If a team is a family – and Baylor volleyball’s Ryan McGuyre would contend that it is – then the transfers must be the adopted children, right? They weren’t original family members. They joined the mix later.
That’s the way it might be on some teams, but not Baylor. Aniah Philo and Camryn Freiberg, a pair of former transfers who are in their second year with the Bears, have developed as integral contributors to Baylor’s 12th-seeded NCAA tournament team. More importantly, they’ve shown that when you’re in the BU volleyball family, you’re in it for life.
They’re all sisters by blood now.
“From my first visit, I felt like they were my long-lost sisters, kind of like my people,” Freiberg said. “Not even because of the faith aspect at first, because I didn’t get to have those conversations right away. But just the way they acted and welcomed me in. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to be put with.”
There’s an old expression – I’m not from Texas, but I got here as fast as I could. In the case of Philo, a junior outside hitter, and Freiberg, a senior middle blocker, the adage requires some updating.
For them, it’s more like – we’re both from Texas, and for different reasons we left. But we got back as soon as we could.
Philo inherited her volleyball instincts from her mother Tonia, a former player at South Alabama. When Aniah (pronounced uh-knee-uh) was in elementary school, she would tag along to her Tonia’s adult league tournaments and play pepper with her mom before matches.
“I feel like when your parents put you on a sport and they teach you how to play, that’s all you really know,” she said. “They played that sport and all they talk about is that sport, so I feel like it was my destiny to play volleyball. That’s all they talked about and all they did, so I feel like I was kind of forced into it a little bit. But I still love it at the same time, because I know how to do it. It’s easy to me.”
Philo makes it look easy partially because of her superb leaping ability. The 5-foot-8 hitter rises above the net so high on some kill attempts it looks as though she was propelled from a trampoline.
Yet even after a brilliant four-year career at Rockwall Heath that included four straight district championships, Philo wasn’t inundated with Division I offers as an outside hitter. Because of her height, most of the bigger schools who were interested wanted her to come as a defensive specialist or libero.
“Really small schools were looking at me at that (hitter) position, but I was like, ‘I’m better than that,’” Philo said.
Louisville gave her a chance to play hitter, and Philo pounced. But she never really fit in with the Cardinals. On the court, she was fine, just like always. She tallied 177 kills and 254 digs while making the ACC’s All-Freshman Team in 2015.
In the locker room, though, she felt like an outsider.
“I just felt really lost. I didn’t feel like myself there, and the environment was different,” Philo said. “I would be upset, and nobody would help me.”
So Philo sought a transfer, preferably to a school back home in Texas. In some ways, it was like the recruiting process all over again. Want to come play libero? Sure, we’ll take you.
But McGuyre and the Baylor coaches envisioned Philo as a Swiss Army knife, a multi-faceted athlete who could help out in a variety of ways.
“We tried Baylor and they were like, ‘Yeah, we want her. We need a ball-control outside hitter.’ So that’s what happened, and I was blessed with the opportunity,” Philo said.
Last season, her first with the Bears, Philo tallied 11 doubles and finished second for Baylor in both kills (297) and digs (369).
The presence of All-American Katie Staiger and freshman Yossiana Pressley on the outside means that Philo generally plays on the back row. But McGuyre has dubbed Philo the team MVP this year because of her versatility and willingness to accept whatever task she was given. It’s fairly common to see Philo bookend a play with a slick pass in the serve-receive game, then finish off the subsequent set with a soaring smash over the attempted block. “I really have three All-American outside hitters,” MacGuyre said.
Even better for Philo, she never for a moment has felt out of the loop at Baylor.
“I didn’t even have to stay the night to know this was home,” Philo said. “It was just a different presence. When I visited at Louisville, the team wasn’t really all around me and all about me.
“But this team was like, ‘Oh, what’s your name? What’s your major?’ Asking me all these questions and trying to understand me and who I am. I just felt welcomed and felt like this was home, because they showed an interest in me and who I am.”
Like Philo, Freiberg hails from an athletic family. Her older sister Jordan was a soccer player at UTEP. Camryn, meanwhile, always gravitated to the volleyball net, where she helped lead Allen High School to the regional tournament her senior year while smacking 528 kills and 138 blocks.
At 5-11, Freiberg doesn’t possess typical middle blocker height. That prompted her to sign with High Point (N.C.) University coming out of high school.
She started 36 matches over the 2014 and ’15 seasons for High Point, making the All-Freshman Team her debut season and the All-Big South Team the next. But even by the end of her freshman year, Freiberg was getting the itch to move. She loved the school and the players, but craved more team success.
Her parents convinced her to stick it out for her sophomore year, but that season mirrored the first.
“I just hated leaving the conference tournament every year with a bad taste in my mouth,” she said. “So I wanted more opportunity, and I felt like I had more to give.”
Freiberg sent out emails to the top 50 Division I teams in the country, selling her services. While she was on a two-hour layover at the Tulsa airport, MacGuyre gave her a call.
“The first thing he asked me was, ‘Can you help us beat Texas?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Freiberg said. “That was really cool to get a call from him, because it didn’t seem like it was possible.”
She still has to look up to stare into the eyes of most of the middle blockers across the net. But Freiberg makes up for her smaller stature with quickness and tenacity. Her teammate Shelly Fanning called it “grit.” MacGuyre said that Freiberg is “fearless.”
“We needed some bulldogs out on the court,” MacGuyre said.
Freiberg has tagged 169 kills on the year and ranks second on the team to Fanning with 97 blocks.
“I can remember a specific time last year when I had a solo block against Iowa State in the middle and they were like, ‘Undersized middle goes up against 6-2, 6-3 whatever, stuff blocks her!’ I was like, ‘Yes!’ It was awesome,” Freiberg said. “It is cool to get to do that. Not only cool because it’s like, ‘Ha, look, I’m smaller and got to do that,’ but more like, hey, God still used me despite my height.”
Both Philo and Freiberg fully believe that theirs has been a journey of faith. They didn’t start their college careers at Baylor, because God had a different path in mind, they said.
But they’re overjoyed to be part of the Baylor family now.
“This team is obviously very supportive and they always look out for each other, no matter how small the situation is,” Philo said. “It could be like, ‘Oh, I failed a test,’ and we all go pray to the side. And hopefully you pass the next one. It’s very different. I love it here.”
Freiberg feels the same way.
“I wish I had nine more years to spend here,” she said, “just because of the girls and getting to be with them.”