Injuries bring perspective, service, leadership to volleyball

Redshirt senior middle hitter Tola Itiola practices her sets with junior outside hitter Aniah Philo during a Baylor practice. Photo credit: Liesje Powers

Nathan Keil | Sports Editor

Redshirt sophomore outside hitter Shelly Fanning had finally reached the point of no return.

The lingering pain in her foot dating back to her freshman season in 2015 was something that she could no longer ignore, if not for herself, but for her teammates.

“Going into my sophomore season it was really hurting me,” Fanning said. “In the Green and Gold scrimmage was when I realized I could no longer jump, play to the fullest, or give my teammates my best. That’s when I realized I had to stop sucking it up and stop at that point.”

The stress injury kept Fanning sidelined for the entire 2016 season. But Fanning wasn’t the only one bitten by the injury bug in 2016. Redshirt senior middle hitter Tola Itiola found herself in a similar scenario, falling victim to an injury of overuse and exhaustion.

“I guess I felt stuff but I didn’t know what I was feeling, whether aches or pains or if something was actually there,” Itiola said. “ The medical staff at Baylor is amazing and they took really good care of me. We figured out that it was something that just didn’t go away initially, so they did a good job working with me to figure out was going on.”

The 2017 season was only in its infancy stage and yet head coach Ryan McGuyre had already lost two key contributors from his debut season in Waco.

But Baylor volleyball didn’t fold at the first sign of trouble. It didn’t abandon its competitive spirit and hold on to the hope of a fresh start next season. Instead, it found hope in perseverance and adversity, something that McGuyre accounts to the strength of the team’s chemistry.

“Perseverance was a goal of our team. When you look at Romans 5:4, ‘Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. As a coach, I know that hope is there, that this is going to be part of something good. Disappointment is the start of a great journey, not the end,” McGuyre said. “ Our team’s character was extremely strong and the adversity strengthened us. We were very strong because of our chemistry and that had to do with how everyone contributed, top to bottom.”

Baylor began to see the fruits of that character as the Bears overcame a slow start to the season to rattle off a 10-match winning streak, including its first two Big 12 matches before falling on the road to No. 8 Kansas.

But even amid the highs of the season, adversity was always nipping at the heels, as then redshirt freshman middle hitter Jaelyn Jackson was lost for the season in the conference opener against Kansas State.

Hope found in Romans 5 manifested itself in the most successful season for Baylor volleyball in years. The Bears finished tied for fourth in the Big 12, made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, including defeating San Diego in the opening round and watching redshirt junior (now senior) outside hitter Katie Staiger blossom into a All-American Second Team selection.

For Fanning and Itiola, circumstances allowed them to learn different roles from what they were used to. Even though it wasn’t a physical contribution to the success on the court, it was every bit as important.

“In some ways, it was best for me to sit on the bench. It was a humbling experience,” Fanning said. “I don’t think I had been a very good teammate because I didn’t know how to relate to people who weren’t starting and now I do. I think that’s a cool experience to be a part of.”

Even though it was an adjustment, Itiola learned that she could serve her teammates through more than just her efforts on the court, but through encouragement, support, and celebrating in their successes.

This type of service required humility and leadership, something McGuyre sees as imperative to maintaining his team’s success.

“We always say the best leaders are the biggest servants,” McGuyre said. “We are training for a National Championship today and the point of power is always in the present and you can’t get stuck in the past. We need mind, body and spirit to be together as one in the present.”

Now that the 2017 season under way and inching closer to the Friday’s opener against Florida State, the weight of heavier expectations will be a very real obstacle that Baylor volleyball must overcome.

For the Bears, who return 14 members from its 2016 squad, including Fanning, Itiola and Jackson, all of whom are healthy, pressure doesn’t seem to be a concern. It’s all about perspective and for Itiola that perspective is always pointing to something beyond herself and beyond the game.

“A successful season is for me being mentally in it and being a servant to my teammates and making sure that I know that I give my best for the Lord,” Itiola said. “Making sure that in everything I do I give glory to God.”

Baylor will host Florida State at 7 p.m. on Friday in the opening round of the Hampton Inn & Suite Waco North Baylor Invitational.