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Media Day at the Volleyball Final Four

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The four national semifinalists all met with the media today in Omaha.

I won't bore you with the entire transcribed press conferences from all four teams, instead, I'll share parts of the conferences that I thought were interesting.

Popular questions included:

asking the coaches to comment on the absence of east and west coast teams,

the sellout in Omaha,

the typical what it means to the players to be there and how they came together as teammates throughout the season,

how players are handling finals and the Final Four in the same week.

I'll focus on questions that directly - and sometimes indirectly - relate to the Jayhawks.

Transcriptions courtesy of ASAP Sports.

Nebraska

Q. Coach, as you study Kansas more since Monday's practice, what stands out most about Kansas?
COACH COOK: They've got a couple of really nice athletes. Kelsie Payne was named First Team All-American today. Their setter is their leader, an emotional leader. They're a very emotional team. She was named First Team All-American today as well. Right there shows you they've got talent.

I think they're a very good passing defensive team and solid. So they're well balanced. But you pretty much know Payne is going to get most of the balls. They're just a very tenacious defensive team. Like I said, they serve and pass well.

Q. Kelly, this is a Kansas team that's very good serving. They actually average more aces than you guys do, and you're a very good serving team. Talk about what you know about their serve and what special challenge that presents.
KELLY HUNTER: Any time my team can come out and serve tough, that just makes it harder against whatever opponent they're playing. We have great passers, and I don't think they get enough credit. I trust them. I know Coach Cook trusts them. Everyone trusts them to be able to pass these balls.

Q. Coach, most of your team has no connection to Kansas from the Big 12 days and that kind of thing, obviously, but you do with Ray Bechard. What's that like seeing him again, and what do you anticipate the reunion being like?
COACH COOK: We were in a meeting already this morning, and I think Ray's one of the classiest coaches in the country, and he was one of -- coaching, you don't have a lot of friends I guess you'd be close with within your conference, but I always felt like Ray had some connections in Nebraska in Coach Pettit, so that's kind of where I met him.

Like I said, he's a classy guy. I'm really happy for him. He's really built that program. So it's great for Kansas. It's great for the Big 12. It's great for this part of the country. There's not a more deserving guy than Ray to get there.

I hope Lawrence is hopping right now because of him.

Q. Coach, how surprised were you that you're going to be playing Kansas and not USC tomorrow night?
COACH COOK: In this tournament, nothing surprised me. We were so focused on -- I mean, I felt like we had as tough a regional as anybody. We were so focused on that, I'm not even sure I could have told you we were going to play the winner of the Kansas-USC until after our match. That's where all of our energy and attention and focus went to.

I really didn't pay much attention to any of the regionals and what was going on. The only thing I paid attention to was how many Big Ten teams are in it and advancing because we feel a connection to the other teams in the Big Ten. Until we got home and started watching, I imagine you look at who the matchups would be.

Q. I know Nebraska volleyball is good, but any other run, 86-0-1, against another team at any level you've been a part of? Have you been a part of a streak like that against any other team?
COACH COOK: I haven't been -- that goes way back to probably before I was even born. No, none of that really matters right now. What matters is that the semifinals and Final Four. There's four teams here that can win a National Championship. I think that's the most important thing. I don't know what else to really say about that.

Kansas is a great team. After studying them on video, I can see why they're here.

Q. John, before you played Washington last week, you were worried about your middles on defense against Washington's middles. Tonight what matchup will you be concerned about for your team?
COACH COOK: Kelsie Payne, it starts with her. She gets a million sets and averaging a lot of kills per game. We're also going to have to control Soucie, who can get hot, and their other middle can get hot. That setter is really good, and she'll set anybody at any time. Like I said, they're a well balanced team. So they're going to be hard to defend overall. But we can't let Payne have a big night.

