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Kansas Jayhawks Volleyball: ESPN’s Jill Dorsey-Hall talks about the rise of the KU Volleyball Program

The first-ever libero at KU turned ESPN volleyball color analyst joins RCT for an in-depth discussion on the KU volleyball program.

Big Jay sports a volleyball shirt at the 2014 Final Four in Omaha, NE.
Michael Plank

This is Mike Plank with Rock Chalk Talk, and I am sitting down here with Jill Dorsey-Hall. She is on the broadcast for most (all?) of KU’s games on the ESPN networks, along with other games across the country.

Jill played volleyball at KU from 2001-04, where I believe she had the honor of being the first player in KU history to don the libero jersey.

Jill, is that correct? Can introduce yourself and maybe tell us what you’ve been up to the past couple of years?

Thanks Mike - yes, I was the first libero at KU and in retrospect that is a great honor, considering the wonderful liberos we have had here at Kansas. I played at Kansas from 2001-2004 and after graduation I moved to Los Angeles, CA, where I played a little beach volleyball and worked at a PR firm. While in LA (spent 5 years) I met my California boy and brought him back to Kansas.

I cover all the KU home matches for TV, whether it be for Spectrum Sports (Jayhawk Television Network), ESPN3, and this season one match is picked up by Fox Sports on a national level. The only one I don’t have is the ESPNU match.

I also work freelance for networks and conferences as a color analyst and do voiceover work for radio and business. While I love serving as the color analyst, I call it my “hobby” as I work full-time in Talent Acquisition (Recruiter) for Boston Scientific, and I am also a “mama” to four handsome boys (8, 5, 4, and 18 months!). We tried hard for a volleyball girl but I already told my husband we are getting those boys playing volleyball.

I also serve on the K Club Board and love being able to stay connected to our University and giving back to our student athletes.

So before we get too deep into these questions, let me ask: What is the correct pronunciation of “libero?” Lee-bear-oh? Lib-roh? Something else? Help us!

Depends on what part of the country/world you are from. I say Lee-bear-oh, but I won’t be mad at you if you say either, because that means you are talking volley and about my favorite position on the floor!

I used to get asked during college if I forgot my jersey because I had the opposite color on or if I was the captain. The different color jersey makes it easy for the officials to track the person tagged “libero” as this player can sub in and out for whomever, they just have to sit one dead ball before coming back in the match.

I’d like to get into what on the surface seems to be the meteoric rise of Kansas volleyball. I feel the need to set the table a bit for this next question, so hear me out.

Ray Bechard has been the coach since 1998, I believe. Prior to 2012, KU volleyball had just three NCAA Tournament appearances, from 2003-2005. But from 2011 to 2012, Kansas went from second-to-last to second place in the Big 12 and haven’t really looked back, even (finally) knocking off Texas last year. They have made the NCAA Tournament every year for the last five years and are expected to do so again this year.

In fact, they’ve done so well during the regular season that they’ve had national seeds in that tournament in each of those years (the tourney only seeds the top 16 teams). They made a Final Four in 2015 along with a couple of Sweet 16s. Did something around the program change around 2010 or 2011? Can you help us understand why the seemingly sudden success?

There are a couple points to note. Reaching the NCAA tournament is a big accomplishment and it took a lot of hard work and dedication to get to that level of play in 2003-2005. You can compare the likes of making the tournament to that of basketball - with at large bids and great teams finding themselves on the bubble and on the outside looking in.

Same goes for volleyball. So we reach that point as a program, making it to the tournament, winning first round matches, making moves, and then the team had some untimely injuries a couple years after those tourney teams and that took what looked to be a very promising year to one that failed to make the tournament. I can’t speak for every season specifically, but I know one season they lost a hand full of tough 5-set matches and just couldn’t catch a break. The Big XII is a premiere conference for volleyball so it can be a grind during conference play and you win a couple of those 5 set matches and that changes the trajectory of a season.

Also, 8 years ago they brought in Assistant Coach Todd Chamberlain and then 7 years ago, their now Associate Head Coach Laura “Bird” Kuhn. I think both of these additions brought a new energy to the program. Give props to Coach Bechard for giving both “Bird” and Todd certain responsibilities and truly trusting what they were bringing into the program.

So to recap, it was a combination (of factors) - a couple years where you didn’t see Kansas Volleyball in the NCAA tournament or at the top of the Big XII when some uncontrollable variables came into play, then adding in two new coaches on the staff, and Coach B just being that consistent, one of the best in the business, and highly respected coaches in the game that loves Kansas Volleyball and the University, you knew great things were on the horizon.

