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  • Writer's pictureShehan Jeyarajah

Dream Big: How Ryan McGuyre turned Baylor volleyball into a winner

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

Originally published in Baylor Line Magazine.

Dream big. This was Ryan McGuyre’s first and most important task when he took over as head coach of Baylor volleyball in 2015.

McGuyre was thriving as an assistant coach at Florida State and helped the Seminoles become a Sweet 16 program. The 13-year head coach at Biola and California Baptist was fine being a career Division-I assistant. But when the Baylor job opened, he felt like God called.

This housed a program that went 8-24 over the previous two years of Big 12 play and only had a handful of NCAA Tournament appearances to its name. This place was home to 11-year head coach Jim Barnes, a universally beloved figure and the winningest coach in Baylor volleyball history, whom McGuyre would replace. This place didn’t provide the proper resources for practice.

But as soon as McGuyre walked through the door of his new office in this place, he set expectations at the highest level.

“It was the firm belief that this is a program that could win a national championship — not just that it could, but it’s something that was expected,” said Katie Staiger, who was a redshirt sophomore when McGuyre arrived on campus. “That wasn’t even something that was being talked about. He came in right away and had that belief.”

But to understand how Baylor volleyball became the No. 1 program in America, how it reached a Final Four, how McGuyre’s prayers became premonitions, one must dig into the foundation. The concrete was poured with McGuyre’s first three months on campus.

* * *

Right from the start, he was honest. Maybe too honest at times.

He went to the athletic department and said Marrs McLean Gym — built in 1938 — was not suitable to hold practices. The roof was too low and it only had one net — he estimated that the team could only do about 60 percent of what he wanted there. McGuyre asked to hold practices in the Ferrell Center instead.

After evaluating his roster, he had one-on-one meetings with players. He admitted to several players that he wouldn’t have recruited them, but pointed to God’s sovereignty as why they both held responsibilities to make the most of it.

“It was almost more exciting to me because I know it’s less about me and more about Him,” McGuyre said.

His reassurance didn’t help much. Many of the meetings ended in tears.

On the court, the transition was even more intense. Staiger deeply remembers how impossible the first few practices felt. She started 16 matches and finished second on the team in kills in 2014; still, nothing prepared her for this.

Student-athletes were limited to two hours of on-court instruction a week during the offseason. To try and install a new system and culture, McGuyre broke up the first weeks of practices into 20-minute increments to get everyone in the gym six days a week. He got the most out of those twenty minutes.

On day one, McGuyre strolled into the gym and posted new benchmarks on the whiteboard, which he compiled by analyzing the top teams in America. Hit this many kills. Meet this side out percentage. Avoid this many errors. To be a nationally competitive program, McGuyre declared this the new standard.

The first obstacle: serving speed. McGuyre brought out a radar gun for the first time to track it, and set expectations at 38 miles per hour. Players came up one by one, served as hard as possible and were dismayed to see speeds that barely even reached the lower 30s.

“I mean it’s not funny, but it’s funny to laugh about it now — some of them were crying because it was so hard and so impossible to serve a ball at 38 miles per hour,” said assistant coach Sam Erger, who was director of operations under Barnes. “I mean, literal tears, ‘We can’t do this!’”

McGuyre’s most jarring change was to the pace of play. He pushed the setters to set a vastly faster ball for outside hitters — with often hilarious results.

“I was genuinely like, well, I’m never going to get a kill again,” Staiger said. “People were whiffing, they were missing left and right. I remember at first being like, this is fun that we’re trying this, but there’s no chance that we’re ever going to be able to hit the ball at this speed.”

The changes didn’t stop there. Baylor’s team was used to repeating many of the same drills working on fundamentals. McGuyre brought in a variety of new techniques to consistently challenge players. There was one drill that was especially odious for Staiger. McGuyre wanted the team to practice receiving serves. The players had to put a bean bag on their back to get low, receive a serve, and then bump it into a hoop to practice passing to a very specific spot.

“The actual size of the hoop was maybe a few feet,” said Staiger, who now works in the Baylor athletic department and serves as color commentator during volleyball matches. “But if you asked me, it was two inches by two inches. The ball [felt] bigger than the hoop.”