Minnesota

Q. Could I get your take just on the fact that there's no West Coast teams here, that it's an all Midwestern semifinal.
COACH McCUTCHEON: I think it speaks just to the parity -- the increased parity of volleyball. There's good teams all over the country now. 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.

Q. [ No microphone ] Big Ten versus Big 12?
COACH McCUTCHEON: No, conference-wise, first of all, Big Ten is just an awesome conference to be in, and I mean that in every sense of the word. How great that we've got two Big Ten teams here. I don't mean anything against the Big 12, but I barely can pay attention to our conference let alone what their conference is and what it means.

So we're very proud to have two teams representing the Big Ten here. We're just worrying about our next opponent, and that's really all there is to it. I don't think there's more there than that.

Q. Paige, Daly, Nebraska is in the middle of finals week. Where are you guys in the semester? I'm just curious. Are you in the middle of classes? Finals? Are finals looming?
COACH McCUTCHEON: Paige, tell us about your day today. What have you got on tap?

PAIGE TAPP: I woke up at 6:00 a.m., took a final, came here, and I'll go back to the hotel and take another one. It's pretty busy.

All of us have finals this week or next week. We're just trying to stay on top of it and focus on Texas.

Texas

Q. You've been here before, if my memory serves, when the Final Four was here in Omaha. What does it mean to have this be an advanced sellout for the sport? I know there's going to be a lot of red, but it's still a pretty good showcase for volleyball.
COACH ELLIOTT: Yeah, absolutely. We're excited that we're here, obviously. We're excited to play in front of the Nebraska fans. I think they're fair. They're good people. They appreciate good volleyball. I think it's going to be an entertaining four teams that are playing, but I think it's also kind of a direction of where the sport is heading.

There's continued fan growth. Our goal is to get that across the country. We're starting to see it in our home state in terms of what's going on there and across many universities. This sport has developed to a much higher level. The games are a lot more exciting. It's a quality sport.

Q. Jerritt, kind of along the same lines, have you taken note of just the fact that all these are Midwestern teams, that there's no West Coast teams here this year?
COACH ELLIOTT: Someone mentioned that to me yesterday, that it's the first time there's four teams from the central time zone. I can tell you, when I got to Texas in 2000, the state wasn't very hot, and now it's arguably one of the best states. California was the hottest state.

Now you look at the Midwest in terms of how many great players are coming out of there, and you look at the numbers of high school participants in all the different sports and you see what's happening in the sport of volleyball. We're getting better athletes that are coming over from different sports. I think they're enjoying it. It doesn't surprise me anymore. I think anyone can win from any part of the country now.

Q. Coach, I know you can't pick whoever you want and that's how recruiting goes, but I wonder how familiar you were with Kelsie Payne before she came to Kansas. If you can discuss what you think, how she's done so far, and made an impact obviously.
COACH ELLIOTT: I think we were very -- we were well aware of her. She came for a couple of visits, and we looked at her. She's in our backyard. Sometimes, as recruiting goes at such an early age, you're learning a lot about where they are emotionally as young ladies.

We knew she had the talent to be extremely good. That was always our position. At the end of the day, I made a miss, and that's not the first one I made a miss on. She's a great player playing for a great coach at a great program, and it's good to see her succeed.

I don't regret any part of it. I think she's happy, and I wish her the best of luck.

Q. Coach, with apologies for another Kansas question, I know your mind is on Minnesota, could you offer some perspective. You guys have obviously seen Kansas. Offer some perspective about their victory over USC. Does that speak to the growing level of parity in this sport or in the Kansas program itself?
COACH ELLIOTT: Yeah, obviously we know the program well. I'm very tight with Ray. We got to see them twice this year. I don't think they played very well when we were down in Austin. I thought we played exceptionally well. And I thought it was a very, very competitive match when we played there. That could have gone either way. We just executed late in Game 5, which was good from our part.

