NCAA volleyball takeaways: Baylor starting hot, championship rematch looms

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Yossiana Pressley entered Wednesday ranked second in the country in kills per set.

A couple of weeks into the NCAA volleyball season, the top two teams remain unbeaten, but both have faced a challenge.

And a school known for its national championship women's basketball team is now also climbing the ranks in volleyball with its best-ever spot in the top 25.

Here's a look at three of the top stories thus far on the road to Pittsburgh, the host city for December's final four.

Watch out for the Bears

When Baylor's volleyball team has its home opener this week in Waco, Texas, there will be a buzz of excitement throughout the Ferrell Center. The Bears are 5-0 -- they've lost just one set -- and have defeated three ranked teams. This has all come on the road, and it's resulted in the program's highest ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. Baylor has climbed from No. 20 in the preseason, to No. 17 last week, to No. 5 in the latest poll released Monday.

It's in keeping with the ascension of the program since coach Ryan McGuyre took over in 2015. He spent a decade at California Baptist coaching both the men's and women's teams and winning a combined nine NAIA national championships. After brief stints as an assistant at Maryland and Florida State, he took over at Baylor. And the Bears have been on the rise ever since.

Just in watching Baylor, one player whose presence is felt across the court is junior outside hitter Yossiana Pressley. She's 6 feet tall, which is a tad on the shorter side these days for elite hitters. See her jump, though, and it's clear she's not at any disadvantage.

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Thanks in part to Yossiana Pressley, the Baylor Bears have climbed all the way to fifth in the AVCA poll.

"I kind of take it personal, that's my mentality," Pressley said. "I try to be fearless. People are going to have good blocks against me, because we're all good players at this level. But I keep going forward."

Pressley was the 2017 Big 12 Freshman of the Year and a unanimous first-team all-conference pick last season, when she led Baylor with 517 kills (4.70 per set). Pressley and fellow junior Hannah Lockin, the Bears' setter, were both AVCA honorable mention All-Americans last season. Baylor middle blocker Shelly Stafford was a second-team All-American and returns this year as a redshirt senior.

Thus far in 2019, Pressley has 100 kills (6.25 per set) and just 28 errors on 206 attacks for a .350 percentage. Her 31 kills in a 3-1 victory at then-No. 4 Wisconsin last Friday before a crowd of over 7,000 in Madison was a great example of how Pressley rises to the occasion. That performance, plus 11 kills vs. Syracuse and 20 against No. 11 Marquette, earned her the AVCA national player of the week award.

"When it's a whole bunch of people screaming and trying to get you out of focus," Pressley said, "I feel when we're in that type of environment, I love it. And if somebody gets a block against me, I'm like, 'OK, try to block this one.' It kind of fires me up."

In last year's NCAA tournament, Oregon pulled the most dramatic upset by beating Minnesota on its home court in the round of 16, crushing the Gophers' dream of making the final four in their home city of Minneapolis. The interesting thing is, the Ducks almost didn't get the chance to do that, because they were nearly beaten on their own home court in the second round by Baylor.

The Bears ultimately fell, 15-13, in the fifth set; Pressley finished with 17 kills and eight digs. Baylor has made the round of 16 only once, in 2009. All told, the Bears have made seven NCAA tournament appearances, three of them since McGuyre became coach.

Baylor will host Houston and Tennessee this week and then Hawaii and Missouri the following week. Big 12 play starts Sept. 28 at Kansas, and the marquee matches against Texas are Oct. 23 in Austin and Nov. 20 in Waco.

Texas, currently ranked No. 3, is the Goliath of the Big 12, and that was the case in the old Southwest Conference, too. The Longhorns are 83-2 all-time against Baylor, with the Bears' wins coming in 1999 and 2001.

Maybe this is Baylor's year in that regard? Perhaps, but that's way down the road. For now, the Bears just want to maintain their momentum.

"We're just really playing for each other," Pressley said. "I feel like we enjoyed seeing our ranking [Monday], but we all said, 'We're going to enjoy this today, but tomorrow we're going to train like we're ranked 26th, like we're the underdogs.' Because it still feels like we are, we just have a bigger target on our backs."

New leader for Tigers

Baylor will face Missouri in Waco on Sept. 20, and the Tigers are also off to a solid start. They moved into the AVCA poll at No. 21 this week after going 4-0, which included a sweep of No. 14 Michigan.

Mizzou has a new coach this season for the first time since 2000. Josh Taylor is filling the role on an interim basis for now, following the retirement of the husband-and-wife duo of Wayne and Susan Kreklow in July.

The Kreklows took over a struggling program and totally transformed it. In their 19 seasons, the Tigers went to the NCAA tournament 15 times and won two SEC titles.

Susan was the head coach for the first few years, with Wayne as an assistant, and then they switched roles. While their retirement surprised many, they said they'd been thinking about it for a while, and the time seemed right to hand off the program.

Taylor, a player at Pepperdine who graduated in 2015, joined Mizzou's staff in 2017. His elevation to a Power 5-conference head-coaching job at such a young age raised a few eyebrows across the volleyball world this summer. Taylor is married to the Kreklows' niece, Molly, a former Mizzou player who's an assistant coach for the Tigers.

He'll have the chance to prove himself this season, and so far, so good for Missouri. The Tigers host the Mizzou Invitational this weekend before competing in the Baylor Classic, where they'll face the Bears and Hawaii. Then Mizzou starts off SEC season with a bang, going against No. 15 Kentucky on Sept. 29 in Columbia, Missouri.

AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King

Stanford and Nebraska will meet for the first time since the Cardinal outlasted the Huskers in five sets in last year's national championship game.

The showdown looms

Defending champion Stanford and runner-up Nebraska were ranked as Nos. 1-2 in the preseason poll, and that's where they remain after starting 4-0. But both were tested in five-set matches this past weekend ahead of their rematch Sept. 18. Stanford edged Texas, 15-12, in the fifth, while Nebraska beat San Diego, 15-11.

Nebraska this weekend hosts Denver and Loyola Marymount. Stanford has a tougher slate, facing No. 4 Penn State and No. 8 Minnesota, with both matches at Penn State.

The Cardinal won the 2018 NCAA final in five sets. Then Stanford faced criticism when an NCAA-tweeted photo of the Cardinal's victorious locker room showed a cartoon drawing on their whiteboard of the Stanford tree mascot with a gun pointed at Nebraska mascot Herbie Husker, with some expletives written alongside it.

Stanford immediately apologized and said the team would perform some community service on their visit to Nebraska.

Huskers fans are well-known for their hospitality, along with their long string of sellout crowds for volleyball. We'll see how the Nebraska fans react to the Cardinal in the most anticipated nonconference matchup of the season.

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