Queen of the Court

 

You may not know the name Bailey Webster, but you will. Meet the Longhorn at the helm of UT’s championship-winning volleyball team.

Bailey_Alcalde Portrait 7_255691_v2

As confetti rained down from the ceiling and UT’s fight song filled the air, a sea of burnt orange flooded onto the floor of the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky. People were crying. Camera flashes were blinding.

Amid the chaos, Bailey Webster stood in awe. The Texas Longhorns had just won their first NCAA volleyball championship in 25 years. “It’s so surreal,” she kept telling press, family, and friends. “It really is.”

The game’s most outstanding player, UT’s junior outside hitter had a lot to be proud of that December night. After four trips to the Final Four in the last five years, and a heartbreaking five-set loss in the 2009 National Championship match, Webster had finally led her Longhorns to the top with an astounding 14 match kills. Though it was already getting late, head coach Jerritt Elliott encouraged the girls to go out and celebrate their accomplishment, so Webster did: She hopped in the car and went to TGI Fridays with her parents.

That was a big night out for Webster. When she’s not on the court, you’re most likely to find UT’s star volleyball player lounging around her apartment, watching The Voice and eating Chick-fil-A.

“I’m pretty simple,” Webster says. “I don’t mind being by myself. I’m kind of a loner like that.”

Surprisingly low-key for someone so conspicuous. Standing tall at 6-foot-3, Webster was once the top high school volleyball recruit in the country, and is now one of the nation’s most elite college athletes. At UT, she’s racked up a wide array of accolades, from landing a spot on 2009’s All-Big 12 Freshman Team to being named Big 12 Player of the Year in 2011.

On the court, 22-year-old Webster is known for being ruthless and unstoppable at the net—a reputation that led her all the way to the Longhorns’ national championship in December 2012. But outside the gym, she’s easygoing and humble, joking around and even showcasing some serious pipes for her teammates.

“If we’re singing in the car, she’ll quiet me down and point out that wasn’t the right note I hit right there,” laughs former UT teammate Sha’Dare McNeal. “She’s got a voice on her.”

Webster’s fan club is small, but growing. That night of the championship, at TGI Fridays with her family, Webster was bombarded by a group of young girls—members of a youth volleyball team—who hugged her legs and simply wouldn’t let go.

“Their mom came up and was like, ‘I’m so sorry!’” Webster’s mother, Cedrina, recalls of the night. “The girls asked if they could take a picture and kept telling Bailey, ‘This means so much to me.’ A lot of folks recognize her now.”

That’s because she’s kind of a big deal. The All-American has battled everything from fierce opponents to a potentially career-ending ACL injury her sophomore year to make it to the top—and now she’s the reigning NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Most Outstanding Player. As Webster enters her final season with the Longhorns, the question on everyone’s minds is: Can she do it again?

“There’s still so much room for me to grow,” Webster says. “They say you don’t play your best volleyball until your 30s. I still have so much to learn!”

Hard to believe, considering how far she’s already come.

Bump…

Queen of the Court

Born just minutes away from the Forty Acres in Round Rock, Webster has always had Texas in her blood. Though her mom’s sales and customer service job took Webster and her older sister by five years, Brooks, to Houston, Montana, and eventually to Baltimore, Webster frequently visited her dad back in the Lone Star State. But it’s Baltimore she claims as her hometown.

“That’s where I know I can go back and see people I grew up with,” Webster says. “There are still some girls there that are my sisters, and we talk all the time.”

When asked what kind of kid Webster was, Cedrina gives a contradictory answer: shy—and crazy. Fiercely independent, the girl who would one day become a powerhouse athlete was very concerned with how her hair looked and what she wore. Always sporting her favorite color, pink, Webster even went through a serious purse-collecting phase, leading Cedrina to describe her as “a bit prissy.”

Long before she’d ever touched a volleyball, Webster had aspirations of being a singer, often putting on performances for her family and friends. (We’re told Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” was a set-list staple.) She was more interested in making it onto Showtime at the Apollo than joining a youth basketball team—much to her mom’s dismay. Despite having two former college basketball athletes for parents, Webster didn’t show much interest in team sports.

Whereas older sister Brooks was interested in karate, “girly-girl” Webster opted for cheerleading and gymnastics—that is, until her legs began to grow and started getting in the way of her doing the parallel bars.

“If I was short, I would’ve been a cheerleader, hands down,” Webster says.

Webster’s height did give her a leg up when she finally took up basketball, however, and she quickly fell in love with the sport. She joined an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team in inner-city Baltimore, and later played for her school, St. Paul’s School for Girls. And she was good. Really good.

“My parents would take me to the gym when I was younger and push me to do better,” Webster remembers. “My mom always had a little saying: ‘Pay now, or pay later.’ And I still live by that today.”

It wasn’t until Brooks took up volleyball in high school that Webster began contemplating hitting the volleyball court. The same year Brooks was leaving to play volleyball at the University of Alabama, 13-year-old Webster joined a Baltimore club team—and immediately hated it.