They cause a lot of problems based on all the movement they have. They run a lot of different play sets. Kelsie has the ability to go over anybody and be able to create some different angles. But what isn't talked about is how good their center is. I think she does a phenomenal job of running around. She's really fast and getting her hands on the ball and puts up quality balls, and their defense is better than people give them credit for.

The combination of being able to counteract with their defense and their setting can become overwhelming at times. They've got the player personnel to be able to hurt you on the left, hurt you in the middle, and hurt you on the right based on what rotation is in and the personnel they've put together for this team.

Q. This is for the athletes. Minnesota and Nebraska are both in the middle of finals week. I was just curious where you guys are in the semester, if you have finals this week or if you've had a crazy finals story at this point this week with traveling and all that stuff.
MOLLY McCAGE: I didn't know that. I actually finished two weeks ago. I've been cruising.

KAT BROOKS: I finished about a week ago. It was bad first and second round. That was a pretty bad week for us. We've been done for a couple of days.

PLAYER: The last final was yesterday, and it was one person.

COACH ELLIOTT: We try to organize it so they're done before this point. It's part of the preparation that we go through.

Kansas

COACH BECHARD: We're just extremely excited to be here representing our university and our athletic department. These young ladies have worked extremely hard.

Obviously are the last couple of weeks have been a lot of fun for us. We feel like we've got more work to do, and we're excited about representing not only our conference, our university and our athletic department. So Rock Chalk, everybody. It's great to be here.

Q. Ainise, now that you've had a few extra days to go over those last few minutes against USC, you've had a chance to calm down since the last press conference, what happened? How in the world did you guys steal those last six points?
AINISE HAVILI: I still -- it's still super crazy. I've watched those last six points like a thousand times. We all just looked at each other and relaxed, and we all said, we'll take this one point at a time, and we'll win each point and see how far we can go. And then we won.

Q. Kelsie or Tayler, do you have anything to add to that?
KELSIE PAYNE: Yeah, I agree. That whole thing, we started down 0-4, and we kind of freaked out a little bit. This isn't going how we wanted to. What's happening? This isn't working. What's going on? We took a time-out, and we said, you know, what we have is enough. We have all the pieces here. We need to trust one another and know that we all have our jobs.

I think that's what happened. Everyone just did one thing better, and it all worked out.

TAYLER SOUCIE: That's not the first time we've done that. That's been our mantra all season. One point at a time, and we're going to do it together.

Q. I want to go back one more time to that USC win because it was such a dramatic ending, but it did look as if defense got a tremendous amount of the credit there because you had -- you had Samantha Bricio, First Team All-American, just powering away on there, and you don't have any defensive players up here, at least traditional defensive players. Can you talk about your defense, Coach, and what you had planned for that fifth set against USC and how you were able to execute that.
COACH BECHARD: Late in that match, we had Soucie and Payne in front of Bricio, and Rigdon was on the left side. We said, hey, you've got to get in front of the middle. They'd gone out of their 6-2 system, but we felt like we were organized there. But Cassie Wait made the dig of the match in that last rally. We also had a stuff block from Payne and Soucie and also had some good releases.

So we were pretty organized defensively. They didn't get a ton of real quality swings, but they won the ones they did. Soucie and Payne were organized blocking-wise. Rigdon did her job. That's what it gets back to. The staff, Coach Bird, Coach Todd, Coach Lucas will always talk about, hey, do your job, do your job. And if everybody individually is accountable to that, then we'll have a good result.

But the ace serve was a big part of it. It got it to 13-13, and then you could sense that the Jayhawks were going to do something pretty special.

Q. For any of the players, I'm just curious how it's going to be playing in front of this crowd because this is going to be a pro-Nebraska crowd. If you kind of embrace that challenge?
TAYLER SOUCIE: Like we talked about all season, we just play our game. It's our side of the net. It's what we do. We do our job, like Coach B said. We just have to focus on what we do every day. We focus on our training and tune out everything else that's around us.

