When the kids are little, parents always chronicle the firsts.
The first word, the first steps, the first haircut. Each moment is rightfully greeted as a landmark achievement on the road of life, and carefully preserved for posterity. You probably don’t remember your child’s 17th word, but you definitely recall the first.
With that in mind, it seems appropriate to document Waco’s first steps toward becoming a volleyball mecca.
It’s far too soon to call Waco the new capital of volleyball in Texas. That designation probably belongs to little Jewett, some 70 miles away. There, Leon High School’s Billy Bob Evans Gymnasium is crammed with so many volleyball championship flags you almost wonder if they’re manufacturing banners there.
If it’s not Jewett, the volleyball capital of Texas probably resides in Amarillo, which boasts one of the grandest high school traditions in the state. Or Windthorst, East Bernard or the hyphenated community of Round Top-Carmine, who have combined for 62 UIL state tournament appearances, at least 20 each. (Yes, they do something in Round Top other than peddle acres of antiques.)
Groesbeck-based sportswriter Byron Riddle wrote a recent book, “Above the Net: 50 Years of the Best Volleyball in Texas,” in which he noted that two percent of the high schools in Texas had combined for more than 60 percent of the state titles. It’s an interesting historical footnote, to be sure.
But here’s the thing about history: It is always moving forward, always writing its next chapter. History changes. It evolves. Yes, four of the schools that won state titles at the UIL volleyball tournament earlier this month had won them before. But two — Class 5A champ Prosper and McLennan County’s own queens of 2A, the Crawford Lady Pirates — broke through as first-time champions. In doing so, they got to work on crafting a new tradition.
Waco doesn’t maintain the lustrous volleyball legacy of Jewett, Amarillo and other places. But it’s most definitely starting to sizzle, as it looks to become a hotbed of the sport. The city’s place on the volleyball landscape is on the rise, like the hang time of Baylor freshman Yossiana Pressley.
What makes Waco unique in comparison to those aforementioned places is the way it’s building volleyball preeminence on all levels of the game. There are only two cities in the state that possess both a Top 25 Division I women’s college volleyball program as well as a team in its metropolitan area that made the 2017 UIL state tournament. Those two cities are Austin and Waco.
And only one also produced a UIL state champion — Waco, whose friendly neighbor Crawford seized hold of its first trophy.
Now, the Austin area did produce a TAPPS state champion in Round Rock Christian. But guess what? So did Waco, as Live Oak — behind its high-flying, Air Force-bound pilot Bailey Keith — captured the first volleyball title in program history, beating Lubbock All Saints in the TAPPS 2A final.
Wacoans like Van Davis and others have devoted countless hours to growing the game on the grass-roots youth level for years. The Waco Juniors Volleyball Club features a variety of teams and programs for budding players ages 10-18.
As those little girls grow up and get bigger, they form the backbone of the area’s top high school programs. Besides Jeff Coker’s Crawford squad and Natalie Friesen’s Live Oak team, plenty of other schools in Central Texas are blasting enough kills to be considered Mikasa-murdering assassins.
A year ago, Midway spent a good chunk of its season holding the No. 1 ranking in USA Today’s national volleyball poll. The Pantherettes produced five Division I signees by season’s end, and truthfully they didn’t even comprise the entirety of the Division I talent on the roster, only the D-I seniors.
Lorena and Robinson feature consistent winners in Class 4A. In 3A, West will carry a string of 60 consecutive district wins into next season. Stretching beyond the borders of McLennan County, programs like Gatesville and Mexia, Fairfield and Blum are all playing — and winning — at a high level.
And then there’s Baylor. In three short years what Ryan McGuyre has constructed is nothing short of remarkable. The Bears are bringing in the kind of highly coveted recruits who wouldn’t be out of place at a Penn State or Nebraska or those West Coast volleyball powers.
Seriously, if you’ve never seen Katie Staiger play, you’re missing out. The Baylor senior outside hitter isn’t just a powerful ball striker — and she is that, highlighted by a high, light-scraping jump serve — but she’s also the picture of perseverance. She has overcome multiple injuries in her time in Waco, and she’s still standing tall. (Of course, all those ladies stand tall. I’m 5-foot-10, and I’ve got to look up at virtually all of them when conducting interviews.)
Staiger missed four matches this season, and Baylor won them all, which should tell you that the Bears are anything but a one-man gang, too. Believe this: with players like Pressley, Jana Brusek, Shelly Fanning, Camryn Freiberg and Aniah Philo, the Bears are set to do some damage in this year’s NCAA tournament.
They’re hosting for the first time on Friday, and if you’re free, you should strongly consider attending. First, you’d be getting in on the ground floor of an elevator ride that eventually should lead to a Final Four. If not this year, it’s at least on the horizon. But the other reason is equally as convincing. Volleyball offers something that is far too lacking in sports nowadays: a fast-paced, teamwork-driven, action-packed game that isn’t bogged down by look-at-me machismo or neverending TV replay reviews.
In fact, with volleyball, it’s almost like you’re in on a secret. For the most part, the mainstream media ignores the sport. You’re not going to hear Scott Van Pelt break down the NCAA field on SportsCenter. You’re not going to get any volleyball discussion on sports talk radio, not when the hosts could instead spend 20 minutes chattering about the Dallas Cowboys’ backup deep snapper.
So, volleyball is the hidden speak-easy where you’ve got to know the guy behind the guy in order to find the entrance. It’s the hole-in-the-wall burger joint that only the locals know about, that serves the juiciest patties in town.
It’s time to let the secret out — in Waco, it’s as good as it’s ever been.