“The thing is, I wasn’t really good at it,” Webster recalls. “I didn’t like not being good at something. One negative of being tall is that you’re put into situations you aren’t quite ready for—because I was 5-foot-11, I was playing with girls who were 17 and 18. And I just didn’t enjoy it.”

Between eighth and ninth grade, Webster finally hit a growth spurt Cedrina hadn’t been sure was coming. Webster had grown slowly as a kid, despite the fact that her parents top out at 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-6. But by the time she tried out for her high school volleyball team—deciding to give volleyball one last shot—she was closing in on 6-foot-3. Despite being so raw, Webster caught the eye of St. Paul’s coaches and landed a spot on the varsity team as a freshman.

“And that’s when it just clicked,” Webster says.

High school can be a difficult time for most, but for Webster, it was downright chaotic. The teenager split time between four separate teams: high school basketball, volleyball, AAU basketball, and a club volleyball team.

“Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and D.C. are all so close together, and on tournament days I might be playing with one team in Pennsylvania and have to drive to D.C. to play with another team,” Webster says. “You can do it all, but you can’t do it all and still have a social life.”

At the time, basketball was Webster’s main sport. If a volleyball tournament conflicted with her basketball schedule, she’d skip the tournament and play hoops instead. But then she was discovered.

Bailey Webster (23)During her sophomore year, word about Webster’s quickness, reach, and power began spreading in volleyball circles throughout the U.S. By age 15, Webster was already drawing college coaches to her matches. A 2006 Baltimore Sun article explained that “Webster’s long, lean frame, her athletic ability, and her pedigree make her a prime prospect despite her inexperience.” The article went on to point out that, while Webster was certainly not the top sophomore in the country, she was well on her way to becoming the best player in the nation if she stuck with it.

All the sudden attention was overwhelming for Webster, as it would be for any teenage girl.

“Scouts would be surrounding the court at our games, and I got so nervous!” Bailey says with exasperation. “It made things awkward with my teammates. We were young girls. I had no idea if they were mad about it or not.”

She didn’t just get attention from volleyball scouts, either. Cedrina recalls the time her daughter was approached in the gym by a representative from Harper’s magazine.

“This woman asked if Bailey would model for a shoot in Harper’s,” Cedrina remembers. “Most girls would jump at the opportunity, but before the lady even finished talking, Bailey was already hiding behind me!”

Opting to focus on her athletic career, Webster knew it was time to make a decision: Would she pursue volleyball or basketball in college? When faced with the same dilemma, Brooks, who’d also played basketball in high school, had decided on volleyball, and many assumed Webster would follow her sister’s footsteps to play for Alabama.

But Webster had no intention of letting anyone make the decision for her.

“In basketball, I was faster than most tall girls. I shot. I didn’t like to play low post,” Webster says. “I just felt like I belonged more in the volleyball world.”

After choosing volleyball, Webster still had another big decision to make: Where would she play? So many colleges expressed interest in her—284, to be exact—that the family created a spreadsheet to keep track of them all, adding notes about who the contact was at each school and what Webster liked about the campuses. Then they narrowed them down to the top 20, top 10, and top five. Much to everyone’s surprise, she eliminated volleyball powerhouses like Stanford, USC, and Penn State in favor of UT.

“My list was kind of different because I was just going off of where I knew I’d be happy,” Webster says. “I wanted to enjoy college, too, because I felt like you couldn’t get through a sport without balancing it. I wanted warmer weather. I wanted to be able to relate to the girls I’d be playing with. When I visited Texas, the girls were a lot like me. It just started feeling like somewhere I should be.”

With just four years of volleyball experience, Webster knew she was raw. She knew her natural athletic ability would only get her so far, and that she’d have to put in extra effort to be prepared to play at the college level. After committing to the Longhorns, Webster made yet another important life decision: She opted to graduate high school ahead of schedule so she could move to Texas and start training with the ’Horns a semester early.

“I didn’t have a huge social life back home, so it wasn’t like I was missing anything in Baltimore,” Webster says. “I thought I might as well start playing with the team I was going to be with for the next four years—that was the best thing for me if I was going to get better.”

So Webster took on a few extra classes her junior year, then packed up and headed back to her roots—and her future—in the Lone Star State.

 Set…

When Webster set foot on the Forty Acres in January 2009, many UT fans initially mistook her for another famous Longhorn volleyball player.

“When I first got here, I think literally everyone on campus thought I was Destinee [Hooker, UT volleyball player 2006-09],” Webster laughs. “I always had to be like, ‘No, no, not right. Sorry!’”

Bailey_Alcalde Portrait 7_255708She’d later carve out her own Longhorn celebrity status, but it wouldn’t be immediate. Freshman year, Webster admits, she “choked.” She saw playing time, and was even named to the Big 12’s All-Freshman team. But Webster visibly cringes when recalling her first year playing in Gregory Gym.

“It was my first time playing with a major audience, and it didn’t go well,” Webster says. “I was nervous and I had so much adrenaline. I was just doing way too much and trying way too hard.”