COACH BECHARD: Didn't every school get 200 tickets? So it's equitable, right? I thought so.

Q. Ray, not that it probably means much now, but I'm sure it will be talked about on the telecast tomorrow that you guys are 0-86-1 against Nebraska all time. Just kind of what's your quick take on that.
COACH BECHARD: I wish I'd have been part of that one. What year was that? These guys have never played Nebraska. Obviously, they know that they are an outstanding program.

I think that speaks to two things. Obviously, Kansas hasn't been competitive enough over the years in that situation, and Nebraska has been an elite volleyball program for a long time. So we'll speak to more recent history hopefully tomorrow night that we can create maybe a different situation.

Q. Coach, I'm just wondering, do you have any idea about that tie? I know it was 1977, but do you know anything about it?
COACH BECHARD: I was a freshman at Barton Community College playing hoops. I'm not sure what was going on in '77. I think they used to do multiple matches in a day, and maybe you played two sets. If you split them, you called it good, and you moved on to the next match would be my guess. So that's kind of unique.

Q. Kelsie, going back to a bad memory. Obviously, last year you lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Can you compare the pain of that defeat with this run, particularly beating USC?
KELSIE PAYNE: We talked about that a lot at the beginning of our season. We don't want that to define us. That was unfortunate for us, but we use that as motivation this year for sure. We knew what that felt like, and I think the returning players realized we don't want to ever feel that again. So far, I think we've done a good job of avoiding that.

Q. Kelsie, Jerritt Elliott was just in here and spoke very highly of you and said, look, I missed in recruiting. Do you use that as a slight at all? Did you want to be a Longhorn and he just didn't pull the trigger?
KELSIE PAYNE: I mean, I'm not going to say no because I grew up in Austin, and Texas was always a big part of my life. But once I started getting into more recruiting and looking into colleges, I realized that I did want to leave Austin, I did want to leave Texas, and just like get away and go experience college kind of like a regular student, I guess.

So, yeah, I think leaving was a good choice for me. That's awesome that he said that, though.

Q. And then a followup, Texas is really admiring what you guys have done. Amy Neal said maybe she reached out to you afterwards, and I think Jerritt said he reached out to you. Do you feel like this is a Big 12 versus Big Ten Final Four now, Texas and Kansas versus two big-time schools?
KELSIE PAYNE: I guess so, yeah. All the girls are really great. They all texted us and tweeted at us and told us congratulations and how excited they were for us. It's awesome they can be here too, and we can experience this all together.

Q. Ray, you mentioned the 200 allotment. I'm wondering how resourceful did your fans have to be? Is it disappointing too because you cultivated such a following this season and now you're two hours up the road and it's difficult to get in this place?
COACH BECHARD: We'll have to have resourceful fans, and they'll find a way. Obviously, we're going to be a little outnumbered tomorrow night, but the fans that really want to get in the building and see us will be there, and we're excited about that.

It's important for this event for it to be a lot of energy in the building, for it to be sold out. So nobody does it better than Omaha. I've been here a few years ago when Nebraska and Penn State were getting after it, and it was unlike any environment I've ever seen. So it's outstanding for our sport. It will be a great spectator event tomorrow night, and hopefully Jayhawk fans are resourceful and find their way in here.

Q. Coach, how important is it going to be for your team to get off to a strong start the way you did against USC?
COACH BECHARD: I think that would be great. I think our first contact will be essential, how we pass, how we serve, that kind of settles everybody down and creates offensive and defensive opportunities.

I think we can't get too panicked if it doesn't go well early. You can't get too confident if it does. You're going to have to play a couple hours of good volleyball from start to finish to have some success tomorrow night.

Q. Coach, you guys played the late game on Saturday, a long day of travel, and now travel today with finals worked in the middle of all that. How tough has preparation been to get the team ready?
COACH BECHARD: We finished on Saturday and this match isn't until Thursday, you'd think we've got time. We did have a long travel day Sunday, but there was a lot of smiles on the plane. For our young ladies who represent our university in a great way academically too, obviously, there's been some stress with finals. We've still got some finals to go.

