Courtesy: KU Athletics
MANHATTAN, Kan. – From the first day of practice in early August, Kansas head coach Ray Bechard emphasized the importance of grit to his 19th team at Kansas. Coming off a Final Four appearance, Bechard knew the Jayhawks would have a target on their backs the entire season and would need to fight through adversity to succeed.
Wednesday night in a hostile environment, the Jayhawks showed a perfect example of grit during the Dillons Sunflower Showdown.
Kansas prevailed over Kansas State in five sets, 3-2 (25-18, 26-28, 25-22, 21-25, 15-11), for the fifth-straight win in the series against the Wildcats. The fourth-ranked Jayhawks (21-2, 10-1 Big 12) extend their winning streak to nine matches to remain in a tie for first place in the Big 12 standings with No. 5 Texas.
Junior All-American right-side hitter Kelsie Payne notched her fourth 20-kill performance of the season and second-consecutive double-double, finishing with 23 kills and 11 digs.
“There was a lot of ebb-and-flow in this match, but Kelsie got enough kills at the right time,” Bechard said. “That’s the best match we have had in a long time just from a competitive standpoint. It was good, competitive volleyball. They played well. We played well. We had enough in the end to make it happen.”
Kansas natives and seniors Cassie Wait and Tayler Soucie made sure that they remained undefeated in Manhattan during their four-year careers (4-0) with heroic performances. Wait finished with 33 digs and dominated a countless number of rallies for her third 30-dig outing of the season. Soucie contributed seven blocks as KU out-blocked their in-state rivals, 16.0 to 10.0.
Junior All-American setter Ainise Havili notched a 54-assist, 13-dig double-double, while junior outside hitter Madison Rigdon remained consistent with 14 kills and 11 digs to round out KU’s trio of double-doubles.
Kansas State (17-7, 6-5) was held to a .182 hitting percentage despite entering the match with a .248 hitting clip. The Wildcats lead the Big 12 in kills per set (14.2), but were held to 12.4 digs per set on Wednesday.
“K-State is going to be a postseason team,” Bechard insisted after the match. “They have had a great season so far. I was proud of the way our players competed, and I’m sure coach (Suzie) Fritz is proud of the way her team competed too.”
Payne, this week’s AVCA National Player of the Week, got things started for the Jayhawks with a kill for the first point of the night. Rigdon, the Big 12’s leader in aces per set, follow-up with an ace to put Kansas ahead, 2-0. Rigdon’s early ace proved to be KU’s only of the match as both teams struggled at the service line for a combined 26 service errors and two aces.
The Jayhawks continued to control the pace of the first set with three blocks while holding the Wildcats to a .054 first-set hitting percentage. On the second set point, Kansas clinched the 25-18 opening set win on a first-ball kill from Havili to Soucie on a slide.
K-State jumped out to a 4-0 advantage in the second set and extended their lead to 10-4 before the Jayhawks gathered steam to rally. Kansas overcame its six–point deficit with a block from junior middle blocker Kayla Cheadle and Havili to tie the set at 16. The in-state rivals continued to exchange blows to a 26-26 tie. A block gave K-State set point, 27-26. On the next play the Wildcats recorded an attacking error to seemingly tie the set at 27. But upon further video replay review, the attacking error was ruled in to clinch the second set for K-State, 28-26.
Kansas led 7-5 before K-State went on a 5-0 run to take the lead. Freshman middle blocker Zoe Hill gave the Jayhawks a breath of fresh air by checking into the match midway through the set and recording her first kill since Oct. 1. But Kansas continued to flounder while seeking any sort offensive momentum. The Jayhawks frustrating offensive night was encapsulated by the most attacking errors (22) through three sets in a match this season.
Kansas scrapped for a 17-17 tie after a K-State attacking error, followed by Payne’s 16th kill of the night. Havili, KU’s All-American setter, kept on going back to Payne three more times before Kansas pulled away with a 25-22 third set victory. On set point, Tori Miller whipped an aggressive serve to put K-State out of system and force a K-State ball handling error.
The fourth set was hotly contested early on with six ties and four lead changes. After K-State took a 10-8 advantage, the Wildcats maintained their lead until an 18-14 score. Freshman outside hitter Jada Burse tooled off the K-State block for a kill to tie it at 20 and immediately followed with a kill to tie it a 21. That’s all Kansas would score in the fourth set and K-State’s Brooke Sassin scored back-to-back kills to guide KSU to a 25-21 fourth-set win and force a fifth set.
From the onset of the fifth set, Kansas left little doubt that their winning streak would continue. Soucie recorded two blocks and Payne contributed a kill as Kansas took a 4-0 lead. Moments later Soucie would help give Kansas an 8-2 lead with another block followed by her 11th kill of the night. The Jayhawks completed the five-set victory as Kansas State recorded a service error on KU’s second match point.
The fourth-ranked Jayhawks continue the final stretch of the season with a trip to face the Oklahoma Sooners in Norman on Saturday night (7 p.m., Sooner Sports TV Network). Kansas has five matches remaining in the regular season.