New staff, new roster: No problem for No. 15 Baylor as NCAA tourney awaits

When Baylor players and coaches assemble each November to watch the NCAA women’s volleyball selection show, eight-year coach Ryan McGuyre previews it by playing video of the 2016 Bears watching the selection show. That was the first time in program history Baylor made the NCAA Tournament, and McGuyre likes to illustrate the level of appreciation a tournament berth should elicit.

No matter what happens when the No. 15 Bears play their Big 12 showdown Saturday night at No. 1 Texas, they know their name will be called a week from Sunday when the selections are announced on ESPNU.

Baylor (22-5 overall, 11-3 Big 12) has an NCAA RPI of 16. But a few months ago, Baylor might have been perceived as anything but a lock to make the tournament.

Not only did the team graduate 11 seniors – “That’s almost a whole roster right there,” McGuyre said — McGuyre lost his entire support staff, save for Kellianne Layton. Layton moved from director of ops to director of player development.

Ryan McGuyre and his Baylor team

Most notably, associate head coaches Jason Williams and Sam Erger left for other jobs. Erger is the head coach at SMU and has led the Mustangs to a 20-8 overall record, 13-3 in the AAC. Williams remained in the Big 12 to take over TCU, which is 9-5 in the conference, 14-10 overall.

So much has changed, yet so much has remained the same for the Bears. The new assistants have blended in seamlessly, and the freshmen — McGuyre said he has had as many as five on the floor this season — have played beyond their years.

To fill his assistant spots, McGuyre brought in two coaches with national-championship experience.

Yajaira Cadet played for McGuyre when he coached the California Baptist women’s team to back-to-back NAIA titles (2004-05). McGuyre describes her as bringing passion and fire to the court as well as sharing a “like-minded” approach to the game.

Josh Walker was coming national championships with the Hawaii men’s team. He played for the Rainbow Warriosrs and then as an assistant. McGuyre said he and Walker see the game “in a very similar manner technically and tactically.”

Walker didn’t come aboard until June, because McGuyre agreed to allow him to finish up his duties at Hawaii.

“Learning what the new coaches’ strengths are over the summer took a little time,” McGuyre said. “I love how we have adapted as a team and what we have accomplished.”

No amount of coaching pedigree matters if the players don’t respond. That hasn’t been a problem in Waco, particularly with the freshmen, who have been vital to the Bears’ success.

Averi Carlson

Three of those freshmen, setter Averi Carlson, right side Allie Sczech and redshirt rights side Riley Simpson, have all earned Big 12 Rookie of the Week honors this season. Carlson,  from Lucas, Texas, earned her fourth honor of the season two weeks ago and is second in the conference in assists (10.81).

Sczech, a product of Sugarland, Texas, averages 2.15 kills and nearly a block per set. And Simpson, from Colorado Springs, averages 1.73 kills per set.

Two other freshmen also have stepped up. Katy, Texas, product Alexis Dacosta has appeared in every set this fall and averages 1.80 digs. Sophia Keene, from The Woodlands,  averages 1.57 digs and has 12 aces.

“Having so many freshmen coming in, it was a bit of a challenge at first just because they’re new to college volleyball,” said senior outside hitter Lauren Harrison, a product of Stone Mountain, Georgia, who ranks fifth in the Big 12 at 3.64 kills per set. “But, fortunately, they came in the spring, so they had an entire semester to kind of practice with the team, get used to things.

“They’re younger, but that really doesn’t make a difference in how they play … Averi knows how to run an offense like she’s an upperclassman. Allie and Riley are both very smart with how they play.”

McGuyre said though he has had to work perhaps harder than ever at coaching this season, the current group has made it much more palatable.

“One of the biggest joys I have had this year is just truly feeling a great freedom to coach this team just naturally, the way I want to coach, just because they’re so receptive,” he said. “I think sometimes with some teams, a coach has to be extremely cautious, always on the right words or choices or or temperament.

“But I feel a great freedom with this team because I feel a great trust from them, and I trust them to let us be free in how we coach and how we talk to each other.”

Lauren Harrison attacks for Baylor

The upperclassmen have helped. Harrison said she and the other experienced players have tried to create an atmosphere in which the freshmen feel free to speak their minds and even hold the experienced players accountable.

“It’s really valuable to our team and our culture,” she said.

Of course, the older players are contributing on a much more tangible level, too. Harrison, who spent her first season at North Carolina, has emerged as one of the top players in the Big 12.

Senior middles Mallory Talbert and Kara McGhee make a formidable duo. Talbert, from Montgomery, Texas, via Texas A&M, ranks third in the conference in hitting percentage (.404) and averages 2.03 kills per set, and McGhee, from San Antonio, ranks fourth (.395) while notching 2.84 kills per set.

McGhee, meanwhile, leads the Big 12 at 1.51 blocks per set, and Talbert averages 0.88 per set.

Kara McGhee’s younger sister, Elise, a sophomore right side, is averaging 2.40 kills per set.

Sophomore libero Lauren Briseno averages 3.32 digs.

The Bears have achieved a strong balance on offense, with six players averaging between 1.73 kills (Simpson) and 3.64 kills per set (Harrison). Defensively, Baylor leads the Big 12 in opponent hitting percentage (.178) and ranks second in blocks (2.58 per set).

“Day one was definitely a little rough,” Harrison said when asked about the team’s progress. “But we have learned so much, and I think we have gotten tested a lot, especially at the beginning of the season playing teams like Wisconsin and Minnesota, which are top teams.

“Being able to play them early on has given us a lot of confidence and just experience for the underclassmen. That’s really important moving through the season. I think the growth that we have made is great.”

Baylor will find out how much it has grown in the next couple of weeks. After playing at Texas — the Longhorns won in four at Baylor a month ago — the Bears are home for Kansas State to end the regular season.

“This was way harder coaching than 2019,” McGuyre said, referring to his team that went 29-2 and made it to the NCAA national semifinals. “I just sat back and let them do their thing. This year, we’re grinding it out. We’re still getting better and better. I hope in the postseason we get to enjoy the fruits of the labor we have put in as well.

“We’ve got to cherish this opportunity, and trust is just really huge. We don’t trust because we win. We win because we trust. In the postseason, we’ve got to trust that the hard things are what’s going to help us be successful.”

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