If you’ve watched Kansas junior Caroline Bien play volleyball at any level, you likely have seen her smile.
It’s there before the game. It’s there in big moments and after big plays. And it may shine brightest when she watches her teammates deliver.
“She plays the game with a lot of joy and a lot of people love to play with her,” KU coach Ray Bechard said of Bien. “I think that’s a recipe for good things to happen.”
It’s always been that way for the six-rotation player from Overland Park, Kan., who first started coming to KU volleyball camps at age 10 and has been a bona fide star for the Jayhawks during the past two seasons.
But don’t let the smile and joy with which she plays fool you. Bien is a killer on the court, and she likes to think of her celebratory smiles and peppy personality as her weapons of choice.
“I think that sometimes,” Bien recently told R1S1 about how much her smiles and squeals must sting when things aren’t going well for KU’s opponents. “There’s two kinds of intimidation for sure. And I’d like to think that I’m the unbothered kind.”
If “plays with a lot of joy” is the best way to describe Bien on the volleyball court, “unbothered” is the perfect secondary descriptor.
It’s been that way since her freshman year, when she burst onto the scene as a skinny outside hitter and ended the season as the Big 12 Freshman of the Year and a first team all-Big 12 honoree. Bien said she had low expectations and plenty of wow moments during her first season in college.
Looking back, she called herself “reliable,” and she remembers enjoying every second of her first year as a Jayhawk because she never took herself too seriously, always worked her butt off and had fun doing it.
“I was just so in the moment that year,” she said. “It just seemed like nothing was planned and everything that happened was like, ‘Oh. OK. It can be a lot of pressure playing a college sport, but if that’s who you are there’s no reason to change and that’s how you’re going to be most successful.”
While her success made sense from a mentality standpoint, the fact it came during just her third season at a new position was borderline mind-blowing.
Bechard first started recruiting Bien as a libero.
“We thought she had a chance to be elite,” Bechard said of her potential as a defensive specialist and back-row dynamo.
She first showed that at KU camps as early as age 8 or 9 and continued to impress as a back-row defender during her club days with the Mavs and high school days at St. Thomas Aquinas.
“As long ago as it was, 13, 14, 15 years old, I remember it like it was yesterday,” Bien said of her libero days. “That was the plan and I was pretty set on that.”
While her mind was ready to settle in on the back row, her body had other ideas and just kept growing. Her legs lengthened, limbs grew and soon she was starting to people at club events utter words like, ‘Wow, that’s a really tall libero.’
“People started coming up to you and saying, ‘Hey, that doesn’t look like a libero anymore,’” Bechard recalled.
That’s when Bien first entertained the idea of doing more. But it wasn’t until club teammate Lindsay Lahr was injured before Bien’s junior season of high school that she actually got the chance to swing away on the outside. Once she did, there was no going back.
Bien’s natural athleticism and instincts made her a dominant presence up front. And the fact that she retained all of her libero skills while growing nearly a foot in just a few years showed Bechard that he would have to think differently about the player he was getting.
It’s not uncommon for a libero to be recruited on a one- or two-year scholarship. Bien’s growth spurt and ever-expanding game quickly nixed that plan and turned her into a four-year player who would be at the core of KU’s future. Luckily for the Jayhawks, being in Lawrence was all Bien ever wanted.
“I looked at other schools and programs,” Bien said. “But I ended up just picking my favorite school.”
During her recruitment, Bien talked to Kansas State, Missouri, Baylor, Illinois and Creighton. But she never really considered any of them. She committed to KU after her freshman year of high school and has been on some kind of ride ever since.
During her first summer with the Jayhawks, Bien found it strange to walk to her spot in the middle back where outside hitters line up instead of left back where the libero sits.
Teammate Jenny Mosser, an outside hitter with a Pac-12 pedigree, was confused, too.
“She was just like, “Are you kidding? Yeah, you have to play middle back; you’re going to play,’” Bien recalled.
Mosser remembered the moment, too. And it did not take her long to recognize that Bien’s years of playing the libero position would serve her well during her days in the Big 12.
“It helped immensely in her all-around game,” Mosser told R1S1. “Being able to pass and defend is such a big part of being a good outside hitter and she was already great in both areas.”
During the next two seasons, the two teammates filled roles as those rare six-rotation players, providing a luxury for Bechard and the Jayhawks and a problem for opponents.
Bien said Mosser’s influence on her and her new position was invaluable during her adjustment from out-athleting everyone in high school to learning actual technique at a new position.
“She was like my mentor that whole time,” Bien said of Mosser. “And I don’t know what I would’ve done without her because that was such a new role for me.”
As it turned out, Mosser, who transferred to KU after three seasons at UCLA, said Bien was a positive influence on her, as well.
“I haven’t met too many people who smile as much as she does when she plays,” Mosser said of Bien. “But it’s always nice to play with someone like that. I know I’m not like that, so I appreciate people who bring positive energy to the court.”
For Bien, all of that comes naturally. She credits her family — her parents, Dede and Doug, and older twin sisters Natalie and Mary Claire — for being her biggest fans throughout her volleyball career and
“I just feel like I have the best support system ever,” Bien said.
That vibe even extends to people like Lahr, who surrendered her spot to Bien when she was injured with the Mavs and wound up cheering for her as hard as anybody.
“She was super supportive,” Bien said of her longtime friend who now plays at Missouri State. “We talk everyday still.”
Bien’s talent has taken her to success in places beyond Kansas. She has competed on the USA Volleyball level on three separate occasions, including this summer, when she was selected to try out for the 2023 Women’s Under-21 National Training Team.
Prior to coming to KU, she lettered in four different sports in high school, earning MVP honors with her bowling team and a state championship in swimming and diving. Those honors, along with plenty of memorable moments with her track team, were sandwiched between countless accolades in volleyball.
The former No. 14 overall recruit in the country per PrepVolleyball.com was an Under Armour All-American in 2020. She earned Eastern Kansas League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year nods in 2019. And she earned first team all-Kansas, all-state tournament team and all-EKL in each year from 2017-20.
During her first three seasons in high school she was a PrepVolleyball national freshman, sophomore and junior of the year finalist. And, as a senior, she was a Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year nominee.
While her list of honors has only continued to grow at KU, Bien said this summer that she’s excited to elevate her game to a new level in 2023.
While that won’t require a position change, it will require her to step a little out of her comfort zone, from the I’m just here doing what I love to do and it’s a lot of fun approach to team leader who sets the standard while holding others accountable.
“I feel like this is just a different year,” she said. Now, I kind of know what I’m going to get. And now it’s just like, give it your all and see what happens. You can get caught up in awards and honors, but we’re going to have a really good team this year and I’m just going to go with it and try to be a leader and do the best I can.”
Bechard and Mosser both believe that kind of attitude can help the Jayhawks in a big way.
“Obviously she’s got her act together with her game,” Bechard said. “So, now it’s about how can she pull others along with her? She’s consistent every day. That’s the first thing, and that part of it’s there.”
Added Mosser, when asked about Bien becoming more of a leader: “It can be a lot for one player, but I know she’s capable of handling it. She’s shown she can handle being a go-to player, and she’s the type of player that will do anything she’s asked to do.”
With the exception of talking trash, that is.
“I don’t think I ever have,” Bien said, smiling, of course. “I get more fired up about someone else’s block or kill because I’m happy either way, but when one of my teammates is giving that fire and that crazy mentality, it kind of gets me more fired up.”
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