When Kansas lost three straight matches and slid out of first in the Big 12 late last month, the message from coach Ray Bechard was clear: the Jayhawks needed to get back to playing like the team they truly are.
After Saturday, it seems as though they’ve done just that.
Kansas notched its second-straight win after the three-match skid, cruising past Texas Tech in four sets (25-19, 25-15, 19-25, 25-21). Both offensively and defensively, the Jayhawks saw improvement back to the level they played at earlier in the year, that carried them to a 6-0 start in conference play.
“.310 hitting percentage, 61 percent sideout, and 13 blocks – key blocks,” Bechard said. “That’s who we are.”
Bechard stressed throughout the slide that the offensive production needed to improve, and much of that fell on Kansas’ top attackers. They’ve certainly responded over the last two matches, swinging for a .310 hitting percentage in the win over West Virginia on Wednesday and .300 against Texas Tech.
Leading the charge was junior hitters Jada Burse and Ashley Smith, who finished with 11 and eight kills respectively, and both swung over .300.
“Jada, she was great Wednesday, and tonight again, 18 kills and three errors,” Bechard said. “And Ashley – when you get left sides that get that much volume and hit over .300, they’re having a big-time night.”
Burse had largely played well over the stretch, but the attack as a whole struggled. She knew, however, that this type of breakthrough was imminent.
“I knew we could do it,” Burse said. “I was just waiting on the moment.”
A large part of the offensive struggles can be traced back to the injury of freshman setter Camryn Ennis. She went down on Oct. 20 against Iowa State, and didn’t see a full workload again until the match against the Red Raiders.
With Ennis back in the fold, the Jayhawks were able to not only re-establish their rhythm with her at setter, but also do so with senior setter Gabby Simpson by Ennis' side as the pair slid back into its regular two-setter approach.
“I think us just getting back in the swing of things after the injury with Cam, just getting back into the swing of things with Gabby, getting our chemistry up with her,” Burse said of the offense’s resurgence.
When the losing streak ended against West Virginia, it wasn’t sure if things were back 100 percent or if Kansas had simply taken care of an inferior opponent. After a second convincing victory, though, it appears as though the offense is indeed back.
The win over the Mountaineers was instrumental in reaching that point.
“During the West Virginia game, I was telling my team we need to use this opportunity to get our confidence back, and we did,” Burse said.
With just five matches left before postseason play and the NCAA Tournament selection show, Kansas still has a lot to prove. The team is clearly talented and can play at a high level, but after the late-October skid, much is still to be said of the team’s consistency.
Still, though, for the team to have improved and regained the level of play that had defined its initial Big 12 success, things are promising moving forward into the final stretch.
“I still think we’re gaining speed,” Bechard said. “There’s teams this time of year that might plateau out, might not be gaining momentum. But I still think as a team we’re still making progress, so I’m excited about that.”