Live Oak junior libero Kathryn Baker doesn’t generally get intimidated by the other team’s top hitter.
After all, how are they going to bring the heat with any more velocity than the scud missiles she tries to dig out every day in practice, from arguably one of the country’s most superb spike artists?
The numbers back up the claim. Live Oak senior Bailey Keith currently leads the nation in kills, with 631 in the Falcons’ 32 matches, according to MaxPreps’ national volleyball stat leaders. Keith also ranks fourth nationally with 123 service aces, and has chipped in 257 digs and 49 blocks for good measure.
“Oh, gosh, she’s the biggest hitter I’ve ever tried to dig,” Baker said. “I’m glad she’s on my team, for sure. My reaction time has to be quick to get those. You basically have to be in the right spot at the right time. She puts it away practically every time.”
Coaches always say that the most special players make everyone else better. Count Keith among that elite class. Part of it relates to her personality, which is grounded by an ever-present humility.
When your best player doesn’t strut around like she’s the best player, when she’d rather deliver a compliment than receive one, when she’s more prone to pat a teammate on the back than thump her own chest, it inspires everyone else to try to rise to her level.
“Bailey’s character makes it easy to have a player that is that skilled on your team,” Live Oak coach Natalie Friesen said. “Because she is humble and she doesn’t demand the spotlight, and because she wants to make others better, there’s no reason for me to step in and limit what she’s able to do.
“So we set her a lot. She’s smart. Other teams know we have a big hitter, but we let them know, because I think she can handle it.”
In 2016, the Falcons won 24 games and reached the TAPPS Class 2A state final before falling to Lubbock All Saints. Despite graduating six seniors from that squad and seeing one other key contributor transfer, Live Oak hasn’t missed a beat, thanks in large part to the lone senior, Keith.
Four freshmen have bum-rushed the court with loads of energy and uncommon astuteness. The Falcons boast a 25-7 record entering Tuesday’s match with Temple Holy Trinity, along with a 4-0 district record, and barring an upset they should make another soaring pass at a state title in the coming weeks.
Keith said she has enjoyed taking the freshmen under her wing.
“It’s been fun this year to step into a leadership position, and get to lead and teach the younger kids as they come up and build the program,” Keith said. “It’s been fun to do that, especially to pass on the reputation of the program, so they can carry that on, too.”
But it’s not just the freshmen who are more than happy to follow Keith’s lead. Even the upperclassmen say they admire the way she modestly bears the responsibility when things occasionally go sideways.
“She’s always looking for ways to build up everybody else around her and to help encourage them to do their best,” Baker said. “I think that’s such an important thing in volleyball, because when it’s passing and you don’t get that perfect pass to the setter, you need encouragement and she’s always there saying, ‘You’ve got the next one.’ Then (with setter Rebekah Curry), if the set’s not just right, Bailey will say, ‘Don’t worry about it, that’s my bad, I’ll fix it.’
“She’s already taking that responsibility, which is just so important and so key. She’s just amazing.”
Keith stands 6-foot-2 and owns a vertical leap befitting someone with “Falcons” plastered on her jersey. As such, her junior setter Curry said that her passes don’t always have to be perfect, which alleviates much of the pressure.
“A lot of times (the sets) are not as good as they should be, but she’s really good at adjusting and still putting it down,” Curry said.
When talent and teamwork collide, the coaches can’t wait to come to practice every day. Friesen said she has told people that she’s “living the dream” this season.
“If you have girls who want to play hard and that want to get better, want to love each other and the game, there’s nothing better coaching-wise,” Friesen said.
Following this year, Keith plans to enroll in the Air Force Academy on a volleyball scholarship. She had offers from several schools, and debated signing with a couple of Ivy League universities. However, she felt like the Air Force ultimately checked every box.
“I got to have the volleyball, the athletics and the academics, and not have debt or have to worry about that,” said Keith, who wants to attend medical school and perhaps become a flight surgeon someday. “Have a guaranteed job and just be a part of something bigger than myself. It was perfect for what I was looking for, and I’m excited that I’m going.”
Her initial flight plan is much simpler – travel through the TAPPS playoffs with her Live Oak team and win a state title. Her teammates want nothing more than to send her out on top, too.
“It would mean a whole lot,” Curry said. “I know I’ve been on varsity since my freshman year, and I was there when we made it to the Final Four, and then last year when we made it to the state championship (game). We were just so close. I’d love to just finish it off, especially for Bailey, because she really deserves it.”
When she graduates, Keith will obviously carry an enormous chunk of production with her. Live Oak’s Friesen can’t walk down the block to Magnolia and find another human pogo stick on the shelves, a player who’s going to put up seven kills every set.
But even more than that – it’ll be tough for Live Oak to replace Bailey Keith, the person.
“She is everything a leader should be,” Friesen said. “When we play other teams they always comment on No. 9. And I always follow up with, ‘And she is as good of a girl as she is an athlete.’ The coaches always respond, ‘I can tell, by the way she leads on the court.’”