By Ben Everett | Sports Editor
Baylor volleyball is entering the 2018 season with historically high expectations.
A record-setting two-year stretch from 2016 to 2017 saw the Bears make back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time in school history, and the rest of the college volleyball world is starting to take notice.
Senior outside hitter Aniah Philo said last year Baylor finally made a name for themselves on a national level.
“I feel like especially my first year here and my sophomore year we kind of made a presence because we weren’t that known,” Philo said. “But especially last year, like beating Kansas – that was a big statement, I feel like. So, if we can just do more and more, like beating Texas or something like that, then that’s just going to be a bigger statement.”
Those statement wins have translated to national attention. Baylor came in second in this year’s Big 12 Preseason Coaches Poll, garnering 58 total points and two first place votes. Sitting above them is perennial power Texas, with 63 points and seven first-place votes.
In the AVCA Coaches Preseason Poll, the Bears also notched a program record, coming in at No. 16.
Despite the No. 2 preseason ranking, Philo said the goal is to win a Big 12 Championship.
“We’re not settling for that,” Philo said. “We want to be bigger than that. We want to be first, and we’re not settling for second. And that’s it.”
It was only three years ago that Baylor was a bottom feeder in the Big 12. From 2013 to 2015, the Bears finished in the bottom three of the conference each season. It was then that current head coach Ryan McGuyre and his staff took over.
McGuyre said the key to turning the program around was getting players to buy in, and maintaining that commitment is the key to success.
“A couple years ago when we first got here […] we had a couple leaders step up to say, ‘Hey, here’s how we’re going to live our lives; here’s how we’re going to train; here’s how we’re going to practice; here’s how we’re going to make Baylor volleyball a better program,'” McGuyre said. “Last year, we had 20 girls bought in and this year we have 17 girls bought in, and I’m excited about it.”
Having lost four seniors from last year’s team, including All-American outside hitter Katie Staiger along with starters Camryn Freiberg, Tola Itiola and Jana Brusek, the Bears are looking to get valuable minutes from young players.
Joining the team this year are freshmen libero/defensive specialist Shanel Bramschreiber, outside hitter/opposite Bri Coleman, middle blocker Sydney Sacra and libero/defensive specialist Emily Van Slate, along with Maryland transfer junior outside hitter Gia Milana.
McGuyre said the rotation will be tricky to figure out, given the depth and mixture of talent at each position.
“This year, we probably have more question marks of all the time I’ve been here at Baylor,” McGuyre said. “Two years ago, we just played who was healthy. First year, it was who understood the principles we wanted. This year, we’re really talented. So, you’ve got three or four girls in each position that can really contribute, bring different strengths.”
In addition to the newcomers, the Bears return Philo, senior opposite hitter Ashley Fritcher, junior libero/defensive specialist Tara Wulf and three preseason All-Big 12 selections: sophomore outside hitter Yossiana Pressley, redshirt junior middle blocker Shelly Fanning and sophomore setter Hannah Lockin.
Last season ended on a sour note with a home NCAA Tournament loss to Colorado, but Pressley, an American Volleyball Coaches Association Honorable Mention All-American a year ago, said the team is not dwelling on the past.
“Don’t bring last year’s season into this because it’s a new season, a new team, new everything, and we just have to stay focused and get it done,” Pressley said.
The season doesn’t officially start until Friday, but the Bears compete in an exhibition game on August 17 at Denver.
Philo said the team is eager to get rolling and figure out everyone’s roles.
“I think we’re just really anxious, kind of nervous,” Philo said. “We don’t really know what the season is going to look like, but we’re also excited because we have like a bunch of new players. We have a young team, but it’s like ‘Oh, it’s OK,’ because by the end of two-a-days we always play together and we’re united as a team.”
The season kicks off with the Hampton Inn & Suites Waco North Baylor Invitational. Baylor takes on LSU on Friday before facing Texas State and Marquette on August 25 at the Ferrell Center.