Dec. 2, 2011
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Briana Tolbert should have been jumping for joy last spring when she was moved from right-side hitter back to her normal spot at middle blocker on the Baylor volleyball team.
But with junior Torri Campbell on the shelf following shoulder surgery and All-Big 12 pick Elizabeth Graham graduated, Tolbert had the middle all to herself and took every repetition in what became a grind.
"At first it was hard, because I played every rep. And the middle is so intense. It's such an intense position," said Tolbert, a 6-foot-3 senior from Houston, Texas. "And just going from right side, I was like, `Oh, man, I already like the right side, and now you're trying to move me back to middle?' I remember having a conversation with (assistant coach Candice O'Brien and head coach Jim Barnes), and they were like, `Chances are you'll be in the middle this season.' So I was like, `All right, well, I guess I better get happy and adjust back to middle.'''
Since she was essentially back home, Tolbert's transition back to middle was seamless. While Campbell earned preseason All-Big 12 honors, Tolbert became the Bears' most dominant middle with a team-high 341 kills and 2.80 kills per set and ranked second with 102 blocks.
"Her aggressiveness and confidence (have been the difference), because that's what's fueled her offense is she got more aggressive," Barnes said. "Getting into the workouts in two-a-days, you could see a different Bri. . . . You can see all through the season that she has steadily gotten better and better. And that's because you see someone who's really worked her tail off."
The extra work paid off in Tolbert earning first-team honors on the All-Big 12 team that was announced earlier this week and also helped the Bears (18-14) earn their second bid to the NCAA Championships in the last three years and the fourth in program history. Baylor faces 22nd-ranked Michigan (20-12) in a first-round match at 6:30 p.m. CST Friday at Stanford's Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto, Calif.
"Without Bri, we wouldn't be in this position, that's for sure," Barnes said.
"It's just always so exciting to be able to go. So when you do get there, you want to make sure you take advantage of it," Tolbert said of the NCAA tournament. "As a team, I know everyone's just so excited to be there in the first place. So we just want to use that intensity and that momentum we have and carry it over into the post-season and just go from there."
That's exactly what the Bears did two years ago, when they swept Georgia Tech in a first-round match before upsetting No. 9 UCLA, 3-1, to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.
But after starting all but one match as a freshman and ranking among the team leaders with 198 kills and 88 blocks, Tolbert spent most of the 2009 season on the bench and didn't see the floor at all in Baylor's three NCAA tournament matches.
"It was definitely hard, but it was something that I grew into and knew my time would come," she said. "It came the next year and this year, too. It was just something that helped me grow, and I really embraced that. I learned to be unselfish. I wasn't on the court, but I was still a team player. I was still there for my team, and I felt part of the team even though I wasn't on the court."
That year was also a special one off the court. Tolbert, now 21, was baptized during the year and later went with the Baylor Sports Ministry team on a mission trip to Kenya.
"It was so amazing," she said. "I plan on going back this summer, actually. Just growing more in myself and learning what an unselfish person is and helping others and knowing that it's not all about what we have going on here in our own lives. How helping other people matters, and how that leaves more of a lasting impression than whatever things we can do for ourselves."
So when Barnes asked her last season to move to right side, a position she had never played, Tolbert didn't hesitate. Splitting time with senior Ashley Byrd, she ranked third on the team with 70 blocks and fifth with 177 kills. Tolbert had a then-career high 17 kills with one error and a .571 attack percentage in the season finale against Texas Tech.
"That was just a huge change," she said. "I had never played right side before, and it was frustrating, because I kind of got thrown in there. Liz (Graham) was an amazing middle, Torri's a natural middle. So it took me half of the season to adjust, and I finally picked it up in the end and got to contribute to the team a little more. It's definitely different. The blocking is more fun on the right side."
And just as she was getting the hang of right side, Tolbert was moved again. Only this time it was back home.
"She's the voice," senior libero Allison King said of the Bears' vocal leader. "Whereas others are more action, like myself, Briana's going to say it. She's going to tell us exactly how she wants it to be done."
As a speech communications major who's interning at KWTX-TV, Channel 10 in Waco, Tolbert said that part comes naturally.
"If I was quiet, my teammates would probably ask me what's wrong," she said. "I think everyone has their personality, and I take after my dad. My dad just talks to people, he's really friendly. And he's a coach, so I guess that means he likes to talk."
Lorenzo Tolbert, an AAU basketball coach in the Houston area, built a back-yard court for his children. But Briana eventually gravitated to the other court and stuck with volleyball.
"My little sister (Tia) is on that team. I feel sorry for that kid," Briana joked. "I'd hate having my dad as a coach. He drove me crazy. `We're going to go out here and do this.' And I'd be like, `No, you have fun out there in the sun, I will be inside.'''
Although she didn't play volleyball until the eighth grade - "and I don't really count that because it's horrible volleyball" - Tolbert made it to the Junior Olympics the year after playing on the ninth-grade "B" team and earned a scholarship offer from Baylor.
"I was committed two years before I got here," she said. "But I didn't realize how significant it would be until I actually got here"
Set to graduate on Dec. 17, Tolbert plans to work on a master's degree at Baylor and is trying to expand her role with KWTX. Maybe she could interview herself?
"I tried that, and (the sports director) wouldn't let me. Maybe he will now," she said. "It's so funny, because I'm the intern and I do all the editing and stuff to do the sports bumps (ticker at the bottom). I've tried a couple times to sneak my own stories in there, and I kind of got the side eye. I've thrown every idea out there, but he hasn't really taken it yet."
At least now she can add that All-Big 12 honor on her resume.
"It's awesome," she said. "I was really excited about it yesterday, But today, I'm like, `All right, back to normal work day.'''