How can a two-time All-American and a preseason all-Big 12 performer sneak up on people?
Well, when she’s not herself.
“I hope (I can sneak up on people). It’s all about rebranding, with the new name,” said a laughing Shelly Stafford, who Baylor volleyball fans may know better as fifth-year senior Shelly Fanning. In May, she gave up her maiden name when she married Samuel Stafford in Costa Rica.
As an athletic program, Baylor famously went through a bit of rebranding in April, when in conjunction with Nike it narrowed its color palette and settled on a more uniform set of uniforms. Now the volleyball squad is trying to follow suit.
It wants to rebrand itself as a grittier team. It wants to become a national championship contender.
Lately, making the NCAA tournament hasn’t been an issue. The Bears reached their third straight NCAA appearance last year under head coach Ryan McGuyre. But the season ended in familiar fashion. Following Baylor’s win over Hawaii in the first round, Oregon defeated the Bears in five sets to hand Baylor its third straight second-round defeat.
Hunting the Ducks taught the Baylor players some valuable lessons. Namely, it showed them the gumption required to make it to the NCAA’s Sweet 16 – and beyond.
“I feel like, for the first time, we felt that true competition, that true grit, that really is going to be what it’ll take to win a national championship,” Stafford said. “Having that taste of fight is something I feel like we’ve brought into every single practice since then.”
As the Bears bounced onto the Ferrell Center court for practice Monday, they had good reason to think that this year could end differently. A formidable veteran class returns, including six seniors – Stafford, libero Tara Wulf, setter/defensive specialist Braya Hunt, outside hitter Gia Milana, setter Hannah Fluegel and middle blocker Nicole Thomas.
“We have not had a senior class like that,” McGuyre said. “We’ve had some pretty stellar seniors, but to have six of them, it makes it really good. I’m not really leaning on them, they’re pulling me up. We’ve painted the vision, they’ve been invested in the vision.”
Junior rocket launcher Yossiana Pressley is also back. Pressley ignited 517 kills on her way to honorable-mention All-America recognition in 2018. At times she completely took over games, like when she ripped a school-record 39 kills in a September road win over Iowa State.
In McGuyre’s mind, though, the elevator on Pressley’s game is still on its way up.
“You’re going to see it this year,” McGuyre said. “She’s gone from underclassman to upperclassman, and the second half of her career is going to be even more stellar than the first half. Her maturity is good, and then you have all these setters who have some experience as well, and it just makes everybody better.”
The Bears certainly do not lack for options for setter. In addition to Fluegel and Hunt, the Bears bring back junior Hannah Lockin, who was slowed by injury early in the season but found her footing as the year progressed on her way to a team-high 838 assists. Fluegel, a former walk-on, finished with 403 assists, in a platoon with Lockin.
Joining that mix is junior Callie Williams, a transfer from Tennessee. The former Super Centex star at Midway is the daughter of Baylor assistant coach Jason Williams and former BU All-American Cory (Siverston) Williams, and has plenty of talent in her own right. She tallied 533 assists and 24 aces for the Volunteers in 2018.
Stafford said that Kara McGhee, a 6-foot-4 freshman middle blocker out of San Antonio, is likely to “tear up the Big 12 this year.” Other newcomers expected to push for minutes include freshman outside hitter/defensive specialist Campbell Bowden, freshman hitter KJ Johnson, and sophomore opposite-side hitter AJ Koele, a transfer from Mississippi State.
McGuyre purposefully assembled a daunting schedule. He wanted to stack the deck RPI-wise so that the Bears could put themselves in position to host in the NCAA tournament. “There is zero easing into the schedule,” he said. Baylor will be on the road for its first four regular-season matches, starting with the Aug. 30 season opener against UCLA at Nebraska’s Husker Invitational in Lincoln, Neb. Six of BU’s opponents finished in the top 25 of the final AVCA poll of last year.
“We have to be ready to go,” Pressley said. “And one thing that’s preparing us is us knowing exactly where we’re playing, who we’re playing, what time and how many days until that match. So, this is the 12th of August, right. So, we’ll say, ‘We don’t stop! We don’t stop! 18 days!’ So, that prepares us and gets us fired up for those 18 days and match time.”