By Cody Soto
Sophomore middle hitter Tola Itiola had never played a sport before the eighth grade, let alone volleyball.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Itiola came to the United States in 2008 with no prior knowledge of how to play volleyball. When she enrolled at Carrollton Christian Academy, she decided to give it a try.
During tryouts in middle school, she needed several water breaks and rests to continue the tryout. She couldn’t serve a ball over the net and was unable to bench press much weight during the team’s offseason program.
However, Itiola used this as an opportunity to grow into something that she had never done before, and she did just that. Five years later, Itiola is one of the top assets of Baylor volleyball and brings athleticism, faith and team leadership.
Alice Klunck, Itiola’s eighth grade and freshman year coach, said that while Itiola didn’t necessarily know the fundamentals of the game, she didn’t let that stop her from learning.
“I loved that she was so interested in improving her game and tried her hardest on and off the court,” Klunck said. “I took the game and broke it down working on each individual skill with her, starting with blocking on the right side. I believed that her vertical was a strength for her.”
After starting school a year early in Nigeria, Itiola was one year younger than the rest of her teammates. However, belief was all she needed to learn and improve her game.
“They told me their belief in me, and in the end it made me believe in myself,” Itiola said. “It was a huge learning process for me, and I loved the challenge of growing every day in my skills. They’ve really helped me be the player I am today.”
Learning to play volleyball wasn’t easy though. Tola’s younger sister Mofe Itiola remembers just how difficult it actually was.
“We would feel really bad when we messed up,” Mofe Itiola said. “We had no idea what we were doing because we hadn’t played any sport before. We just continued to play, and that’s how we learned. We picked it up and we’ve both gotten better every year.”
Tola’s 6-foot-2 stature allowed Klunck to put her at the middle blocker position during Itiola’s eighth grade year.
“The coaches really wanted me to play the middle blocker position, so I really had to grow into it,” Tola said. “It didn’t come naturally at first, but with a lot of work, it became a lot easier. It’s nonstop, so I really enjoy it.”
Her speed and big vertical jump proved to be an advantage for Tola, and Klunck quickly moved her up to play on the varsity team her freshman year of high school.
“I believe she was surprised by that decision,” Klunck said. “She mentioned at one point that she thought she might not make any of the teams. Imagine how much more surprised she was when she began starting for our team along with seniors.”
Tola’s personality is very distinctive. While she may not be the loudest player on the team, her confidence grows every match, Mofe said.
“She’s pretty soft spoken, but when she does speak you think, ‘where does that come from?’” Mofe said. “She plays with so much confidence though. No matter how the game’s going, she will keep it up. She has that mentality.”
Mofe isn’t the only one to see Tola’s quiet personality. Klunck said Tola’s personality shows in her performance, and that plays a big factor in matches.
“She was shy at first on the varsity team, but once she got comfortable, you could see her coming out of her shell,” Klunck said. “Tola has never been a cocky player, and I spent some time trying to convince her of her talents and I never felt like she knew how talented she truly is. She is a tremendous role model of the mentality a true athlete should strive to have.”
Tola Itiola’s faith has been one factor that has separated her from the rest of her teammates. Junior outside hitter Andie Malloy said Tola’s message before a game this season really stuck with her.
“She said to play free because we’ve all been saved, so she told us just to go out there and play with freedom,” Malloy said. “It was awesome to hear her say that and give those words of encouragement for the team. She’s definitely a spiritual leader on our team.”
Itiola said she uses her faith to stay positive during tough matches. Her love for her faith helps her take every day as an opportunity to get better. In turn, that helps her become a spiritual leader, she said.
“My spiritual life has really helped me stay focused and not to take mistakes personally and be able to brush them off,” Itiola said. “I’ve learned that my mistakes don’t define me, and I’m going to have to believe in myself.”
Tola’s relationship with her sister has blossomed over the past year with the death of their mother, Nike Itiola. Mofe said this experience made her sister more mature and allowed her to take on a motherly role for their family.
“We really have to be there for one another, and we’ve learned to be grateful for each other,” Mofe Itiola said. “Every night, she would always text me because she wants to keep me uplifted and is stepping in like a mom to me.”
Faith has brought these two sisters together even though they are now miles apart with Tola Itiola playing for Baylor.
“God truly has a plan,” Mofe Itiola said. “Even though we have no idea what the future holds, we know that He will do everything for us. Knowing that statement helps us keep faith in God and understand that He does everything for a reason.”
Tola’s faith shines in her play for Baylor volleyball, and the team is taking full advantage of her threat in the middle.
“She is a very quiet player, but I can see that she’s exuberating confidence,” junior setter Amy Rosenbaum said. “It’s been exciting to see her grow as a player and to see her belief on the court. It’s going to add a lot of blocks and silent kills for us.”
Itiola’s growth on and off the court makes her a special athlete for Baylor, head coach Jim Barnes said.
“She’s getting more confidence and learning to get more aggressive and consistent, and as that comes along she’s going to be one of the best players in the nation,” Barnes said.
Looking back on her first days playing volleyball, Tola would not have pictured herself wearing a Baylor jersey. Her determination to grow into new roles and step in when needed makes her an impact athlete for the Bears.
“I’ve grown a great love for this game,” Tola said. “The opportunity to play volleyball and to be here at Baylor is a huge blessing from God.”