There’s an old adage that goes something like, “It's not about the X's and the O's, it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes.” It’s usually used in a football sense to emphasize the need to recruit good players, and KU seems to be doing a lot of that lately. Not everyone on the Kansas roster was a highly regarded volleyball recruit - for example, Texas passed on Austin native Kelsie Payne.

But the first player I want to specifically ask you about is Ainise Havili. It’s my understanding that she was a top-40 recruit coming out of high school, and she is clearly one of the best setters in all of college volleyball (and has been for a few years now). For all of our readers out there, setting is really, really difficult! How is Havili so good at it?

It goes without fail, every single match Ainise will make an incredible “did that just happen?” type of play and I am in awe. And you are right, setting looks easy, but it is not as easy as it looks to set an accurate ball with placement, especially during long rallies and moving in circles, which a setter has to do at times to locate a ball.

And it is not just her play, but her competitiveness and her natural sense for the game. In other words, her volleyball IQ is off the charts. Often times I struggle to put into words on a broadcast and have a tough time describing her incredible foot speed to the ball, how many balls she gets her hands on that many other players wouldn’t be able to hand set, and how pure the ball comes out of her hands. Just watch the ball come out of her hands! When it comes to her hands it will often have spin, but it will come out of her hands without any rotation on the ball. That is what we call in volleyball jargon “dishing sweet nectar.” A ball without spin is much easier to hit for an attacker and allows them to put their own topspin on the ball.

Additionally, she is incredibly deceptive and difficult to read as an opponent both blocking and playing defense. What this does is it allows her attackers to get one-on-one matchups more often and holds the blocker just enough in their positions that they might be a split-second later to close on a block attempt. That split-second can make all the difference between a kill or a block for the other team. A lot of that timing and tempo is what Ainise creates for her hitters. She keeps the ball high when she sets and releases the ball without showing the set with her body (where she is going with the ball).

Also, she runs her offense effectively. So many matches you will look at the box score and although Kelsie and Madison will get their kills (they are All-Americans after all) she will spread the ball around and get so many players involved at exactly the right time. I know this - if I am picking teams on the playground, I would pick Ainise. She will battle. Last year alone she broke two laptops diving into the stands!

Let’s talk a little bit about KU’s other first team All-American, Kelsie Payne. Are opponents able to game-plan around her? It seems like she’s been quiet early on in 2017, but then you look at the box score and she somehow has 14 kills in just three sets against #13 Kentucky!

Opponents will definitely try, but often times when I speak to opposing head coaches they say “well Kelsie will get her kills.” When you have a player like Kelsie, you play at a level where it is unstoppable at times. She has the ability to hit over the top of the block - she touches 10’8”!

Also, what is important to note about Kelsie is how much she has added to her game. She came to Kansas as a Middle Blocker, was moved to Right Side hitter for her sophomore year, and is now a six-rotation player playing back row where she provides a great deal of offense from her back row attack. She also has a tough serve and is on the international scene for USA Volleyball. She has a bright volleyball future ahead of her and it has been fun to watch her continue to evolve and push herself.

I noticed last year that Kansas tried to play Payne along the back row as well instead of substituting out. Is that experiment working, and how does being confident in her ability to play all the way around affect the team?

It is working as they can use her as a back row outlet when rallies continue and she provides an offensive weapon from the back row. Also, I have seen a couple pancake digs from the Payne Train that I have been impressed with as she can cover some ground defensively.

Madison Rigdon is one of KU’s best all-around players who plays front and back row as well. How key is she for the Jayhawks this year?

Critical - and Madison Rigdon deserves a tremendous amount of credit because when you look at the amount of times she touches the ball, it is significant. She is a primary passer in service reception, she attacks, plays defense, blocks balls, crushes aces and provides offense from the back row attack. Other than setting, she truly does it all for the Jayhawks.

She was the one that sent Kansas into the Final Four with a big time kill in the 5-set thriller against USC. She is fearless and has all shots in her bag that she can attack with and is extremely difficult to block because she can hit every shot and spot on the floor. Sometimes you will watch hitters and they have a sweet spot on the floor or a comfortable shot they make over and over, but not Madison. She can move the ball all over the floor and very, very rarely makes an error. I think Madison would be an incredible beach volleyball player because she excels at every aspect of the game.