Head coach Elliott says he wasn’t concerned.

“She had this physicality that was really the best in the country,” Elliott remembers. “We knew that with our training and our gym and regimen, she would develop. And once that happened for her, we knew she would become one of the elite players in the country.”

But Webster’s second season with the ’Horns was over before it even began. She still remembers the exact date—Friday, Aug. 13—that her volleyball career came to a screeching halt.

During a preseason workout, Webster tore the ACL ligament in her knee clean through—an injury that is often the kiss of death for competitive athletes—while going for a shanked ball. She hyperextended her knee trying to stop herself from falling into the net.

“Most people would assume I was going up to hit when it happened, but no,” Webster says. “And it didn’t really hurt. I guess when you tear your ACL all the way, it isn’t painful. It was just sore, and I felt like, ‘Ow.’ But I didn’t think it was anything serious.”

Wanting to be more safe than sorry, UT’s athletics staff hustled her into the training room for tests. It was immediately clear that she’d severely injured her right knee.

“I was a mess,” Webster recalls. “It’s just scary. My biggest fear was, ‘Am I going to be the same?’ I didn’t know if I’d be able to jump as high ever again.”

Webster was given a medical redshirt for her sophomore season, and sat on the sidelines as her Longhorns fell to the Penn State Nittany Lions in the NCAA Semifinals—the same team that had beaten the ’Horns in the devastating championship match the year before. She was antsy to get back on the court, and threw herself into rehabilitation.

“Toward the end, Bailey was really, really strong. She surprised me,” McNeal says. “She had a few breakdowns about it, of course. That’s to be expected. But she was always pushing. Her trainer was like, ‘You’ve got to slow down!’ But she really realized volleyball was her passion, and she still had so much left to prove.”

And so she did. When Webster stepped back onto the court the next season, she came out with a bang. She played in every single match for the Longhorns, recording 307 kills, 89 blocks, and a total of 362 points during the 2011 season. Her rebound earned her AVCA All-American first team honors, the 2011 Big 12 Player of the Year title, and All-NCAA Lexington Regional team recognition at playoffs. She also served as team captain.

“She got a lot more confidence,” Elliott says. “And if you watch her play, she’s not one of the rah-rah cheerleaders. Everything comes out of her mouth with a purpose. She demands respect. She’s competing at a high level, and when she’s doing that, it’s really, really special.”

Webster’s successes carried over into the 2012 season. Despite early losses to Penn State and Illinois, the Texas team finished with an impressive 29-4 overall record and 15-1 in the Big 12 Conference, plus that coveted NCAA championship trophy in-hand. Webster, who was named 2012 Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year, helped the Longhorns go on an impressive 17-match winning streak. She landed spots on both the 2012 Academic All-Big 12 Team and the All-Big 12 First Team.

In January, the Tower glowed orange with the number one on each side to honor UT’s newest national champs.

“It was just crazy, because we actually did it,” Webster says. “After 20-something years, we were the team that brought home the championship. It was really special.”

 Spike!

So what’s next for the Longhorn superstar? Webster graduated with a degree in corporate communication last December (she’s still eligible to play because of her redshirt season), and is now enrolled in UT’s graduate advertising program, where she’s focusing on sports media. She dreams of becoming an ESPN sportscaster someday.

After her final season with the Longhorns this fall, Webster will be shipping off to play volleyball professionally somewhere overseas. She’s then hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow former Longhorn—and apparent doppelganger—Destinee Hooker to the U.S. Olympic team.

celebration_j1202nc_edit“I’m really looking forward to starting a new journey,” Webster says. “You know, I’ve been here for a while, and I think it’s just about my time.”

Before she leaves, though, Webster plans to check some things off her Austin bucket list. Being a full-time college student and an athlete left little room for extracurriculars, and she’s still yet to experience the wonders of South Congress, Mount Bonnell, or KGSR’s Blues on the Green.

Don’t worry—that doesn’t mean she’ll be taking her eye off the prize. Webster seems more ready and focused than ever for another season wearing that burnt-orange jersey, defending last year’s national title. It’s her final stand, after all.

“I know it’s going to be twice as hard to get there,” Webster says. “We’ve got a bullseye on our backs this season.”

But when Webster sets out to do something, she sets out to be the best. She credits her solid support system—Cedrina, Brooks, little brother Briar, and father Elton—for instilling in her that drive and determination. To this day, Webster, Brooks, and Cedrina, who has since moved to San Antonio from Baltimore, still talk on the phone almost every night.

The kid who used to be so particular about her hair now throws it up in a ponytail most days, but the fierce athlete hasn’t entirely lost that childhood girly side. There’s a reason Cedrina still calls her “Princess Bailey,” as is evident when we ask the obligatory question of whether she’s comfortable wearing high heels.

“I have no issue wearing heels,” Webster answers. “I mean, people stare regardless. So I might as well look cute—right?”

Studio shots by Matt Wright-Steel. All other photos courtesy UT Athletics.

 

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