By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
Following its successful 2016 season, Baylor volleyball will no longer be able to rely on the element of surprise.
The Bears overcame a barrage of injuries to key contributors, including redshirt senior middle hitter Tola Itiola, redshirt sophomore hitter Shelly Fanning and redshirt freshman middle hitter Jaelyn Jackson, on their way to a fourth place finish in the Big 12 and earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
Not only did Baylor volleyball not let these disappointments derail its season, but used them to further develop its chemistry, something that head coach Ryan McGuyre admires about his players.
“Adversity and disappointment is sometimes the start of a great journey and not the end,” McGuyre said. “Despite the disappointment in seeing some key athletes go down, they rallied together and played with great chemistry. We were excited to get in the tournament and get the win but we were disappointed it ended sooner than we wanted it to.”
The 2016 squad finished 22-12 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling in three sets to zero to UCLA.
However, all but two from that team return for 2017. Itiola, Fanning, and Jackson are all healthy. They re-join a host of seniors in All-American outside hitter Katie Staiger and Second Team All Big-12 selections outside hitter Camryn Freiberg and libero Jana Brusek.
With much depth and experience returning, it is understandable why the expectations around this team may be as high as ever. Baylor was picked to finish third in the Big 12 behind Texas and Kansas, marking its highest pre-season ranking in school history.
Despite the praise from the coaches around the Big 12 conference, Fanning admits that the ranking is a nice gesture but it is not the end goal.
“It’s cool to be ranked third without touching the court,” Fanning said. “It speaks volumes to our talent and competitive drive. None of us are satisfied with that, so we have a lot of work to do.”
This mindset is a common thread running through the Baylor locker room. Staiger, who recorded 698 kills last season, knows the target is on her back this season. But that target doesn’t seem to bother her knowing that the team is constructed for group success and not individual success.
“It’s exciting knowing that any six that coach [McGuyre] puts on the court are going to get the job done,” Staiger said. “It’s exciting to be part of knowing that there is so much different talent at different levels including the freshmen and people who were injured coming back.”
One major piece of the puzzle that needs to be filled prior to the season opener against Florida State will be that of the setter due to the departure and graduation of Morgan Reed. McGuyre said the only way to decide is to throw them into the fire of competitive matches and see how they respond.
“It’s like that quarterback deal, we’re going to have to make some decisions early,” McGuyre said. “We’re going to make some decisions early and map it out and see which hitters hit well off of which one and who makes good decisions. Because of the youthfulness, Hannah [Lockin] is a freshman and [Hannah] Fleugal being a sophomore, neither with real game experience, we’ll probably see them all out there at some point and test them a little bit.
Sophomore Braya Hunt is also in the mix for the position, appearing in 12 matches in 2016.
Baylor will have little time for error entering its season opener. The Bears will host No. 15 Florida State as part of the Hampton Inn & Suite Waco North Baylor Invitational.
According to McGuyre, facing a talented and respected team in Florida State allows Baylor to measure itself right off the bat.
“They’re physical and talented. To be the best, you have to play the best and Florida State is one of those teams year in and year out that you have to play,” McGuyre said. “It’s a win-win. We get to measure ourselves against a great team early on and I feel that we have the talents to get a victory in this match and not look back but it’s a good measuring test.”
Baylor and No. 15 Florida State open the season at 7 p.m. Friday at the Ferrell Center.