By Shehan Jeyarajah
After a disastrous 2-6 start to the 2013 season, Baylor volleyball has won six out of its last eight matches in non-conference play to pull back to .500 on the season.
“Because of our slow start, a lot of people wouldn’t have thought we would get back to .500,” head volleyball coach Jim Barnes said. “This is a young team that has had to learn a lot. This has been the most dynamic young season I’ve ever seen as a coach because we’ve had so much change.”
The Bears went off to a slow start after playing a much more difficult non-conference slate than last year.
“We scheduled really good teams for non-conference, we wanted to be pushed,” Barnes said. “But because of all the injuries, we were pushed a little too hard.”
The Bears’ injury woes started when highly touted freshman outside hitter Katie Staiger went down with a season-ending knee injury during the first tournament of the year in Fort Collins, Colo. Baylor went on to lose the match and Staiger was lost because of injury.
If Staiger was in the lineup, who knows what would have happened in those two matches? Instead, Baylor fell into a three-match hole to start the season.
There were flashes of potential at the beginning of the season, led by a straight set blowout against in-state rival Southern Methodist, but Baylor still fell into a 2-6 hole after the first eight matches.
The Bears appeared to take a turn in the season during the Baylor Invitational tournament. Baylor won two of three in the tournament, including a dominant win over Appalachian State where the Bears hit .636 in the third set. The Bears went on to win six of their next eight. Even in their losses to Colorado and LSU, Baylor played two powerhouse programs closer than many expected.
“We definitely feel like we’ve made a turn in our season,” sophomore outside hitter Laura Jones said. “We started off rocky, and we realized this wasn’t going to cut it. Since then, we have turned it around. There’s a lot of room for improvement and that will come with conference play.”
Sophomore middle hitter Adrien Richburg agrees with Jones that Baylor has made improvements for the season.
“I feel like our focus is better,” Richburg said. “We focus much better on our scouting report recently. I think we’re ready.”
One of the keys to Baylor’s rise has been its improvement on the defensive side of the ball. In eight losses, Baylor has averaged 13.1 digs per set as a team. In wins, Baylor has kept the match alive by finishing with 15.8 digs a set. Sophomore outside hitter Thea Munch-Soegaard has led the resurgence. Before going down with a foot injury, Munch-Soegaard had posted double-doubles in six of her last seven matches. In those matches, Munch-Soegaard has averaged 11.9 kills and 12.7 digs per match.
In wins, Baylor averages 2.52 blocks per set. In losses, they are limited to only 1.82 blocks per set. Seven players are averaging 0.40 blocks per set or more for Baylor, and they out-block their opponents 2.25 per set to 1.90.
Senior outside hitter Zoe Adom has been the most consistent player for Baylor this season. The fifth-year senior leads Baylor with 197.0 total points, 175 kills, 3.07 kills per set and 476 total attacks. Adom was named All-Big 12 First Team last season, and seems well on her way to repeating the honor this year.
Sophomore setter Amy Rosenbaum has started for the first time in her collegiate career this season. Rosenbaum has impressed with 9.95 assists per set and 99 total digs. Fellow sophomore libero Mackenzie Mayo leads the team with 3.35 digs per set.
“We’ve been able to get back up to .500 and we were able to gain a little bit of confidence going into the Big 12,” Barnes said. “If we continue to get better, we can win some of these Big 12 matches and put us in a position to make the NCAA Tournament, which is our ultimate goal.”
Last season, the Bears narrowly missed out on being invited to the NCAA Tournament after finishing with a record of 20-12 overall and 7-9 in the Big 12. The Bears dug themselves into a hole with their early struggles, but have an opportunity to be a factor in a strong Big 12 after righting the ship.
Baylor begins the Big 12 conference schedule with a road match against No. 25 Iowa State on Saturday before its home opener against No. 5 University of Texas on Oct. 2. at the Ferrell Center.