Students choose certain colleges for sundry reasons—academics, community, opportunities, social aspects and more. Often, Baylor students say they felt God’s calling to the University.
Senior volleyball player Tola Itiola is no different. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Itiola moved to Dallas when she was in eighth grade along with her father Timothy, mother Nike and younger sister Mofe. Nike became a volleyball fan after watching Olympic gold medalists Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, and she encouraged her daughters to pursue the sport.
Itiola became a four-time all-district honoree at Carrollton Christian Academy and was a two-time academic all-state selection. She considered the University of Florida and the University of Tennessee but chose Baylor after making an official visit.
“Baylor is a great academic school, and that’s something that was important to me and my family,” Itiola says. “The faith aspect was an extra component. It isn’t something I was actively seeking in a school, but to have that as well is something that has helped me grow in special ways.”
Itiola’s choice of Baylor proved providential during her freshman year when her mother died.
“I did feel God calling me to Baylor,” Itiola says. “The way the Baylor community rallied around me, I don’t know that I would’ve had that anywhere else.”
“Through it all, God is still on His throne and still sovereign over everything.”
Itiola says her mother was an amazing and strong woman, and she aspires to follow in her footsteps.
“My family and I have grown in our faith through learning how to deal with losing her,” Itiola says. “I’ve seen God’s faithfulness, even though it’s been really, really hard.
“Through it all, God is still on His throne and still sovereign over everything. As I kept digging deeper into that, it helped me keep going forward. My mom wouldn’t want me to be upset. She would want me to trust in the Lord and stay strong in Him.”
Baylor volleyball head coach Ryan McGuyre was not at the University during Itiola’s first two seasons, but he has seen her growth on and off the court. McGuyre gained greater perspective of Itiola’s journey in December 2016 when he lost his father.
“You catch her on these down days like her mom’s birthday, but she’s the first one to smile and encourage her teammates,” McGuyre says. “She doesn’t want success for herself, she wants it for her teammates. That’s what servants do. I’m not sure there’s a selfish bone in her body.”
Itiola started 16 matches as a freshman and earned Big 12 Conference Rookie of the Week honors in mid-October. She became a regular starter as a sophomore and started 25 matches as a junior in 2015, her first season under McGuyre. Itiola led the Bears in attack percentage (.329) and blocks (99).
Expectations for Itiola were high in 2016 when trials again visited her by way of a season-ending injury during preseason drills. While her teammates overcame numerous injuries on their way to a 22-12 record and the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011, Itiola was on the sidelines and going through rehabilitation.
“That isn’t a position I’d ever been in, being hurt for a long time,” Itiola says. “Once I took the focus off myself and put it on other people, that helped a lot. What got me through was knowing that God has His hand on it and that He’s going to turn it into something for good.”
Itiola, whose family spent two years in Paris prior to moving the United States, returned to the court for the 2017 season and was a starter in the season opener. She says the program’s success is built around the concept of playing for an audience of one.
“That’s the thing that has propelled us forward—not playing for the approval of others and reminding each other of that,” she says. “If we play our best, our best is enough. That demands of us to bring our best because God demands our best. It holds us to a high standard.”
Itiola graduated in December 2016 with a degree in health science studies, and she is pursuing a master’s degree in sports pedagogy with coaching aspirations. She most values the relationships she has developed in her time at Baylor.
“Being surrounded by beautiful, strong Christian women—beautiful in the sense of their faith and wanting to serve,” Itiola says. “Being able to grow in my faith has been an amazing thing.”