LAWRENCE, Kan. – The recognition of Kansas volleyball’s first-ever conference title commenced KU’s 2017 season as the 2016 Big 12 Conference championship banner was unveiled in the rafters of a sold-out Horejsi Family Athletics Center on Saturday afternoon. Eighth-ranked Kansas proceed to open the season with a four-set exhibition sweep over UMKC (25-11, 25-21, 25-20, 25-22).
Due to a new NCAA rule, Saturday marked the first exhibition match against another school in program history. Before the match Kansas head coach Ray Bechard and UMKC head coach Christi Posey – a former 11-year assistant under Bechard – agreed to play the tune-up contest to four sets regardless of results.
“I’m glad the NCAA passed this legislation,” Bechard said. “It’s so big for us. UMKC came over and it didn’t cost anybody hardly anything, but you get the feel of a real-live match against another opponent. We could have done a Crimson vs. Blue inter-squad scrimmage, which would be competitive, but today had a great gameday feel to it and that’s hard to simulate.”
The announced attendance on Saturday brought Horejsi Family Athletics Center to 100-percent capacity – 1,302.
The Jayhawks rode the wave of their home crowd to pounce early on the Kangaroos to dominating leads of 12-2 in the first set and 14-4 in the second set. KU ended up holding the Roos to a .063 hitting percentage for the match. Senior All-American right-side hitter Kelsie Payne led Kansas with 10 kills, while senior All-American setter Ainise Havili recorded a team-high 12 digs and set the pace for the offense with 38 assists.
Kansas graduated two starters from its 2016 conference title team that was recognized on Saturday – libero Cassie Wait and middle blocker Tayler Soucie. Fans got a glimpse of the future as sophomore Allie Nelson wore the libero’s off-color jersey for the first time and senior graduate transfer Taylor Alexanderstarted at middle blocker in her Jayhawk debut.
“I thought Allie Nelson did a really nice job at libero when she was in there,” complimented Bechard. “All the defensive specialists got a shot and they did well. We held them to .063, so defensively this time of year we are a little bit ahead of where we are offensive. But overall, I’m pleased with what I saw today.”
Nelson finished with 11 digs while captaining the defense for three sets. Senior Tori Miller subbed in the fourth set as the primary libero.
“I feel more comfortable that I did last year,” Nelson said. “The team has been really good about having confidence in me. We have four great defensive specialists on this team and every day is a competition. They have pushed me to be a better player and I hope they can say the same about me.”
KU’s pin hitters were firing on all cylinders, led by sophomore Jada Burse‘s nine kills – including two on set point – and senior All-American Madison Rigdon‘s eight kills and two aces. Both outside hitters swung for a .312 hitting efficiency.
In addition to Alexander’s starting lineup debut of five kills on a .375 clip, four other Jayhawk newcomers made their on-court introduction to fans at Horejsi on Saturday.
Freshman setter Annika Carlson subbed in for Havili in the fourth set to lead KU’s offense to a 25-22 victory to close out the match. The Olathe, Kansas, native registered four assists, three digs and one kill in her debut. Sophomore middle blocker Mmachi Nwoke played three sets with two kills and two blocks, redshirt freshman Jacqui Mostrom played in two sets with one dig, and versatile senior transfer Gabby Simpson registered three kills, three digs and one block in the fourth set.
Kansas opens the 2017 regular season at the Wolfpack Invitational on Friday, Aug. 25 against NC State. The following day, the Jayhawks have a doubleheader against Missouri State and a second match against host NC State. Coverage of KU’s opening weekend can be heard on KUAthletics.com/radio. The KU-NC State matches will be video streamed on ACC Network Extra via WatchESPN.com or the ESPN app.