Top-seeded Baylor making historic NCAA volleyball run on faith and joy

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Baylor volleyball 12/10/2019-Shelly Stafford
Baylor's Shelly Stafford attacks against Sacred Heart in the first round of the NCAA Tournament

It’s 1 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon in Waco, Texas, four days before Baylor’s NCAA Tournament regional semifinal matchup Friday against 14th-ranked Purdue, and coach Ryan McGuyre wants to discuss a topic that is the very antithesis of everything that got the Bears to their deepest playoff run in a decade.

He wants to talk about fear.

“The first step when you take over, is that you have to address fear,” said McGuyre, who took over the Baylor program five years ago and has twice been named the Big 12 Coach of the Year, including 2019. “When you look at top 10 fears for man, some fear sharks and spiders and roller coasters and heights, the fear of the unknown is right up there. The first thing when you have athletes who have had another coach, there’s this fear of ‘What is this coach going to think of me? What is this coach going to value? What is this coach going to do with me? Are they going to yell, are they going to scream? Are they going to change how I block, how I serve?’

“So, the first thing you want to address is fear, and believe that perfect love drives out fear. Fear is an emotion that contracts, love is an emotion that expands.”

It is not love, exactly, that McGuyre has placed at the core of this top-ranked Baylor program, but two other intangibles that precede it and harmonize with it: Faith, and joy.

His first move as head coach was to re-instill the faith of the incoming Bears that this was a program heading in the right direction, and that he was the man to do it. This is no easy task, and yet, sometimes it is as simple as a phone call.

Baylor coach Ryan McGuyre

In December of 2014, Shelly Stafford was a week away from enrolling early to Baylor. McGuyre, newly hired as the head coach, called. He told her he wanted to win a national championship, and he wanted to do it with her.

“He just sold me on the fact that he was invested in this program, invested in me, and I could sense the dedication and faith that he wanted to instill in this program,” said Stafford, a fifth-year senior who is second on the team with 237 kills and whose .375 hitting percentage leads the Bears.

“I think the senior group has for sure embodied that. But that has trickled from the top. Coach Mac is all about that, he lives day by day by that. When I think about the greatest servant, it’s someone like coach Mac. To have a leader like that, that everyone looks up to, I think that speaks volumes in how this team has embodied that culture.”

It is not difficult to see why it was so easy for Stafford, and the rest of the Bears McGuyre either inherited or recruited, to buy in so quickly. When McGuyre answered the phone and was asked how he was doing, he said, without hesitation, “better than I deserve.”

“The girls have overcome the coaching this season,” he continued. “It’s all the work they’ve done.”

The coach gives the credit to the players, the players pass the credit back to the coach and their teammates. But it is not the credit that is most important. Not with this team, anyway. There’s much to go around, especially on a program that has set the single-season record for wins (27), earned the first No. 1 ranking in school history, and won its first Big 12 championship, among an impressive list of other accomplishments and accolades.

More important than who gets the credit is how the players share the burdens.

“A good family multiplies the joy and divides the burdens, and we’ve talked about that since day one, but now we understand how to multiply joy, what that means, when to embrace a great play, when to embrace when someone’s training the right way,” McGuyre said. “We gotta make mistakes in order to get better, and family, we’re able to divide the burden and help carry one another’s load.”

There’s that word that came up so many times in conversation with McGuyre, Stafford, and junior setter Hannah Lockin: Joy.

McGuyre’s all about it. Some coaches motivate through fear or punishment. He simply chooses joy. And joy may seem like an easy thing for this Baylor team to find, given its unprecedented success this season. And in many ways it is, but McGuyre instead chose to point to an October 23 trip to Austin, Texas, as an example of this team’s ability to find joy.

“We got obliterated,” he said of that matchup with Texas, and indeed he’s being quite truthful about that only defeat this season. The Bears fell, 19-25, 10-25, 19-25. But here he points to a passage of the Bible, the book that is at the center of this team, in the first chapter of James.

“Consider it pure joy, my brethren, when you face trials of many kinds.”

“It’s like ‘OK, how do we find joy in this?’ We learned some stuff and we gotta apply it,” McGuyre said. “Our goal, the pleasure of competition should always exceed the pressure of competition. For us, it’s just, ‘Hey, we know what we’re doing, and here’s how we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it with great joy.’ It makes sense, all the toil and all the work that we’ve done, if we’re not able to enjoy it, why do it? Our reward is the joy of competition.”

It’s freeing, playing with that type of joy, the kind that separates results from the intrinsic reward of playing at all. And since that October 23 road trip, the Baylors haven’t lost a match. They’re winners of 11 straight, including a redemptive five-set victory over the Longhorns on November 20 to all but seal up the Big 12 title.

Baylor setter Hannah Lockin

McGuyre nearly brushed over the fact that his team won the Big 12 for the first time in history. Something to celebrate, to be sure. But accolades and titles are not what this Baylor team is about. Not really. It’s about the Marine in Japan, who emailed McGuyre to tell him that his daughter wants to be just like Yossiana Pressley, Baylor’s junior outside hitter and the Big 12 Player of the Year. It’s about the young girls attending home matches who point to the walk-ons as their heroes because they see how hard they work.

“Those,” McGuyre said, “are the things that are pretty cool.”

The cooler part, for McGuyre and this Baylor team, is that the further they go in the tournament, the more joy they can spread. As Lockin noted, after their win over USC, which advanced them to the regional semifinals, her thought was that “We are still just trying to get better because that’s what’s going to get us all the way.”

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