By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
Baylor volleyball is not taking the easy road into the fall.
Before heading north for back-to-back tournaments in Nebraska and Wisconsin from Friday to Sept. 6, the Bears will be taking a trip a little closer to home for an exhibition match against Texas A&M Saturday. According to redshirt senior middle blocker Shelly Fanning Stafford, it will be just like any other away game.
“We’re going a night early, going to get a good night sleep, Coach [Ryan McGuyre] is going to give us a bedtime story,” Stafford said.
Coming off its highest finish in Big 12 play and third NCAA Tournament bid, Baylor is ranked No. 20 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Poll and is picked to finish second in the Big 12 Preseason Coaches’ Poll behind No. 4 Texas. This is the first time in school history that the volleyball program has received a preseason ranking in back-to-back years, with the Bears being tabbed No. 16 in 2018.
To head coach Ryan McGuyre, the rankings do not hold any weight in the race to be the last team standing in December.
“It’s not where you start. It’s where you finish,” McGuyre said. “We’re in a great conference and everybody is capable of beating us, so we’ll train like we’re in second, and hopefully, we’ll play like we’re in first throughout the season.”
With two weeks of practice and a successful Green and Gold Scrimmage under their belts, McGuyre said he is impressed with the work and energy the upperclassmen have brought to the team so far.
“[I’m] just so impressed with the maturity of this team — the leadership of this team top to bottom. Seniors have just done a great job really all being bought in,” McGuyre said.
With 12 familiar names on the roster, including All-Americans junior outside hitter Yossiana Pressley and junior setter Hannah Lockin, Baylor will have an experienced lineup hitting the court.
The Bears are also welcoming six freshmen and two transfers this year. Junior setter Callie Williams, daughter of assistant coach Jason Williams, transferred from Tennessee. Sophomore outside hitter AJ Koele made the switch from Mississippi State, where she totaled 125 kills in 67 sets as a middle and had 13 blocks and 22 digs.
A newcomer that might spark some excitement this season is freshman middle blocker Kara McGhee, who was named an AVCA Under Armour First-Team All-American her senior year of high school.
Having enrolled in the spring, Koele and McGhee might have a slight advantage with extra practice, which will give the Bears a boost in the eyes of the fifth-year head coach.
“Honestly, I feel like they’re ready to play college matches. The other freshmen are making us so much better in practice and are really learning quickly. I expect them to have a strong impact on us this season, but definitely in the future,” McGuyre said.
Despite coming off of shoulder surgery and still recovering from a stress fracture in her foot, Stafford said she that she and McGhee will “bring the heat” in the middle and that there will be a lot of production from Pressley, Lockin and senior middle blocker Nicole Thomas.
“We have a lot of new threats, and it just is a different vibe than other seasons,” Stafford said. “I honestly think that we’ve been winning every drill that we’re doing in our gym and keeping really hard hits up. Just our defense is really awesome, and our hitters are really challenging our defenders, which I think is just making our whole gym atmosphere a lot more competitive.”
Baylor volleyball will face the Aggies at 2 p.m. Saturday at Reed Arena in College Station and will officially begin the season against UCLA at the Husker Invitational on Friday in Lincoln, Neb.