Long before Kansas volleyball appeared as a 4 seed in the Wisconsin region during Sunday’s NCAA Tournament selection show, senior Kaiti Parks was busy reminding her teammates of the choreography for their celebration dance.
It turned out to be a quick little ring-around-the-rosy hop along, and the practice paled in comparison to the real thing.
See, the 23-5 Jayhawks, who finished second in the Big 12 Conference, knew they were in. That wasn’t an issue. But that knowledge also did nothing to eliminate the nerves that came with waiting to see their name called.
The reason? They wanted to host.
“The last two years were nerve-racking, but I was definitely more nervous this year,” KU setter Camryn Turner told R1S1 Sports after the show ended. “I don’t know why. You go through and you see all the different teams that are hosting and it’s like, ‘OK, well, compared to them, we’re this and this and this. …I think it’s kind of a statement, like, we did the work and now people know it’s an opportunity that we earned.”
Wave the Wheat was inside Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena for Sunday’s announcement to observe the before and after of the Jayhawks’ big moment.
Here's a look at the Jayhawks' reaction.
The team arrived in small groups, wearing new black track suits for the event.
“I wasn’t really nervous until we got here,” said redshirt junior Kaiti Parks. “And then it was like, ‘OK, it’s starting to set in.’”
With three rows of chairs set up in front of one of the three televisions that lined the east wall of the mezzanine level that overlooks their home court, the Jayhawks took their seats on a first-come-first-served basis and in no particular order.
The team was surrounded by a group of 40-50 supporters, including KU football coach Lance Leipold and his wife Kelly.
Together, they watched as two full quadrants of the bracket were released without Kansas showing up. While that added to the nervousness, it also wasn’t entirely bad.
The Nebraska region was the first to be revealed and when the 16th team was called without Kansas being included, Turner pumped both of her hands in front of her to celebrate the earliest sign of a positive draw.
“We’re not going to Nebraska, guys,” one of Turner’s teammates shouted joyfully.
In addition to being a perennial national title contender, the Cornhuskers are the No. 1 overall seed this year and they were the team that knocked Kansas out of last year’s tournament in Lincoln, Nebraska.
While watching the show, the Jayhawks watching followed a pretty consistent routine – chatter about each team being revealed, whether because it was a Big 12 school or someone had a friend there or they just liked the matchup, and then hit their phones during the commercials.
Throughout it all, several Jayhawks displayed nervous feet, tap-dancing on the chairs or knee bouncing in front of them.
After the Nebraska region, it was on to the Pitt region. Sophomore Katie Dalton’s sister Julianna plays at Pitt, so she was just a hair more intrigued by this quadrant than anyone else and you could see it on her face. But just like the Nebraska region, the Pitt region was called to completion without Kansas being mentioned.
At that point, a commercial break gave KU coach Ray Bechard the chance to call his shot. This came after a couple of Jayhawks asked him if he knew what was coming. He didn’t, but he played a hunch. Once Omaha did not wind up in Lincoln, Nebraska, or Omaha, where Creighton was hosting, he sensed the trip to Lawrence was coming.
Like many of its tournaments, the NCAA tries to make this one as regionally friendly as possible for the early rounds.
“I think Omaha’s coming here,” Bechard told the team before the selection show revealed the Wisconsin region.
A few minutes later, when Omaha was announced as a first-time participant, a few Jayhawks in the front row looked back at Bechard and then at each other and then even held hands a little tighter.
Sure enough, Kansas was the next name up as the No. 4 seed in the region and the Jayhawks leapt out of their seats with excitement, screaming at everyone and no one all at once.
“I was just screaming,” Iowa transfer Toyosi Onabanjo said. “It didn’t hit me until everyone else started screaming. It was a great experience. I was so nervous because I had never experienced that before. My hands were sweating, they were clammy, and then when you see your name on the screen it’s just like, ‘Whooooo.’ And then to know you’re hosting on top of that is just great.”
Added fourth-year junior Parks of her immediate thoughts after seeing Kansas appear on the screen: “I think I was just in so much shock and I was just focused on (Toyosi) and trying to get our choreography down.”
They did, executing that much in the same way they execute on the court, and then the team came together for one huge group hug.
That produced Turner’s favorite part, even if she was still wiping the tears away from her smile that she said came, “accidentally.”
“I think my favorite was definitely Burny,’” she said of freshman libero Raegan Burns. “She was like, ‘My heart was beating so fast the whole time,’ and then we all just came in for a group hug and she was just so excited, little baby freshman just lit up. It was great.”
Added Onabanjo of Turner’s tears, which came during a couple of huge hugs with teammates Bryn McGehe and London Davis: “Her crying got me a little bit.”
Shortly after that group hug and a quick breakdown following a few words of congratulations from Bechard, the Jayhawks filed out of the building together.
Each one was smiling and they all walked past assistant coach Kaitlin Nielsen, who already had film of Omaha up on her laptop.
The Jayhawks (23-5) already faced Omaha once this season, sweeping them on their home floor during the second match of the season. Bechard emphasized that the Mavericks, which got in by winning the Summit League, were a better team today than the one KU faced back then.
In fact, he thinks all four teams that are coming to town are top-quality clubs. The Jayhawks will take on Omaha at 7 p.m. Thursday, with the winner of that advancing to face the winner of Penn State-Yale at 5:30 p.m. Friday.
All three matches will be played at Horejsi, and the one team that survives will travel to the highest remaining seed on its section of the bracket for a Sweet 16 match.
Kansas has now qualified for the NCAA Tournament for three consecutive years and 12 times in program history, but the opportunity to host makes this one just a little bit sweeter.
“Freshman year, we didn’t make it, and then every year after that, Coach B’s been saying, ‘We want to host. We want to host,’” Parks said. “And now it’s real.”
The Jayhawks have hosted NCAA Tournament action five times before — twice at Allen Fieldhouse (2012 and 2013), twice at Horejsi before it was renovated (2015 and 2016) and once at the Expocentre in Topeka in 2014.
KU enters postseason play riding a 14-match home winning streak, which is the sixth longest active home winning streak in Division I volleyball.
That, too, played a big role in the Jayhawks’ excitement over bringing postseason volleyball to Lawrence.
“You can’t compare Horejsi to anything,” Turner said. “The energy, the atmosphere’s just insane. We owe everything to our fans because they make every team uncomfortable.”
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