Hearts were heavy in the Ferrell Center the night of Dec. 2, 2017, when the University of Colorado Buffaloes stampeded to a straight-set victory over Baylor in the second round of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament.
It was an upset to say the least. The Bears were the No. 12 national seed and ranked 18th in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Top 25. It was a year in which Baylor enjoyed the best regular season in program history, finishing second in the Big 12 en route to a second consecutive 20-win season.
The sadness of an unexpected early end to the season did not deter the Bears from what has become a longstanding program tradition. After every game, including the tough-to-take losses, Baylor volleyball players offer congratulations—and ask the opposing players to join them in a prayer.
“We want to glorify God in all we do,” sophomore setter Hannah Lockin says. “We thank God for what we have the ability to do. Our main goal is to use this sport at Baylor to glorify Christ in any way possible. Christ brings us to these teams. When we finish a game, it’s only right to give all the glory back to God—win or lose.”
Senior middle blocker Shelly Fanning says they pray for the opponent to travel safely, for the rest of their respective seasons and for any players dealing with injuries.
“It’s how we can show Christ to people through this sport,” Fanning says. “It’s something this program has always done, and I hope it never dies.”
Lockin says Baylor’s postgame prayer with the opponent is indicative of the program’s culture, one in which players are developed athletically, academically, spiritually and individually.
“Our relationship with the Lord is the most important thing to us, and we want to share that,” Lockin says. “That’s why we’re all here.
If one person is reached, inspired, drawn closer to Christ through that, then it’s worth it.”
That Christ-first focus starts at the top. Ryan McGuyre, now in his fourth season as head coach, has led Baylor to new heights on the court, including back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time in the program’s 40-year history.
McGuyre has a long history of coaching at faith-based institutions. He was head coach for three seasons at California’s Biola University (his alma mater) prior to a 10-year stint as head coach of the men’s and women’s programs at NAIA powerhouse California Baptist University (CBU), leading the women’s team to three national titles and the men’s team to six.
While at CBU, McGuyre coached many non-Christians, including four players from Africa, one of whom was Muslim. He also coached several student-athletes from China who became Christians while at CBU.
“We didn’t force our faith on anybody, but we asked them to be open,” he says. “We encouraged players who understood God’s grace and mercy to love them, and it was a beautiful thing. I felt like God was impacting the world and let me be a part of that by bringing the world to me.”
He left CBU for an assistant coach position at the University of Maryland. Between those two schools, McGuyre experienced the joy of seeing more than 20 student-athletes come to know Christ.
“Salvation comes from the Lord and is 100 percent the Holy Spirit’s job,” he says.
McGuyre was hesitant when Baylor pursued him. After his year at Maryland and two seasons as associate head coach at Florida State University, McGuyre did not want to return to a faith-based institution. The freedom to freely share his faith can present other challenges, especially for those who haven’t taken hold of their faith.
“My relationship with the Lord is very intertwined with my coaching philosophy. I get to be more open and freely share that here,” McGuyre says. “Yet, with that comes the student-athlete’s understanding that it has to be a personal decision. There is peer pressure everywhere you go in different ways. You don’t want the student-athlete to feel as though they have to be something they haven’t personalized.”
Nonetheless, McGuyre says he felt called to be at Baylor. In his words, life got complicated his first year in Waco. Alongside the whirlwinds of changing jobs, moving a family and the events surrounding the University in 2016, McGuyre lost his father shortly after the completion of his first season with the Bears.
“When suffering attacks, we have a motivation that will not leave us when we feel tired, that will not leave us when our dreams don’t come true,” McGuyre says. “For me, personally, that motivation is grace. It is a grace-motivated obedience to the Lord when we truly understand the mercy and grace He’s given us and understand how blessed and fortunate we are in how much we’ve been given here at Baylor University.”
In that spirit, Baylor volleyball players and coaches make it a priority to give of themselves. This mindset of servanthood ranges from an individual giving of him or herself for the betterment of the team to the program serving together on mission trips and many steps in between, including interacting with young volleyball fans after games.
“The little kids look up to us so much,” sophomore outside Yossiana Pressley says. “But we wish we could be like them and have their energy at 5 a.m. workouts.”In late May, the entire volleyball program—players, coaches, support staff—traveled to Rosarito, Mexico, a southern suburb of Tijuana. The Bears partnered with Homes for Hope through Youth With a Mission (YWAM) to build a house for Virginia Delí Mendoza Maldonado and her three sons, who were previously living in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.
“We built them a house, but they showed us unconditional love and a true example of what a family is supposed to be even when you don’t have an established home,” Pressley says. “It was an eyeopener to see how much a family can love and appreciate what they have. It made us appreciate the little things we have.”
Such experiences reflect McGuyre’s belief that volleyball is a small part of the big picture, but that God uses it to point those associated with the program toward Christ and relationships with others. To that point, five current members of the volleyball team came to faith in Christ during their time at Baylor.
“It’s not me sitting down with them one-one-one,” he says. “It’s the culture of Baylor University. Our staff and the student-athletes on this team try to create an environment where light does shine bright. When we’re in darkness, we see that light, and we’re attracted to it. That light is Jesus Christ and His love for us.”
Fanning was recruited to Baylor by former head coach Jim Barnes. She remained committed to the University despite the coaching change at the end of the 2015 season.
“I didn’t want to choose a university based solely on the coaches,” she says. “Baylor is a great academic institution, and that was important to me. Even before we had this motto of ‘Lights Shine Bright,’ Baylor’s light shone brightly and radiated joy.”
Fanning had no idea who McGuyre was when she learned of his hiring, but she views his coaching as a pleasant surprise to her time at Baylor.
“The people that Baylor attracts is what most attracted me,” she says. “No matter who the coach was, I was drawn to this institution. But, I’ve been blessed to play for him.”
Fanning also says the entire staff has been a blessing, from coaches to support staff such as athletic trainers, strength coaches and academic advisors.
“I was afraid I would come to college and fail all my classes,” she says. “I really appreciate how we are provided tutors and given the tools to succeed. You almost have to try to fail.”
McGuyre says the first job of a coach is to be a leader and what he calls a “dream releaser” in his student-athletes. This involves helping them develop as players but also helping them develop as people.
“We spend time as a staff going over this, making a personal commitment to each of our student-athletes during their time here to know what their strengths and their passions are,” he says. “We need to speak praise and be invested in seeing those strengths and passions grow.”
For McGuyre, part of that dreaming process is learning how to dream big enough to be scared. Dreams that include but exceed being a national champion on the volleyball court.
“We should have dreams that scare us in how we can be used and how we can impact the world around us,” he says. “We speak to beliefs and motivation. What do we really believe, and have we personalized it? And we need to have that motivation that will not leave us.”
McGuyre believes there is a purpose for each person associated with the program in being at Baylor, including himself. He is thankful for people who have encouraged him in times of discouragement or when his eyes drift from the big picture.
“Our default mode is we still want comfort,” he says. “But, we ask these young women to be comfortable being uncomfortable all the time. I feel underqualified to be in such a great position. God is the head recruiting coordinator for this program. When I try, I fail. When I trust, He succeeds.”