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Undefeated, upstart Baylor ready for Texas-sized challenge

UniqueThis 1 Oct 7
11:00 AM ET

Texas' volleyball program has won two NCAA titles and reached the NCAA final four 10 other times, including a stretch from 2008 to '16 when the Longhorns advanced that far eight times. The Longhorns finished first or tied for it 24 times in Big 12/Southwest Conference play dating back to 1982.

Baylor has never won a conference volleyball title; the Bears' best finish is second -- to Texas -- the past two years. They have been to the NCAA tournament seven times to Texas' 35 trips. All told, Baylor has won six NCAA tournament matches to Texas' 95.

The schools are only 100 miles apart and have lived in different worlds. Yet when Baylor visits Texas on Wednesday (Longhorn Network, 8 p.m. ET), the Bears will do so as the No. 1 team in the country.

They took over that spot on Sept. 30, and are now 16-0 overall. Fourth-ranked Texas is 12-2, and both teams are 6-0 in the Big 12. Wednesday's match, and the team's meeting in Waco, Texas, on Nov. 20, are the two most anticipated showdowns ever between these programs. After all, in the series between them, which began in 1974, Texas leads 83-2. Baylor's victories came in 1999 and 2001.

Did Baylor know just how good a coach it hired when it brought in Ryan McGuyre in 2015? Probably not. But he's completely remade the program. Baylor had never finished higher than fourth in conference play before he arrived and had never gone to the NCAA tournament in consecutive years. This year, the Bears will make their fourth straight appearance.

"What are my thoughts on Baylor being No. 1? I think it's awesome," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. "We want our conference to continue to grow and get better. We benefit from this, too, because we're all concerned about RPI. When you have good teams in your conference, it helps your resume."

Texas was the dominant volleyball team in the Southwest Conference. A move to the newly formed Big 12 in 1996 gave the Longhorns a top rival in Nebraska. But the Huskers, who have won five NCAA volleyball titles, left for the Big Ten in 2011. In conference play from 2011 to '18, Texas went 121-7. Baylor elevating to be more of a challenge for the Longhorns is positive news for both programs.

"Texas is such a good team, and we don't have a great history against them," said Baylor redshirt senior middle blocker Shelly Stafford, who is from Cypress, Texas. "We're all looking forward to having a chance to try to change that."

Texas didn't play in the first NCAA tournament in 1981, as the school's women's teams competed in the last year of the AIAW in 1981-82, and the Longhorns won the final AIAW volleyball championship. Since then, Texas has been in every NCAA tournament except two (2000, 2003). Elliott took over in 2001 and has a record of 468-103 in his 19th season with the Longhorns.

McGuyre spent 10 years at California Baptist coaching both the men's and women's teams, winning a combined nine NAIA national championships. After brief stints as an assistant at Maryland and Florida State, he took over at Baylor.

He knew that even with all the high school/club volleyball talent in the state of Texas, he would face challenges luring the top players.

"We really had to persevere," McGuyre said. "I can't tell you how many clubs were like, 'This athlete is too good for Baylor.' We heard that so many times. But, ultimately, you attract people who are like-minded. Where maybe we didn't get the most highly touted kids, we were able to get some who had a great motor, who were willing to work hard and were driven ... not necessarily with a chip on their shoulder, but who want to play at the highest level and believe they have what it takes."

Even so, the idea of Baylor being No. 1 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll would have seemed quite far-fetched when McGuyre took over.

"We kind of believe in things that really should not be realistic," McGuyre said, chuckling, "but they seem to happen anyway."

The Bears' attack is led by junior outside hitter Yossiana Pressley, who is averaging 6.18 points per set. She has 290.5 total points, while Stafford is second with 188.

Meanwhile, Elliott has one of the youngest squads he's ever had at Texas. Thus, he relies a lot on the experience of senior outside hitter Micaya White, who leads the team with 232 points, averaging 4.64 per set.

As a redshirt freshman in 2016, White led the Longhorns with 17 kills in their NCAA final loss to Stanford. The Longhorns also had made the NCAA final in 2015, the year White sat out. The past two seasons, Texas has lost in the regional final: at Stanford in 2017 and at BYU last year.

"I didn't realize how hard it was to get to the championship game. Because there was this legacy of always going," said White, who is from Frisco, Texas. "But these past two years when we haven't gotten to the final four, I realize how tough it really is.

"This year's team has that grit and that drive, and I think it's possible for us to make it back. But we have to take it day-by-day. Volleyball is such a momentum game, and you can't look ahead."

The Longhorns' two losses this season were both five-setters on the road: at defending NCAA champion Stanford, currently ranked No. 2, on Sept. 8, and at Rice on Sept. 18. The Owls are having a fine season, too: They are 18-1 and ranked No. 19.

"Where we are right now, we've put ourselves in the mix for now for a top-four seed," Elliott said. "The area we're trying to make up ground on is the defensive side. We have young middle blockers and a smaller setter. We're No. 1 in the country offensively, but defensively, we're not close to being in the top 10. So we can get a lot better."

And Elliott points out that maybe there's even a chance both Texas and Baylor could end up as top four seeds in the NCAA tournament. Their mutual success can help each other.

Texas is used to all this, of course. For Baylor, which made it to the NCAA tournament's second round last year, it's a newer thing. Stafford said there's a buzz on campus and in Waco.

"Our community has been super supportive," Stafford said. "I go into class, and everyone has been so pumped for us. It's really been encouraging."