Hey, we'll take it. We'll take it every year if they say you've got to take a few finals during Final Four week, during semifinals week, we don't have a problem with that. We've just got to manage our time, trying to manage your sleep patterns, your stress, and all the requests that people are making around you.

Q. Coach, Ainise has been quoted as saying she grew up in a family where modesty was encouraged. Any overt displays or being overly public about things was discouraged. Those aren't normally traits you would find in a setter or want in a setter. Would you comment on her and her ability, whatever ability she's put into it, despite the fact that she was brought up in a family that said be modest, be calm.
COACH BECHARD: We found out, our staff found out on Monday that she was a First Team All-American. So we brought her in, told her. She was excited. She was excited for Kansas volleyball.

So Tuesday, I thought, hey, I should call her mom. So I call mom up, and I said, hey, how's everything going? Good. I said, Ainise called you, right? She said no. So here's a kid that's First Team All-American, humble enough that she didn't think she needed to call home and say, hey, guess what happened to me? I said, well, your daughter's First Team All-American, okay? I'm going to break the news to you.

That aside off the court, when she gets on the court, she's an intense, fiery competitor who does not like to lose. She creates great opportunities emotionally for our team, competitively for our team, and there's nobody else we'd rather have running our team than Ainise Havili.

Q. Coach, when you look at the other semifinal matchup, there's two teams that are pretty unbalanced. There's one player that gets a lot of swings on those two. You and Nebraska are a little different in there is a lot of balance. You're probably the most balanced of the four teams that are here. What is that like to prepare against a team like Nebraska that doesn't have one clearly dominant hitter?
COACH BECHARD: It makes it tougher. USC, we had a sense where the ball was going to go 35, 40 percent of the time. But here they have four, five, six -- I got a couple kids on the bench come off and go off. So everybody's got to stay in their role. There's tendencies always when it's a 20-20 match, but we need to understand they've got a lot of good offensive players, defensive players.

So we'll create opportunities defensively where we'll understand some tendencies but also know that they could go outside of what their tendencies are.

Q. Coach, this has some special meaning for Maggie Anderson. Can you talk about how she has fit well into your program for someone who came in relatively late when she was making her commitment?
COACH BECHARD: Yeah, she's from Lincoln, Nebraska, first and foremost. She had kind of made a verbal commitment to Kearney. We had her at camp, and we said, oh, bummer, we think you could do great things in our program. I think she took that home and started thinking about it. We had a great conversation with her coach at Kearney, Coach Squiers, and it worked out that she could join us.

These folks will tell you that Maggie Anderson brings it each and every day. The culture she brings to the gym from a communication standpoint is unmatched. We wouldn't be the team that we are without her.

I made a promise to her parents, when she came to Kansas, I said, okay, we're going to play University of Nebraska someday. So she were pretty thrilled after the USC match that this is the way we were going to do it.

Q. For any of the players, we mentioned that USC victory, but just the way it happened at the very end -- I'm not saying you weren't a confident team, but how much has that done for your confidence going into this big stage here?
KELSIE PAYNE: Well, we started 2-0. So that was good. That was awesome for us. That was a confidence boost right there. Then we fell down the next two sets. And the fifth set, when it's 0-4 again, and we're down, then it's 13-9, and we're like, well, we have two points to make something happen. We all just looked at each other, and we're like now is the time where we grind out and do what we know how to do.

Winning that match is huge for us, and I think there's been other games in the past, like our five-set match against Texas, even though we lost, at that point we realized we can play with elite teams. We're good enough. So it's been great for us.

TAYLER SOUCIE: I think sometimes you get your confidence from the people around you, and I know that my team trusts in me as much as I trust in them. That's a great confidence boost right there.

