Sept. 15, 2007
By Jon Brown, Baylor Athletic Media Relations
If Texas is a state where high school football is king, then Haley Thomas knows that at Leon High School, volleyball is queen.
Thomas, a junior transfer from Blinn College, grew up in Jewett, Texas where legendary coach Billy Bob Evans made volleyball a way of life for aspiring female athletes.
"There has always been a huge volleyball tradition at Leon," said Thomas. "The girls that go to Leon start bumping in the fifth grade, and all other sports pretty much come in second place to volleyball."
Evans, who retired in 2000 with over 1,000 career coaching victories and more state championships than any other coach in Texas history, began a volleyball tradition passed down from generation to generation.
"My mom and all of her cousins played volleyball at Leon, and they had a lot of success there," said Thomas. "And then all my cousins and I also played at the same time too, so it's really a rich volleyball tradition. Everyone there was aware of the huge volleyball tradition and the expectations to do well."
Thomas, a three-time all-state selection, followed that tradition helping her team to a state finals appearance as a freshman before claiming the state title during her sophomore season. The middle blocker then led her team to an undefeated regular season as a junior, before falling in the regional finals to Brazos.
"The team my junior year was probably the most talented of any of the years I played at Leon," said Thomas. "We basically had the same team back from the year before when we won the state title.
"But we were way too overconfident going into the playoffs. We were already deciding who was going to be roommates during the state tournament. We underestimated our opponents even though they have good teams every year. We got to the game and couldn't step up when it counted. It was a heartbreaker because everyone was so sure that we were going to win state."
After recovering from a knee injury following her junior year, Thomas led her team to a 36-3 record as a senior and another appearance in the state finals. A highly-rated recruit from a volleyball powerhouse, Thomas should have had her choice of collegiate scholarship offers. But Thomas, burned out from long seasons and community politics decided to end her volleyball career with high school graduation.
"I really didn't want to play volleyball in college," said Thomas. "I was really just tired of playing. I had torn my ACL and MCL after my junior year, and I just wasn't up to it at the time. So I just pushed all the letters and questionnaires from colleges aside."
After spending a summer semester enrolled in cosmetology school, Thomas played in a summer all-star game, and regained the competitive edge she thought she lost during her senior season.
Blinn head coach David Rehr was in attendance at the all-star game, and, after visiting with Thomas, offered her a walk-on spot at the two-year junior college. Thomas, who was not promised playing time or financial aid, received a turn of good luck after reporting for fall practice.
"Coach Rehr didn't have any scholarship money for me, but I decided that I should just go ahead sign and commit to play," said Thomas. "I had the chance to play college ball and I knew that if I didn't take it then I would regret it. Then he called me a few days later and another player decided not to play, so I was given her scholarship."
As a Blinn freshman, Thomas earned all-conference honors after helping the Buccaneers to a conference championship and a sixth-place finish at the 2005 National Junior College Athletic Association national volleyball tournament. Since junior college players are eligible to transfer after their first season, several schools showed interest in Thomas to transfer immediately.
"I had some schools that wanted me to transfer after my first season, but I never really even considered that," said Thomas. "I loved the teammates that I was playing with, and I loved my coaches, so I made the decision to come back for my second season. I knew that I was going to be a leader on the court, so I was excited to come back for my second season and try to get even better offers than I did after my first year."
The decision paid off in 2006 as Thomas again led her team to a conference title and earned NJCAA and AVCA Two-Year College first-team All-America honors. She also received interest from several top Division I volleyball programs, including Baylor and former assistant coach Geno Frugoli.
"We had a few matches before we went to nationals, and Geno was at those matches," said Thomas. "He talked to me after those matches and said they were interested in me. I had already spoken with Missouri and had a visit planned and had really started leaning toward them. But after I visited Missouri I decided that situation wasn't for me. So when I got home I called Coach Barnes and told him that I was definitely going to transfer to Baylor."
Her team finished fifth at the NJCAA championships, and Thomas earned all-tournament honors and received the Ozarks Medical Center Top Point Maker Award after averaging 4.19 kills and 1.56 blocks per game and hitting .429 in four matches.
"I really wanted to decide where I was going to transfer before we went to nationals," said Thomas. "I just wanted to be able to focus on playing and not have to worry about all the other distractions. There were a lot of coaches showing interest at the national tournament. But I had already decided to go to Baylor."
Thomas finished her second year at Blinn, and even trained with her former team during spring workouts before transferring to Baylor for the first summer session of classes. In an effort to begin building relationships with her new teammates, Thomas moved in with senior libero Kristen Schramek after arriving in Waco.
"It really made the transition from Blinn to Baylor smooth because I moved in with Kristen, so I was automatically included in all team activities during the summer," said Thomas. "After the first summer session, I already felt like a part of the team even though I hadn't been playing with them. All the freshmen came in for the second summer session, but I had already been here for two months, so I really already felt like an upperclassman."
