By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
Shelly Fanning has never had to look too far to find the silver lining in the darkest of clouds. She sees God’s blessings in even the toughest of times.
Just a year ago, Baylor’s 6-foot-2 middle blocker was sidelined with a stress reaction in her left shin and arthritis in her left foot. After earning Big 12 All-Freshman and second-team all-conference honors the year before, the sophomore from Cypress, Texas, had to sit out the entire 2016 season, including the Bears’ first NCAA tournament appearance in five years.
Still, Fanning said it was “just as special last year watching my teammates play the game they love. Being able to be a part of that in either role is pretty awesome.”
Besides, as it turned out, the timing could not have worked out any better. Sidelined by the injuries, Fanning was able to go home to the Houston area and spend time with family as her dad, Bill, went through treatments for bladder cancer.
With her two older siblings, Travis and Mandy, serving military stints in Japan and Colorado Springs, Colo., respectively, and unable to come home, Shelly was the only one that could make regular hospital visits and be there to support her mom, Holly.
“I know how much they would have loved being there, but I think me being there just gave them some clarity,” Fanning said.
Bill Fanning is “definitely the strongest man I know,” Shelly says. “He would have been just fine if I wasn’t there and I was playing on the court.”
“I’m sure he would have found a way to leave the hospital and come watch me play. But, it was really special to be there for my mom.”
The redshirt season also gave Fanning a different perspective on volleyball and life. Instead of being bummed about what she missed, Fanning is “super thankful for the opportunity, for many reasons.”
“One, it was a huge learning experience for me as a person and maturing,” she said, “realizing I had to play a different role and using that role to relate to other people who go through injuries and go through periods of life where maybe their dad isn’t in the greatest health. So, it was a really good opportunity for me to be home with my family and learn also and mature. But also, gaining another year to just play the game I love, honestly, and pursue my master’s degree.”
Senior All-American Katie Staiger, who suffered a torn ACL just two matches into her freshman season and then missed four matches this year with a foot injury, said there’s a support group of injured players who “have been able to encourage each other and keep each other a part of it, even when we’re not.”
“Whereas I was able to help Shelly when she was hurt last year, someone helped me my freshman year when I tore my ACL,” Staiger said. “And Shelly did the exact same thing, helping me stay a part of it and stay involved when I had my foot injury. I think it’s just understanding your teammates better and just being able to encourage them when they’re not on the court, to still contribute.”
Fanning said Staiger was a huge help as she went through her injuries and rehabilitation last year.
“Her relentless pursuit to love me through it and encourage me through things not going my way was a huge testament to not only her character but her athletic ability and her past experiences,” Fanning said.
Fanning had recovered enough by last December that she was a “phenomenal practice player” as the Bears prepared for their NCAA tournament games against San Diego and UCLA.
“It made our practices better,” head coach Ryan McGuyre said, “but it also made us realize we’ve got a lot of work to do with our other middles, because in December she was still probably a step ahead of them, even coming off the injury.”
It wasn’t until about a month before this season started, though, that Fanning felt pain-free. Even through the summer, she had to limit her jumps and monitor what she was doing.
“I love running long distances, but I had to cut that out,” she said. “It did feel a lot better, but it was still like a pest, it still bothered me. I really had to limit myself in what I was doing and the reps I was taking. Knock on wood, I’ve been super healthy and blessed to be able to play without pain this whole season.”
And what a season it’s been.
Fanning has recorded a team-high 117 blocks and .378 attack percentage and ranks third with 293 kills, earning first-team All-Big 12 honors and helping the Bears (23-6) make their second straight NCAA tournament appearance for the first time in program history.
Seeded 12th, Baylor faces the MAC champion Miami, Ohio Redhawks (22-8) at 7 p.m. Friday at the Ferrell Center. Colorado (22-9) plays James Madison (23-5) in the other first-round matchup at 4:30 p.m., with the winners playing for a Sweet 16 berth at 8 p.m. Saturday.
“Honestly, I have no idea (what it’s going to be like),” Fanning said, “because I’ve never been through it. I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to share the talents God has given to each one of us and being able to share that on the court with the other girls. I think it’s just the coolest platform that I’ve ever been given to share God’s love and share the talent I’ve been given.”
Racking up 2.76 kills per set out of the middle blocker position, Fanning plays a key role in McGuyre’s plan for the Bears to be a “threat from antennae to antennae from multiple people in multiple ways.”
Last year, most of the attack funneled through Staiger on the outside, helping her earn second-team All-America honors. But this year, the focus was “being an offensive threat anywhere,” Fanning said.
“I think the really great teams are that way,” she said. “We still have a lot to work on and a lot to improve on in being productive in certain positions at certain times. But, I think it’s been really fun to have (freshman setter) Hannah Lockin running the offensive and giving the ball to anybody and everybody and being able to put it away.”
Asked if her favorite thing was to put up a big block at the net or put away a kill with one powerful swing of her right arm, Fanning broke into a coy smile. Actually, it’s neither.
“My favorite thing is whenever I can pull both blockers and Yossi (Pressley), Aniah (Philo) or Katie just put it away,” she said. “They have no block, and they can just hit it straight down. Honestly, I think that’s the coolest thing, to be like, ‘Ooh, I just fooled both of you blockers.’ I love it.”
An early enrollee in January 2015, Fanning is scheduled to finish her undergraduate degree in corporate communications in May and hopefully finish up a master’s in sports management by December 2019, following her last season.
“A dream of mine is to play for the Olympic team,” said Fanning, who has twice played for the U.S. Collegiate National Team. “I don’t know exactly what I want to do with that degree, but if it leads me to the Olympic team, that’s what I want to do.”
Tickets for the NCAA tournament are $10 for adults, $5 for youth (ages 2-17) and free for Baylor students with a valid Baylor ID. Live video streaming for all three matches is available at www.baylorbears.com.