No matter how much Staiger tried, she just could not do it. One by one, her teammates hit the ball into the ring. Five minutes turned into 10 minutes turned into 20 turned into 40. Still, Staiger was the only one out there who couldn’t seem to hit the dang ball into the ring. She expected McGuyre to eventually just let her leave — but he didn’t.

Staiger had to keep doing it. “A lot of us struggled with why he wanted us to do things, without seeing the big picture and seeing the end result,” said former middle blocker Shelly Stafford, who enrolled in the spring of 2015. “A lot of us were skeptical about why he cared so much about the little things — but he knew they would make big things happen.”

* * *

McGuyre’s first months were unquestionably intense. But while he broke them down on the court, he invested just as hard in his players off the court.

“If you were to map out Ryan’s day, he would put all of his time into his team and his family,” Erger said. “He does not have a huge presence on social media. He’s probably not traveling as much as other schools do to recruit. He’s not showing as much ‘love’ to recruits. He’s spending time with the [players] he has here.”

After practice, McGuyre asked players to go around and describe three specific pieces from the session —their hero, their hardship, and their highlights — which encouraged them to open up in front of their sisters. He was intentional about the team spending time with each other and getting to know each other as people, not just as players.

McGuyre was also intentional about building individual relationships with the players on the team, even when it was rocky. He spoke to girls about their faith and prioritized involvement in their personal lives. He constantly tried to remind players that in reality, God was their coach and the one in control. They could accomplish great things if they trusted the Lord.

Several players got strong, specific encouragement from McGuyre. Staiger was told that he saw her as a potential All- American player if she worked on specific things, which was not a way she ever thought of herself. Those tangible gestures helped.

“I think at Baylor, so much of it is the faith aspect,” Staiger said. “These girls are bought into playing for something that is bigger than themselves. I always hear that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. This whole coaching staff — led by [McGuyre] — really was the biggest advocate of us being a family.”

That investment did come with more new standards. McGuyre brought the team together and asked them to collaboratively create a new set of team rules around a variety of life topics, including dating, diet, and sleeping.

“He gave us some ownership in that aspect, but it was still new stuff that we didn’t really have to follow before,” said Adrien Weeks, who played for McGuyre her senior season. Some of the new rules weren’t popular, especially for those accustomed to attending college under a more lenient staff.

All would say that volleyball was their top priority, but McGuyre laid it out: this is what prioritizing volleyball looks like in your life. The new standards were put to the test right away. During the spring, he learned that one of the new team rules was broken. It wasn’t just one player. It wasn’t two. Six players broke the rule. Most were upperclassmen. Many were starters.

The broken rule was a relatively minor one that likely could have been handled in practice, or maybe even ignored. McGuyre held the team to a higher standard than that. Baylor was set to play in a four-match spring tournament in Dallas. McGuyre suspended all six players, much to the shock of his team. All six players traveled to Dallas, but stood on the sidelines as underclassmen played all four matches.

“I was like, this could backfire,” McGuyre said. “This could really crash and burn. But there were six girls that had bought in and six who hadn’t. With those six players, we ended up beating good teams, some that we hadn’t beaten before. That was one of those phew moments.”

McGuyre’s gamble had the desired impact. It was a wake up call for all the players, most of whom had never been in trouble.

“It was like he was holding the standard because he knew how great we could be,” said Weeks, who was among the players suspended. “We always thought we could be great and just didn’t have someone who could get us there. Holding us to that standard made us realize that he actually believes in us — it weirdly got us on his side more.”

Not everyone got on board with McGuyre’s methods. Some didn’t like the intensity. Some wanted volleyball to be one of many activities in their life. Most holdovers, however, eventually came around. The serving speeds started creeping up. The errors went down. The workouts became easier. In year one, Baylor flipped its record from 14-17 to 17-14, which helped set the foundation of what was to come.

Setter Morgan Reed became one of McGuyre’s closest pupils. Libero Jana Brusek — one of the players who cried after those intense personal meetings — eventually became so close with McGuyre that she asked him to officiate her wedding.

“It was about tapping into the things that they didn’t see in themselves, which was cool,” McGuyre said. “If you really believe in the athlete, they can do more.”

* * *

When Yossiana Pressley went up for a kill, time slowed down. Gravity ceased to exist. Packed crowds at Cypress Falls High School gasped as Pressley floated and swung her arm with immense power into a helpless ball. When she made contact, the student section pretended to fly backwards, like a sonic boom occurred before them.