Not only was Thomas adjusting to a new school and new teammates, but she also was adjusting to a new position on the court. While Thomas excelled in high school and at Blinn playing middle blocker, at Baylor, she would move outside to the right side hitter position.
"It has been a challenge moving to a new position, but I'm really learning a lot, said Thomas. "When you play middle blocker, everything is so fast; you have fast sets and a fast arm swing. But playing right side, you have to slow down a little bit. You have to wait on sets to get to you, and so I had some trouble at first learning to wait and slow down."
Even though the right side hitter position employs a different attacking style as well as different defensive responsibilities, Thomas is able to use her experience playing middle blocker to gain an advantage over her competition.
"Since I have played so much as a middle blocker, I think that it's a lot easier for me to see the block," said Thomas. "As a middle blocker you automatically look for the block, so when I'm on the right side I can see where the blocks are and how to hit around it. And a lot of right sides will also swing on a lot of sets in the middle, so I was already used to running a lot of middle attacks."
Thomas, already adjusting to new teammates and a new playing position, was now expected to open the season in the starting lineup for Baylor. She struggled some during preseason practice, attempting to take ownership of her new role.
"The hardest thing during preseason was trying to process all the information," said Thomas. "It was pretty overwhelming at first. But we were able to simplify things and translate that to performance on the court."
Once the season started, Thomas began struggling on the court, still adjusting to a new position. Over the first seven matches, Thomas' hitting percentage hovered around .150 as she committed 35 hitting errors.
"My confidence was really low after our home tournament," said Thomas. "Coach (Jim) Barnes and I talked about my confidence level, and I started working a lot at reducing my hitting errors."
"I talked to Haley a lot and tried to explain to her that this is a natural part of the learning curve," said head coach Jim Barnes. "Really the only way to speed that up is to get in the gym more. We just got her more repetitions with Taylor and that provided more confidence with her."
In order to regain confidence, Thomas and preseason All-Big 12 setter Taylor Barnes used extra court time before and after practice to better understand how to use Thomas' physical abilities.
"We are working a lot with keeping the ball high and off the net," said Thomas. "I've been learning how to keep my armswing high, because when the set is high I'm touching over ten feet and I can really hit over the block. So we have been working together extra before and after practice and it has really helped a lot. My kills are going up and my hitting percentages have gone up."
"It's still a work in progress with her because right side is completely different than middle blocker," added Jim Barnes. "We do run some plays for her in the middle, which has really helped her development. On the right side, it's really an adjustment for her and Taylor as the setter. One of Haley's strengths is that she can hit as high as anyone, so we have to give her that opportunity, and set the ball high and off the net and let her go up and hit over and around people. She is a gifted physical athlete and we are learning how to use her strengths more and more."
The extra practice was apparent last weekend at the SMU/Radisson Invitational as Thomas recorded 32 kills while committing only 12 hitting errors to help Baylor to a three-match winning streak to claim the tournament championship.
"The extra practice helped a lot with being more comfortable this weekend," said Thomas. "I was having some problems with my approaching mechanics; coming toward the net from too far outside and making a tough angle for my attacks. So I made some adjustments and gave myself a chance to hit line or angle. I get the mentality in games of trying to hit everything as hard as I can, but I'm working on not doing that and mixing in some tips and roll shots to cause the defense to make the errors."
Barnes knows that a player with the combination of athletic ability and playing experience at multiple positions can be beneficial for the Bears heading into their Big 12 conference schedule. The Baylor coaching staff is continually looking for ways to utilize Thomas' strengths.
"She is different than a lot of right sides because of the experience she has playing middle blocker," said Barnes. "There are some dynamic things that we can do with her. She's one of the bigger right side blocks that you will see anywhere. She's dynamic because she can run in the middle as well. I think that will make her pretty tough to stop because she can put the ball away in the middle and at the right side pin."
As Thomas continues to progress with her play on the court, the Bears will also look for her to provide leadership to Baylor's younger players. Even though Thomas is a newcomer to the Baylor squad, she already possesses two years of collegiate playing experience and has held a starting position for two full seasons.
"Coming in, I knew what to expect at the collegiate level, which a lot of freshmen don't," said Thomas. "I was ready to come in and play, and had really worked hard during the offseason. The two years playing at Blinn helped me, and then now still having two more years to play here; I know that I can use that experience to help the team."
"Coach Barnes told me that he was bringing me in to be a leader since there weren't many upperclassmen on the roster this year," added Thomas. "I was a little hesitant to say anything during practice or games at first, but I'm starting to come around now. I'm older than most of the other players, and I've started stepping up and trying to be more of a leader."