By Cody Soto
Baylor volleyball will look to snap its three-game losing streak as it travels to Manhattan, Kan. on Saturday to face Kansas State and open Big 12 conference play.
The Bears (9-5) are coming off of three straight losses in San Antonio to Louisiana State University and host University of Texas at San Antonio in the UTSA Roadrunner Classic to wrap up non-conference play.
“We weren’t closing out the games well,” sophomore middle hitter Tola Itiola said. “Sometimes we would have a lead and we would let the other team back in. Other times, we would start slow and have to come from behind, so we’ve learned to play every point with a sense of urgency.”
The Bears started out with a 2-1 record after posting wins over Abilene Christian and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi before falling to Portland in the Hampton Inn Waco North Baylor Invitational. Baylor then went on a 7-1 winning record that included a Colonial’s Challenge tournament championship for the team and a 5-1-road record.
Throughout the tournaments Baylor has played in this season, five players were named to three different all-tournament teams. The team recognition is a testament to the skill of the team, junior setter Amy Rosenbaum said.
“All of us are great women and players, and there’s not one girl leading the team,” Rosenbaum said. “The skills are divided amongst the team, and it’s cool to see the glory and the fame being given around. A lot of the girls deserve it.”
The Bears have had the chance to rest with a one-week gap in between their final non-conference game and first Big 12 match in Manhattan.
“We should [be] better than 9-5, but we’ve had half of our starters out,” head coach Jim Barnes said. “We’ve had a good week because we’ve had the chance to recover, and at some point we feel we can get everyone 100 percent healthy. When that happens, I think we’ll be a real deadly team.”
Baylor looks to improve across the boards in conference play, including blocking, Barnes said.
“We thought that was going to be a strength of our team, but since we’ve had to change our lineup, that’s the area that’s been our weakest,” Barnes said. “We are trying to shore up our blocking and consistency. That will make us more balanced.”
With the team’s efforts to improve on blocking, Barnes said the team will return to a two-setter system they have neglected since several team members undertook injuries.
“We are going back into a 6-2 system so that we can have a bigger block depending on people staying healthy,” Barnes said. “The team is tough, and I think we’ve had a lot of adversity and changes this non-conference season.”
The Big 12 volleyball conference is a highly competitive conference this season. All nine teams in the Big 12 combined for a 89-22 mark at the end of the fourth week of competition, and each team posted a .600 match winning percentage or higher.
The Big 12 has five teams ranked or receiving votes in the AVCA national poll, including No. 2 Texas and No. 23 Kansas. Kansas State, Oklahoma and Iowa State are receiving votes.
Baylor will look to make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011 after missing the tournament for two straight years in 2012 and 2013.
“This year, I feel most invested in the team being that I am an upperclassman in a leadership role on the floor. This year is going to hit me a little bit harder than the past couple of years if we don’t make the tournament,” Rosenbaum said. “I would be very surprised because we’ve fought through a lot of adversity and we’re ready.”
As of Tuesday, Baylor leads the Big 12 in kills per set (14.28) and ranks second in assists per set (703) and digs per set (16.02). The Bears currently rank ninth in hitting percentage (.228) and service aces per set (1.04).
Junior outside hitter Andie Malloy leads the Big 12 in kills (211) and ranks second with 3.98 kills per set. Sophomore middle hitter Tola Itiola is second with a .385 hitting percentage.
As the Bears travel to Manhattan on Saturday, they look to bring a spark to the floor and live out their new adopted motto “lights on.”
“The motto ’lights on’ means starting the game fast, and we are looking to take what we learned from non-conference and this past tournament to start fast, stay consistent, and finish strong,” Itiola said.
Although the pressure is on, Rosenbaum isn’t stressed about how the rest of the season will play out.
“We stressed last year about perfecting each play and worrying about the crowd and pleasing our coaches, so this year we’ve really focused on glorifying God in our playing,” Rosenbaum said. “Playing volleyball is such a small part of our lives, so we want to make it enjoyable, fun, and remember the relationships that we’ve had.”