When fans ask Kansas volleyball coach Ray Bechard why they don’t see advertisements for tickets to the Jayhawks’ games, his answer is simple.
What’s the point of trying to sell something that’s already done a fine enough job selling itself?
Last week concluded Kansas’ regular season, in which the team sold out every game it played at the Horejsi Family Athletic Center, capacity 1,300.
“People ask you, ‘why aren’t you on the video board at football games?’ ” Bechard said. “Because there’s no reason to say ‘come to volleyball,’ because there are no tickets left.”
The excitement over Bechard’s team has escalated to a crescendo over the last couple of seasons — last year KU made its first Final Four, and this year’s 26-2 squad will attempt to top it. Kansas begins the NCAA Tournament on Thursday against Samford at Horejsi.
The evolution to this point has been a long, winding road. But the turnaround of Kansas volleyball does indeed begin at Horejsi (pronounced HORE-ish and named for the family of 1959 KU grad Stewart Horejsi, who donated the funds for the building).
A spike of a volleyball away from Kansas basketball’s legendary home of Allen Fieldhouse, Horejsi holds its own. The team began playing there in 1999, after calling the fieldhouse home. Admittedly, it was difficult to create an atmosphere in such a large arena, according to Bechard.
But the scene at Horejsi is different.
“They’re so loud there,” said senior middle blocker Tayler Soucie of Osawatomie. “It really just carries you throughout the match. When we get a long rally and you get that last kill to win the point, they get so loud, and it’s like, ‘wow, let’s go.’ ”
In the last couple of seasons especially, the place has become a regular breeding ground for bedlam. And it is a unique piece — in addition to on-court success — of why KU volleyball has become such a hot commodity. Tickets for some high-profile games this year were sold for three figures.
Smaller than some high school gyms, Horejsi packs the crowd in tightly. And as the success has come, so too has the fans’ increasing passion.
Take this year’s home finale against Iowa State: Facing the prospect of winning a share of the Big 12 title for the first time, Kansas sent its crowd into a frenzy on a Saturday morning in November.
The building is packed to the brim: Those at the top of the bleachers have actually moved to the stairs between the rows, trying to find more space.
During crucial points, Kansas’ bench players take turns pounding the walls surrounding the court, creating the sense that the building is shaking. The band and student section join to distract the serving Iowa State players, chanting at one that her shoes are untied. Iowa State’s coaches use clipboards to try to funnel their voices to their players, but it’s hopeless. You can barely hear the public-address announcer, who’s using a microphone.
As it does on this day (Kansas wins in five sets, including the first by a rally of 10 straight points), the atmosphere has an effect on the game.
“If an opponent just gets a little sidetracked and misses a serve or they have to talk that much louder in a fifth set when people are tired and the gym is really loud … that is so huge for us,” said senior libero Cassie Wait of Gardner. “If it’s a point or two points or three points here or there, that’s huge in a game where you have to score X amount of points.”
But despite the wild scenes inside Horejsi, KU volleyball is far from just a product of its eclectic gym. In the last few seasons, the program has become one of the most successful on campus.
This year’s senior class — Soucie, Cassie Wait and Maggie Anderson — has been around for more career victories than any other KU volleyball class. Before Anderson, a fifth-year senior, arrived on campus, KU went 3-13 in the Big 12 in 2011.
In those three players’ careers, KU has accumulated its first NCAA appearances since 2004, its first Big 12 title, its first Sweet 16 appearance and its first Final Four.
Next door to Allen Fieldhouse, where the men’s basketball team has long overshadowed much of the rest of campus, KU volleyball easily stands on its own, building its own tradition and success.
“I think we talk a lot about how you set goals, and you want to reach those goals every year, but at a certain point, those goals become a standard,” Wait said. “Once you make something into a standard, you know that anything less than that just isn’t acceptable.”
Those standards — NCAA tournament appearances, deep postseason runs — have been set, especially with this year’s squad attaining the much sought-after Big 12 title.
After KU clinched a piece of that trophy against Iowa State two weeks ago (the Jayhawks later earned sole possession after a win at Baylor), the three seniors take turns with a microphone, addressing the still-teeming crowd at Horejsi. They thank the fans for their support, their attendance and their vocal chords.
Later that day, after Kansas’ football team beat Texas, Bechard was part of the crowd that stormed the field.
“And I had about 100 people come up to me and be like, ‘hey, great win today, Coach,’” he said.
It’s a different level of recognition and excitement than the program has had in the past.
But those involved in the evolution hope that the foundation they’ve built remains as popular as it’s grown.
“I hope they win more Big 12 championships and continually make it to the Final Four and beyond when I’m gone,” Soucie said. “I want the program to be the best it can be. I think every alumni wants to think, ‘Hey, I had a part in that, and it kept growing.’ ”