Volleyball set to face Miami, OH in NCAA Tournament

Redshirt senior middle hitter Told Itiola prepares to spike the ball against the Longhorns Saturday in Waco. The Bears lost to the Longhorns 3-1 and will host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament today and Saturday. Liesje Powers | Multimedia Editor

By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor

Baylor volleyball has had a lot to celebrate this season. It earned the No. 12 national seed, is hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history, and is celebrating finishing 23-6 and second in the Big 12 conference.

Then Baylor was flooded with conference accolades as head coach Ryan McGuyre won Big 12 Coach of the Year and freshman outside hitter Yossiana Pressley as freshman of the year. The Bears also saw senior outside hitter Katie Staiger and sophomore middle hitter Shelly Fanning join Pressley on the All Big 12 first team while junior outside hitter Aniah Philo and freshman setter Hannah Lockin on the All Big 12 second team.

But now it’s time for McGuyre to get the Bears get ready for their opening round opponent, the Miami Redhawks of the Mid-American Conference.

“That Sunday selection show is like the favorite day of the year for me. Time to be together as a team and know that we have accomplished something and to move on, the turnaround is very quick,” McGuyre said. “It’s easy that we aren’t worried about hotels and buses and flights and meals on the road. To be at home, it frees us up to focus on practice.”

Baylor enters its opening-round match coming off a tough four-set loss to No. 2 Texas on Saturday, but Staiger said she still believes the Bears are better than they have at any point this season, a goal since camp opened in August.

“I do feel like we’re playing with good synergy right now. We have so many hitters putting the ball away so I do feel like we’re playing our best volleyball,” Staiger said. “Since August we’ve been talking about how we want to be playing our best volleyball when December rolls around.”

Before the loss, Baylor had won seven straight matches, including wins over then No. 11 Kansas on the road and No. 19 Iowa State at home, including winning 16 consecutive sets during the winning streak.

However, McGuyre believes that Texas was perhaps the tune-up the Bears needed heading into the do-or-die NCAA Tournament.

“They’re ranked No. 2 for a reason. They’re really good,” McGuyre said. “The teams that are coming in here, you’re looking at winners and winners win. They either won their conference tournament or played in a tough conference where they’re battling great teams all the time.”

The winner Baylor is confronted with is Miami, Ohio, who enter the NCAA Tournament with a 23-8 record while riding a seven-match winning streak, including a conference tournament championship.

Senior outside hitters Katie Tomasic and Olivia Rusek lead the Redhawks offensively. Both average 2.69 kills per set and have 307 and 288 on the season. Sophomore middle hitter Margaret Payne is right behind them with 283 kills and 2.5 kills per set.

“They’re a really good team with a lot of great athletes. They’re really good at defense and picking up on some roll shots and tips and great with digs,” Fanning said. “We’re going to have play our game, make sure we do the little things correct like sealing the net on our blocks and being aggressive on our serves.”

Miami’s athletic team allowed it to excel both offensively and defensively. The Redhawks were first in kills with 13.77 kills per set and 12.63 assists per set. On the defensive side of the net, Miami was second in opponent hitting percentage, holding opponents to a .173 percentage and averaging 18.69 digs per set.

McGuyre said that this balance and efficiency is going to be a challenge, as the Redhawks will force the Bears to have to earn every point.

“They’re a good passing team, defensive team, very low error team. I think we’re going to have to earn our points against them and just be disciplined in our block based off what their setters can do. They’re a very balanced team,” McGuyre said.

Baylor led the Big 12 in both kills and assists per set while finishing second in hitting percentage at .266 and opponent hitting percentage at .172. A big part of its offensive success has been the emergence of Pressley, who led the conference in kills per set, scoring nearly five points per set.

It isn’t just her swing and power that make Pressley a special player and an issue for Miami, it’s her team-first mindset.

“She’s a selfless teammate,” Staiger said. “When she came in and she was playing on the right side and in a position that wasn’t the most comfortable for her, she didn’t complain or get upset. She trusted what Coach had to say and what was best for the team and did that.”

As game day approaches, the game plan is always the same for Pressley and the Bears.

“Play our best game. Be confident and figure out all the things that they do and the things we need to do,” Pressley said.

Colorado (22-9) and James Madison (23-5) will open the first round at 4:30 p.m. today with Baylor and Miami playing in the second match of the day, beginning at 7 p.m. The winners of each match will play at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Ferrell Center.