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Early disappointment led to dream ending for KU junior Kaiti Parks

How the Kansas reserve turned her limited role on game nights into a valuable part of the Jayhawks' culture

7 min read
Kansas middle blocker Kaiti Parks laughs with teammates during an early-season practice at Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena. Although her role on game nights has been small, Parks has found a way to impact the KU team and also found enjoyment along the way. [Chance Parker photo]

Late during a recent Kansas volleyball practice, KU coach Ray Bechard stopped everyone to deliver a message.

“How 'bout KP showing up every day, busting her ass and getting better,” Bechard shouted in reference to redshirt junior Kaiti Parks. “Might play, might not; doesn’t matter. That’s awesome.”

Those words, which came out of nowhere but also had been a couple of years in the making, inspired cheers, applause and smiles from Parks’ Kansas teammates and nearly moved the middle blocker herself to tears.

The stoppage lasted less than a minute and then it was immediately back to the drill they paused after that. Parks received a set on the very next rally and wasn’t able to do much with it.

After rotating off — still beaming with joy and appreciation — Parks approached teammate London Davis and said matter-of-factly, “He could’ve waited until the drill was over.”

They both laughed.

“It caught me off guard a little bit,” Parks recently told R1S1 Sports of the shout-out from her head coach. “But that was really special. I’ve looked up to Coach B for a long time. I’ve been a KU volleyball fan since 8th grade.”

That was the year Parks first began playing volleyball, the start of a fast track that was inspired by her mother, who played volleyball in college at the University of New Mexico.

Up to that point in her life, Parks considered herself a soccer player and dreamed of playing that sport in college. There was, however, one problem.

“I didn’t really accept that I wasn’t that good,” she said, shrugging her shoulders for emphasis.

That opened the door to volleyball for this self-proclaimed tomboy, who hated everything she knew about her mother’s sport — the spandex, the cheers, the ribbons in their hair, everything.

Parks credits her mom for planting the seed and her Olathe Northwest High School coach, Barry Lenth, for putting her on the right path from there. See, after an initial tryout at ONW, it was Lenth who told Parks she “had some talent” and needed to join a club team stat.

She did, linking up with the Kansas City-based Dynasty, but even that did not fully cure her soccer obsession.

“I just kept thinking how I was missing soccer to be there,” Parks said of her earliest volleyball practices. “It took some time for me to accept it.”

Kansas middle blocker Kaiti Parks (13) swings at a ball during a warm-up session during the 2022 season. [Kansas Athletics photo]

Then, in her first year with her new club team, Dynasty took third place in the highest division. That was the moment it all clicked for Parks, and it was all volleyball all the time from there.

“I wasn’t even that good,” she recalled of her club days, which also included a stint with KC Power. “And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, if I can get third with my team like that, if I start working hard, I could really get somewhere.’”

As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened. And long before she came to KU, too.

During her run at Olathe Northwest, Parks was part of a state championship team, earned numerous all-league and all-state honors and became one of the highest rated prospects in the state.

That, she thought, would lead to even bigger and better things in college.

That part of the plan never really materialized at Kansas, though, and Parks’ limited role and lack of playing time was as tough for her to accept as leaving soccer in the rearview mirror years earlier.

After managing her way through it during her freshman and sophomore seasons, Parks’ frustrations began to boil over during the early portion of her junior year in 2022.

“I mean, it was definitely tough the past couple of years, not getting the exact role I wanted,” she said. “At first, I kind of acted immature about it. It was just like, ‘Why am I here? Why would I keep coming every day?’”

Middle blocker Kaiti Parks (13) celebrates a KU point during one of the two sets she played in during the 2023 regular season. [Kansas Athletics photo]

She eventually found her answer, but not before conversations with Bechard and assistant coach Billy Ebel hit her with the hard truth and challenged her to change her perspective. Initially, she leaned into comedic relief as her "coping mechanism."

That was the start of her transformation, and Parks said lightening the mood made it easier for her to accept her limited role. She still loved volleyball. She liked all of her teammates. And she was at the school she always wanted to attend.

“I reached a point where I was just like, ‘I might as well just make it fun,’” she said. “I took that into perspective and this year I kind of grew up. I was like, ‘All right, it’s not about me anymore, it’s about the team.’”

Parks is not always the first Jayhawk to cheer for the success of her teammates because they all do that. But she is often the loudest and almost always cheers the longest. And she delivers in a unique style all her own.

She’s always considered herself a bit of a “hype man” and has had a great time operating as one of the team’s biggest supporters whether she’s playing or not.

That’s evident even when she’s not cheering. She’s just always on. During timeouts, or even when the action is live from the bench, Parks is always dancing, clowning, performing, teasing someone about something.

And in a very real way, that has become her role.

KU's Kaiti Parks (13) leads her teammates off the floor with a dance style that's all her own during an early-season victory in Omaha, Nebraska. [Kansas Athletics photo]

She credits roommate and “ride-or-die” friend and teammate Kim Whetstone, who found herself in a similar situation midway through her KU career, for helping her realize that her Kansas volleyball experience would be what she made it.

If she wanted to be mad, then frustration would follow. But if she wanted to embrace the role that was in front of her, she still could be an important part of the team.

She chose the latter. For one simple reason.

“I just knew that this was where I wanted to be,” she said.

Just like that, practices became her game days and her coaches and teammates started to see her effort have an impact on the team’s success.

“From the outside, you think she doesn’t have much of a role, but she shows up every day,” Bechard told R1S1 Sports. “I think as she moved through her career, she started to realize the significance of that. For our A side to be competitive on match night, we need a B side that’s going to be competitive, too. And she brings it each and every time.”

Added Parks: “Oh, I definitely take some pride in playing well in practice.”

That type of selfless approach, which so many players on this Kansas volleyball team have, has created an environment where the team is truly the only thing that matters.

The thinking goes, the more quality players and people you have on the roster like Parks, the better the team will be in any and every situation.

Never was this concept more evident than last Sunday night, during the team’s watch party for the NCAA Tournament selection show.

There was Parks sitting front and center in the first of three rows of Jayhawks watching and awaiting their fate. In the back row was junior setter Camryn Turner, who, three days later, was named Big 12 Setter of the Year.

There’s no pecking order here. Sure, some players have better stats and get more playing time, but they’re all Jayhawks, all important and all there for each other.

This is it for Parks. After this season, she’ll stay in Lawrence and continue her studies in grad school, but she won’t be playing volleyball anymore.

She called the ending — no matter how far the Jayhawks advance during the next month — a bit of a fairy tale and clearly carries a lot of pride in the way she grew as a player and person during her time with Kansas volleyball.

“As she saw that the program was getting better, I think she realized that she’s played a part in that,” Bechard said. “Maybe it’s a behind-the-scenes part, but, whatever it is, she started to see that she was creating more value that she even realized herself.”

Added Parks: “That’s the culture. Coach B’s always like, ‘The Jayhawk never comes off.’ I mean, this place is home. That’s why I picked it and why I stayed.”

Parks and the Jayhawks will hit the floor for their first-round NCAA Tournament match with Omaha at 7 p.m. tonight.

A win in that one would move KU into the second round, where they would face the winner of the Penn State-Yale match at 5:30 p.m. Friday, with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.

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