“I don’t usually hear a lot of this stuff,” said Cypress Falls volleyball coach Kathy Stephenson. “But people used to call her the Human Highlight Reel. No one could stop her because she was just so far above everyone else and had so much power on her ball.”

Even in high school, Pressley was must-watch entertainment. Volleyball fans came from around the area to see her 41-inch vertical and precision game, which she could play from either the front or back row.

Pressley played on junior varsity for one year after moving from Florida for high school. That experiment didn’t last more than a year. By her sophomore year, she was an all-district performer. Junior year, she made all-state. Senior year, she was an Under Armour All-American and the No. 31 overall recruit in America.

“I knew she was going to be a dynamic force because of how quickly she learned, how quickly she picked up on everything, and how powerful she was becoming. You knew you had something special when you watched Yossi play. And her personality is so amazing — she has a sparkle in her eye,” Stephenson said.

But still, some of the biggest college programs in America like Nebraska and Texas were skeptical of her size. Outside hitters at those programs stand closer to 6’3”, with middle blockers towering at 6’5”. Pressley, for all her athletic gifts, stands a modest 6-foot.

But right away, Baylor identified her as a game-changer. Jim Barnes gave Pressley her first collegiate offer when he was at Baylor. McGuyre re-offered her after taking over. Erger saw a raw developmental prospect with potentially incredible upside — maybe even All-American upside — if coached by a great developer like McGuyre. But when it came to getting Pressley on campus, volleyball was almost an afterthought.

From the second she arrived in Baylor for her visit (“It was about 60 degrees outside and she it was cold, so we felt good that she wasn’t going too far north,” McGuyre joked) Pressley knewthat Baylor was different. She knew this volleyball team was different. And really, these were the moments that McGuyre’s new culture was put to the test. Instead of a single host showing Pressley how big the gym was or how sparkling the weight room is, everyone played a part.

“I know from high school and club volleyball that not every is nice, not every team is going to have that true sisterhood,” Pressley said. “There are a lot of cliques on teams. [This] was the first team I ever saw on any level that didn’t have cliques. They were all involved in getting me to go there. People might think that’s most schools, but it’s not. Everyone was always involved, everyone was trying to establish a relationship. That’s just truly awesome to me.”

That continued with the coaches as well. The pitch wasn’t about having good facilities or great professors — though Baylor has both of those things. It was about whether Pressley was a good fit for what McGuyre was trying to build in Waco. Where Pressley would end up in the rotation as a freshman was far less important than what her favorite type of ice cream was. And when she returned to Cypress, her mind was set.

“When she came back, she said that was the place,” Stephenson said. “She loved the girls, the atmosphere, the coach. She felt like that was where she was supposed to be. A lot of people kept telling her she should go other places; she just stuck to her guns.”

Pressley came to Waco as part of an impressive class, along with setter Hannah Lockin. Both immediately pushed their way into the starting lineup. By season’s end, both were All-Americans.

Erger credits this year’s graduating senior class with being the foundation that dreamed of working towards national contention with this new standard guiding their way. Yossiana Pressley’s class has never missed an NCAA Tournament. All they know is success. And now, that class will be the winningest in program history.

Five years after McGuyre arrived in Waco, the program is coming into its own. Baylor never had a first team All-American. Pressley, Stafford, and Lockin all made it. Baylor never had an AVCA National Player of the Year. Pressley won it. Baylor never won the Big 12 or made a Final Four. Check both boxes off the list. By every measure imaginable, Baylor volleyball is one of the elite programs in America.

“It was the easiest season to broadcast because it was always like, ‘This has never been done before!’” Staiger said. “But [McGuyre] and his whole coaching staff, their mindset isn’t that we’ll be good for four to five years. Their mindset is always one degree better. I think okay, now we’re at the Final Four; genuinely, they want to win the national championship. They believe they have what it takes, and I think that’s the coolest thing ever.”

Years ago, the staff would ask coaches to speak to high school recruits and were told the athletes were “too good for Baylor.” Now, Baylor is turning girls away in search of the right fits. But far more importantly, the program is built on a rock. Like McGuyre preached when he arrived, God is at the center, with interpersonal relationships second and volleyball third. The team isn’t obsessed with wins and losses. They’re focused on how to multiply the joy, replacing hype with substance. With that foundation in place, anything is possible at Baylor.

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