AINISE HAVILI: Yeah, I think throughout the season, starting off the way we did, 19-0, built up the confidence that we have. We knew we were playing the No. 1 seeded team in the tournament after we beat Loyola Marymount. Yeah, there's nerves, but we know everybody is beatable. Nobody's invincible. So carrying that in really helped us.

Q. Ray, can you touch on the message that Jerritt sent to you? I don't know if he texted you or called you after you guys beat USC. And just kind of the uniqueness that maybe volleyball coaches have that, where you'd be willing to want to help?
COACH BECHARD: Yeah, it's a small world in volleyball. I was walking down the hallway this morning and saw four or five coaches from other places, and they're excited. We attend this convention every year. We build relationships that are long term that are beyond wins and losses in the sport itself, and that's what's cool about that.

But Jerritt's always been -- we've always been, since we've been in the league a long time together, very supportive of each other unless we're playing each other. Even then, we gain information from each other. We're a big Texas fan right now because we're Big 12 fans obviously. So we would hope that they can advance.

Anything I can do to help their situation or anything they think they can do to help ours, and that's the entire -- that's our whole staff and their whole staff because we represent more than just our university. We represent our conference. We want volleyball to be the best it can be in the Big 12.

Q. Four years ago you were 3-13 in the Big 12, and it's been a pretty quick rise to the national semifinals. Can you elaborate a little bit about what's gone on over the last four years?
COACH BECHARD: I was talking to -- Coach Chamberlain was with me during that 3-13. Coach Bird may have been too. We weren't a bad team. We just couldn't figure out how to win at the end. We had an RPI in the upper 40s to low 50s. We beat Minnesota that year and (they) went to the Final Four.

In the end, we needed people who could close and felt confident in closing. We brought the Soucies of the world and Cassie Waits and Janae Halls, and the class before that in Caroline Jarmoc. And we could go on and on. We weren't that far away, and we had a breakthrough the next year.

I think the momentum has built since then. We can thank now this group of sophomores that have kind of helped us carry on that momentum, but it's been a collective effort. Many classes taking responsibility for that process, and now I think we've built a culture where that's the expectation.

Q. Coach, both teams limit opponents to under a .200 attack percentage. How important is it going to be, maybe from a serve and receive standpoint, to get Nebraska out of the system and to stay in the system yourself?
COACH BECHARD: It's critical. First contact will be a huge part of what goes on tomorrow night. They're great first contact reception. They're steady serving. We'll have to do a great job in that area.

Our serve a lot of time sets up our defense and those numbers. We take some risk with our serve, but we've got to serve tough and in to have some success tomorrow night.

Q. For the players or the athletes, Minnesota and Nebraska are both in the middle of finals week. I was just curious if you guys had finals to take this week or kind of where you are, at least in the semester. Even if you've had kind of a crazy week to this point with classes and everything.
AINISE HAVILI: Yes, it's been pretty hectic this week. Had to try to fit most of your finals in two days. I took three finals yesterday. A lot of girls have finals to take at the hotel after practice. So it's been a lot to do in a couple of days, but I think it calmed my nerves a lot more. I couldn't really focus on the game. I had to focus on all the finals that I had to try not to fail. So, yeah, it's been a blessing in disguise, I would say.

KELSIE PAYNE: Yeah, I think this is the best kind of stress you could ask for. If you're going to have finals during Final Four week, you can't really complain. I'd rather be doing this than, I guess, sitting at home.

I had two finals on Monday and one yesterday, and I have one to take tonight, but I'm done after that. That's all that matters.

TAYLER SOUCIE: Yeah, I'm with Kelsie. I'm done tonight too. But there's a big group of us that have to take one tonight.

Like Coach B said earlier, it's important to manage your time. This has helped us manage our time and helped us, like they said, not focus necessarily just on volleyball, but get out of the state of volleyball a little bit to relax and calm down.

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Transcriptions courtesy of ASAP Sports.