Barely 18 years old when she enrolled in Baylor a semester early in January 2015, volleyball middle blocker and MSEd student Shelly Stafford has seen a lot of dramatic changes in the last five years. Even her name has changed.
“I got married, so that’s pretty life-changing,” Stafford said. “The [Baylor] experience overall has truly been life changing. Baylor’s environment is just love. I have just felt so loved by everyone, and they really push me and inspire me to be my best every day — in the classroom, on the court, and in the community.”
Stafford graduated from Baylor in 2018 with a BA in communications and will graduate with an MSEd degree in Sport Management from the Baylor School of Education this week.
But she will miss Baylor’s graduation ceremony. Stafford and the Baylor volleyball team — the No.-1 seed in the NCAA tournament — are in Pittsburgh for the Final Four this week. The Bears (29-1) face fourth-seeded Wisconsin (26-6) in the national semifinals at 6 p.m. CST Thursday at PPG Paints Arena, in a match that will be televised by ESPN.
Stafford said she chose Baylor out of high school because of her visit to campus during recruitment. “I had no idea what college volleyball even was,” she said. “I chose Baylor because of the loving and Christian campus atmosphere that I could feel when I visited. Here there is a determination to develop me into a ‘champion for life.’ I know that’s a slogan, but it’s been true. I wanted a strong academic school and something that would push me athletically.”
Stafford said the team culture created by Head Coach Ryan McGuyre, who has been named Big 12 and Southwest Region Coach of the Year, is “indescribable.” The team’s success stems from him and the staff, as well as the team he has recruited, she said. “It’s just great leadership,” Stafford added. “He says God is our head coach and he’s just filling in.”
Stafford had to sit out the 2016 season with a stress reaction in her shin and arthritis in her foot, creating the opportunity for her to finish a master’s degree before leaving Baylor for the professional ranks.
Returning to the floor better than ever in 2017, Stafford earned All-Big 12 first-team honors and Southwest All Region team (AVCA) each of the last three seasons. She was All-American Honorable Mention in 2017 and All-American second team last year.
Now Stafford is among Baylor Volleyball’s first three players named AVCA (American Volleyball Coaches Association) First Team All-Americans, announced on Dec. 18.
Stafford enters the Final Four leading the team in hitting percentage (.385) and has 12 double-digit kill matches in the middle. She is currently eighth all-time in career blocks with 412 at Baylor.
She is also raking in academic honors — she’s the Big 12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year for the second year running and Academic All-Big 12 First Team for the third year.
Stafford said she chose the Sport Management master’s program because of her desire to have a long-term career in sports.
She said the SOE program has given her everything she needs, especially because of the program’s required internship. Stafford did her internship last spring and summer with Baylor’s fan engagement team and did in-game promotions for basketball, baseball, tennis and equestrian.
“As an athlete, you don’t really get to see the production side, the behind-the-scenes side of it,” she said. “So, it was really cool just getting to work games and see what all goes in to the actual game production. It just makes you appreciate what they do.”
Even after her internship was over, Stafford has helped roll up T-shirts for the yell leaders to throw out during her volleyball matches. “I do notice it a lot more now with the video board and all the in-game promotion stuff,” she said.
Through the Sport Management program, she also got to work with ESPN College Game Day during the show’s visit to the Baylor campus this fall.
“That was so awesome,” Stafford said. “The Sport Management program as a whole is just great, with Dr. [Jeffrey] Petersen and Dr. [Mar] Magnusen and then my classmates. Everybody truly cares about you and developing you into the best professional version of yourself. The networking opportunities were great, and the coursework is challenging. It pushed me to be a better leader, and I feel very equipped to venture out of the Baylor Bubble and into the real world.”
Before beginning this magical senior season that has seen the Bears gain their first-ever No. 1 national ranking, Stafford changed her name from Fanning when she married former University of Texas baseball player Sam Stafford.
Now doing the “long-distance thing” — Sam is a project manager for a company in Houston — the couple has to communicate through FaceTime.
“It’s not ideal, but we make it work,” Shelly said. “My mom is like, ‘You have no idea.’ My dad was in the Marine Corps, and there weren’t all these different kinds of communication back then. My mom told me, ‘I had to wait for him to send his snail mail, if I got that.’ So, we know it could be a lot worse.”
For the foreseeable future, those challenges will continue.
After graduation, Stafford plans to play volleyball internationally with an eye on the 2024 Olympic Games.
“Once I’m done playing in college, I’ll have an agent who will work with me to decide the best league and opportunity,” she said. There is no draft in volleyball, and there are teams all over the world.
But she also recognizes that “volleyball is not forever.”
Stafford’s goal is to be a collegiate athletic director, “but short term probably something in finance or business; I’m going to leave my options open,” she said.
— Story by Jerry Hill and Meg Cullar / Photos by Baylor Athletics
ABOUT BAYLOR SCHOOL OF EDUCATION
For more than 100 years Baylor educators have carried the mission and practices of the School of Education to classrooms and beyond as teachers, superintendents, psychologists, health education professionals, academics/scholars and more. With more than 50 full-time faculty members, the school’s growing research portfolio complements its long-standing commitment to excellence in teaching and student mentoring. Baylor’s undergraduate program in teacher education has earned national distinction for innovative partnerships with local schools that provide future teachers deep clinical preparation, while graduate programs culminating in both the Ed.D. and Ph.D. prepare outstanding leaders, teachers and clinicians through an intentional blend of theory and practice.
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.