The event is free and open to the public.

2013 Recap

Kansas finished 2013 ranked #17 after their appearance in the Sweet 16.  KU also claimed sole possession of second place behind perennial power Texas in the Big 12 Conference.  Kansas opened 2013 with a tough non-conference schedule, and it showed early with the Jayhawks starting off the season 4-3 and losing their spot in the polls for a couple weeks.  However, Kansas went on to rip off six wins in a row to finish their non-con, including wins over Notre Dame and future 2013 Final Four participant Wisconsin in Madison.

The Jayhawks took that momentum and rolled through the Big 12, only suffering losses to Texas (twice), Iowa State, and a season finale upset at the hands of Oklahoma.  Despite the OU loss, the Jayhawks were selected for the second year in a row to host a regional, where they knocked off Wichita State and nationally-ranked Creighton, earning the program's first ever afore mentioned Sweet 16 berth.

Key Losses

Kansas lost a lot to graduation since last season.  Seven seniors departed, five of whom were key contributors.  Three of them hold top-five spots in Kansas record books - hitter Caroline Jarmoc (two-time All-American), libero Brianne Riley, and Big 12 Setter of the Year Erin McNorton would have been starters on almost any team in the country last year, and HCRB has his hands full in finding their replacements this year.

Key Returners

Fortunately for HCRB, the ‘Hawks have several key contributors from last year returning to go along with the 15th ranked recruiting class.  (For reference, the seven departing seniors' recruiting class was ranked #26.)  Last year, then-freshman Taylor Soucie set a KU freshman record for blocks in a season with 135.  Sophomore-to-be Cassie Wait will most likely be this season's libero, and if she starts for three years, Riley's digs record might be in jeopardy.  Also returning are key reserves junior-to-be Tiana Dockery and senior-to-be Sara McClinton, both of whom should be starting hitters this year.  McClinton led the Jayhawks in kill-per-set last fall, and will look to go two-for-two on converting Big 12 preseason accolades into Big 12 First Team honors at the end of the year.  Senior-to-be Chelsea Albers, a key player and starter last year, will be back as well.  Albers, McClinton, and Soucie have all been selected to the Big 12 Preseason Team and look to have strong seasons.

New Faces

The most difficult spot to replace will be Erin McNorton's vacated setter position.  Junior-to-be Maggie Anderson was expected to take over setting duties, however, remember that recruiting class I just mentioned?  It includes a young lady named Ainise Havili from Haltom City, TX.  As a high school senior, she was the 39th ranked player in the country last year and has been named Preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year after winning gold on the US Women's Junior National Team at the NORCECA Women's Under-20 Continental Championship in Guatemala (eesh that was a mouthful).  She is obviously highly regarded and should be expected to win the setter job in camp and run with it for the next four years.

(For the uninitiated, a setter would be akin to the quarterback on a football team.  A great setter really improves the rest of the offense.   They can take bad passes and make good sets (for kills) and can take decent and good passes and set up the hitters for easy kills.  If Havili is what she seems to be, Kansas will become a perennial Top-25 squad - at least for the next four years.  This was a huge get for HCRB.)

The other members of the incoming recruiting class are:

Addison Barry, Topeka, KS

Tori Miller, Derby, KS

Kayla Cheadle, Columbia, MO

Claire Carpenter, Rockwall, TX

Kelsie Payne, Austin, TX

Madison Ridgon, Pflugerville, TX

Season Outlook and Schedule

Kansas was picked in the Big 12 Preseason Poll to finish second behind national power and 2013 Final Four participant Texas.  KU even received one first place vote, another first in program history.  Kansas has passed Iowa State as the second best team in the Big 12 and is now attempting to run down Texas, which has won six of the last seven Big 12 titles, including the last three in a row.  The last team not named Texas to win a Big 12 title was Nebraska in their last year in the Big 12.  (For some reason, the Big 12 website doesn't go past 2008, so I don't know who the last current member of the Big 12 not named Texas was to win the conference.  My educated guess would be Iowa State.)

The Kansas non-conference schedule is a difficult one again this year.  Six of KU's opponents are on the preseason poll, including #1 Penn State and #2 Texas.  Penn State garnered 32 first-place votes after racking up its fifth national championship in the last seven years in 2013.  KU will face PSU for the first time in program history at the Villanova Tournament.  Also on the ‘Hawks schedule are preseason #23 Creighton and #24 American, the defending Patriot League champion.

In-conference, KU will play everyone home and away twice (Oklahoma State does not field a volleyball program), so they'll get two cracks at Texas.  Oklahoma and Iowa State are both receiving votes in the national poll as well.

Prediction

Look for a similar season to last year.  I could see Kansas starting off rough in the non-con, although I do realistically expect them to be no worse than 6-1 (and possibly 7-0) before the Villanova Tournament, where they will face Penn State.  HCRB has his schedule set up for success, with two winnable matches before Creighton comes to town followed by four more winnable matches after Creighton before facing four matches in two days vs Villanova, Yale, American, and Penn State, in that order.  If the team can gel in those early matches, they can hopefully give PSU (and later, Texas) a run for their money.

The Jayhawks come into 2014 looking to transition from a veteran squad to a young one.  The ‘Hawks will have only three upperclassmen (upperclasswomen?) this fall, but expect them to be a force in the Big 12 and nationally.

I would not expect Kansas to be able to unseat Texas this year - not yet.  Look for a solid second-place finish to go along with another national seed and opportunity to host a regional in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament.

Ticket Offer

Yes, yes, I have KU volleyball tickets.  Who wants to touch me? ... I said, who wants to (freaking) touch me?!?

If you would like to attend a volleyball game this fall, there are several that I can't make it to.  They are:

Day Date Opponent Time
FRI 8/29/2014 Utah Valley St 11:30 AM
FRI 9/19/2014 North Texas 12:00 PM
SAT 9/20/2014 Arkansas TBA
SAT 10/18/2014 TCU 12:00 PM

Shoot me an email and let me know which ones you would like, first come, first serve.  (I only have two per match.)  I'll put up a comment if/when I run out of tickets.  I'm telling y'all, it's a great time, and at the very least, I get my money's worth - Looking at YOU, Charlie Weis.

Remember, for a free preview of the Jayhawks this weekend, check out the Crimson and Blue match on Saturday, Aug. 23 at 1 PM, inside the Horejsi Family Athletics Center (next to Allen Fieldhouse).  It's free and open to the public.