Ray's House

Since the doors to Horejsi Family Athletic Center opened six years ago, Ray Bechard's volleyball program has become a major player on the national scene. Last night, the team said goodbye to its seniors in another home win at Horejsi.

Originally published in the November issue of Jayhawk Illustrated.

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Some things are simply unexplainable. Take, for example, a college volleyball team facing its biggest rival, trailing 9-1 in game five but storming back to pull off a 15-13 shocker. There's simply no reason such an event should happen...EVER.

But it did, on Nov. 5, 2003, when the Kansas volleyball team stunned arch-rival Missouri in arguably the most ridiculous finish to a match in Horejsi Center's now six-year history. There is simply no way to explain why it happened, other than that the Horejsi magic struck again. Stranger finishes have happened too, such as 22 days later when KU trailed Baylor 14-10 in game five but rattled off six straight points to win the match in jaw-dropping fashion. Hollywood writers can't script stuff this good and make it believable, but it happens on a regular basis at Horejsi Center – the official home court of Kansas volleyball.

Maybe it's the aluminum walls, bright lights or intimate atmosphere inside Horejsi that allow such wild finishes to happen. Maybe it's seventh-year coach Ray Bechard's mastery at recruiting and directing his players. Or perhaps it's the fact that Horejsi Center has given Kansas a state-of-the-art training facility that has helped woo top players to come to KU and develop.

It's likely a little bit of all three, but one thing is certain, none of it would've been possible without the generosity of the Stewart Horejsi family of Salina, who donated most of the funding for the $3.8 million facility. "Stu Horejsi. Just the fact that he stepped up and got this program going, I don't think he realizes how much it's meant to our program," Bechard said. "But you can never thank those people – especially Stu and everybody else who contributed – enough for making it happen." Most of KU's players never have met Horejsi, but they all keep a warm spot in their hearts for him for providing them with a place to call their own.

"I've never met him," senior Jill Dorsey said, "but I'd love to give him a big hug and thank him for everything he's done for us." Another person Bechard routinely credits is a person very familiar with the importance of a home court - former KU men's basketball coach Roy Williams. Williams was instrumental in the fundraising efforts for the building and supported the volleyball program in efforts to make it their own.

As Horejsi Center turns six, here's a look back at the making of that magical building and the world of difference it's meant to one Kansas team.

A HOME OF THEIR OWN

Allen Fieldhouse served as the home of Kansas volleyball for more than 20 years – as well as the home of men's basketball, women's basketball, office space, storage, locker rooms… the list went on and on. The arena's primary purpose was, and still is, basketball. Volleyball was a mere sidenote.

Freshman Emily Brown, the preseason Big 12 co-Freshman of the Year, remembers attending a volleyball match at Allen Fieldhouse before Late Night with Roy Williams when she was little, and the experience was a bit deflating. More than 12,000 fans were in attendance at the match – but everyone knew they were there for basketball.

"It just wasn't the same," Brown recalled. "A lot of people were there for Late Night, so they were at the volleyball match because they had to be there. Now they're here because they want to be here."

When Bechard was hired prior to the 1998 season he knew a new facility was on the way. That was a major selling point on convincing the Hall of Fame coach from Barton County Community College to leave his 716-60 career mark behind and come resuscitate the Kansas program.

Without its own building to play in, Kansas fell behind the rest of the conference and the rest of the country. Programs with their own facility landed top recruits and moved forward while KU stood still.

Horejsi Center changed all that.

"At a lot of places volleyball gets its own gym," Brown said, "and you can see how when KU got its own gym the program really did skyrocket."

Matches in the Fieldhouse were flat-out silent. Even strong crowds couldn't intimidate opponents because the building was too big and there was too much space for their cheers to disperse and soften. Homecourt advantage was a virtual non-factor. It's no wonder KU posted losing records 14 times.

IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME

In the Horejsi Center's early years, Bechard laid the foundation for the program by recruiting vastly underrated players like Molly LaMere (1998-2001), Jennifer Kraft (1999-2002), Sarah Rome (2000-2003), Jill Dorsey (2001-present) and Ashley Michaels (2001-present). Then the bigger names followed, such as current Jayhawks Josi Lima, Jana Correa, Emily Brown, and preseason Big 12 Conference Newcomer of the Year Paula Caten.

All were attracted by the opportunity to be a part of a budding program, but seeing a match in Horejsi Center sealed the deal for most.

"If you're watching the game [as a recruit] and you see the crowd get into it like they do and you see us react to the crowd and you see how fun it is, it all works together," said Michaels, a Wathena native and two-time All-Big 12 honorable mention selection. "It definitely has been a good recruiting tool."

Bechard said that's the case for most recruits who visit KU.

"People come in here and they see it's new, it's bright, it's loud," he said. "When the band gets going and the team is playing well and the crowd's into it, I think kids can see themselves out there in a real positive light."

Of all the areas it has impacted Kansas volleyball, Horejsi Center's greatest impact may be on the Jayhawks' training regime. They set up three nets during practice and break up into specialized groups. Players spend much of their spare time hanging out in the team room – equipped with a TV and cozy black leather couches – to study or relax between classes. They even have access to Horejsi Center in the summer, 24 hours a day.

"We can come in here, even in the off-season, and we can set up a net and play, which helps a lot to get better in the off-season. We can come here any time, just punch in that code and walk in here. It's awesome."

Sure, volleyball still shares with basketball. The men's team plays pickup ball in Horejsi when the sweltering heat makes Allen Fieldhouse intolerable. Basketball camps utilize the gym during summer sessions. But there is no question that volleyball finally has a home of its own.

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE ATMOSPHERE

Rather than being called Horejsi Center, KU volleyball's home turf easily could be called ‘The Little Building that Could.' It seats just 1,300 people, but the magic generated within its aluminum walls can be absolutely electric. Truth be told, when it comes to recruiting top players, it's the atmosphere they dig, not the size of the building.

"I think the capacity is 1,300, but sometimes if feels like there's 3,000 or 4,000 people in here," Dorsey said.

The facility was built for sound. Noise bounces off the aluminum walls and the band makes the building shake. Plus, seating is right up against the edge of the court which makes the crowd loom large over visiting teams.

"We just like to pack the place and have the crowd feel like they're on top of them during the game," Dorsey said. "We love having that close, tight atmosphere. A lot of people come in here and find out it's one of the toughest places to play in the Big 12."

Over time, as the volleyball program has ascended through the Big 12 ranks, fan support has surged, the building has rocked louder, and the team has won more and more matches. Last year's third-place finish in the Big 12 and first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance simply are the latest steps in the program's progression since Horejsi Center first opened its doors. It's been one heck of a wild ride.

The seasons will change and players will come and go, but the next decade of Horejsi magic is destined to be intense.

"We've gone from the lower half of the Big 12 to the top half of the league in this place, and every year it just keeps getting better," Dorsey said. "The road, the journey is incredible. It's been an amazing ride."

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Four Jayhawk seniors were honored in their final match at the Horejsi Family Athletics Center as the University of Kansas volleyball team blocked its way to a 3-1 win over Colorado Saturday night. Four seniors -- Jill Dorsey, Ashley Bechard, Ashley Michaels and Lindsey Morris -- started the match and finished together with a win. With the win, the Jayhawks finish the regular season 18-11 overall and 9-11 in the Big 12 Conference.

Photo Gallery >> For reprints, contact Jeff Jacobsen.

KU will await its postseason fate as NCAA Tournament bids will be announced beginning at 5:40 p.m. Sunday on ESPNEWS. Last season, Kansas was one of six Big 12 teams to received a bid.


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