How well is sophomore libero Allie Nelson doing integrating into this starting lineup of mostly seniors? She has a huge spot to fill with the departure of Cassie Wait, who herself followed Brianne Riley, who broke your school record in digs! I feel like Nelson had one of her best games of 2017 Monday afternoon against Kentucky. Can you talk about her, what she’s doing well, and how quickly she’s improving in 2017?

Well so much of the libero role is between your ears. Don’t get me wrong, a solid platform, ability to read on defense, and footwork is vital, but I think Allie is up to the challenge from a mental aspect. I also refer to the libero position as the “glue” to the team. Someone that is constantly communicating and doing the little things that in turn are big things to make a team successful - covering your attackers, secondary setting, service reception, to name a few.

It is just an interesting role because those areas of the game do not end a rally but they start a point, continue a point, or can be big momentum plays for your team. If you can’t pass, you can’t run your offense. I used to say to myself over and over “serve me the ball” because it was setting up that mental part and having the confidence that if you served me I would pass it perfectly to the setter.

I think Allie settled in great in the Kentucky match and she has extremely big shoes to fill following Cassie and Brianne before that but she has all the tools to be successful and I have been very pleased with her play. She led all players in digs in that match and if you watched her closely, whenever she didn’t have the “perfect” pass she responded with a great pass or play. So that shows me she can move on quickly, which you have to do in that role, because you won’t dig every ball nor pass every ball perfectly. You have to move on and continue to be that “glue” and give to your teammates.

I do think that Allie has a different style of play than Cassie (Wait) in some regards, mainly because Cassie took so many balls with her hands whereas Allie will take more from her platform - but her platform is solid. Some players have a natural, calm, fluid platform, which is the arm movement when players pass the ball (or as some would say, bump) the ball to target. Allie has one of those natural platforms and stays patient with her movement.

Passing can be a grind as the ball either has spin or doesn't have spin, drops at the last second, or comes with tremendous amount of pace, so you have to adapt on a split-second notice with your platform and passing. Allie has that ability and I am excited to watch her in that libero jersey over the next three years.

So Kansas is 7-0 and has a huge tournament coming up in Lawrence next weekend. KU is #7, and they will be welcoming in #9 Creighton, #17 Purdue, and Belmont, who is the preseason favorite to win the Ohio Valley Conference. There are no pushovers there! Can you give us some expectations and/or things for Kansas volleyball fans to look for this weekend?

High level volleyball and a rematch from a heartbreaking loss to Creighton in the NCAA tournament (20-18 in the 5th set!).

First things first, Belmont is a consistent tournament team and have some local girls that will be fired up to play close to home (Arianna Pearson and Brie Lewis played at nearby St. James Academy). Next up is Purdue and this is a team that upended Kansas during the non-conference. They are powerful and explosive, and similar to Kentucky in some regards.

And finally, Creighton, who before last weekend was ranked 7th in the country - now 9th after losing to USC but they have almost their entire team back. They have an incredible coach, a senior setter who is one of the best in the country, and Jaali Winters who is a little comparable to Madison Rigdon in the fact that she does it all for the Bluejays and is hard to defend. They also have a tremendous libero who is only a sophomore and they are low error. They will not give away points which makes them tough to beat and they also are a great serving team.

You may not be able to answer this next question, but I’ll ask it anyway! After winning the Big 12 last year, rumors began to swirl about KU exploring options for expanding the Horejsi Center or even building a new arena. Are you privy to anything that you can divulge to us about that?

Oh man - let’s just say, exciting things to come for the Jayhawks and the volleyball program! Just please keep coming and supporting the team. I promise you, come to a match and you will be impressed - volleyball is a great sport to watch, high energy, powerful, and fast-paced.

Jill, since you’re new to RCT, I gotta tell ya, we like to have some fun on our final question. So if you would, we’ll start you off with this one: Is a hot dog a sandwich? Defend your position.

Here is the problem, and please don’t be mad, I don’t eat hot dogs and I don’t eat much bread. But I would say theoretically, it would be a sandwich since it is between two pieces of bread, hence a sandwich. Why do we just say “hot dog” and not “hot dog sandwich”? Hmmm… I’ll have Leif answer that one on our next broadcast. Stay tuned!

Jill, thanks SO MUCH for joining us! We’d sure like to do more of these if you’re up for it! Rock Chalk!

I’ll chat volleyball anytime - ROCK CHALK!