Into the Spotlight
STANFORD'S CAITIE BAIRD remembers the first time she met her future volleyball coach, Kevin Hambly.
Baird had just begun her freshman year at Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis and already was a blue-chip prospect when she took one of her first recruiting trips, to University of Illinois, where Hambly coached.
Among the activities was a campus tour with Hambly as guide and golf-cart driver. As they approached a narrow opening between pillars, Baird was a little nervous.
"That's really tight, Kevin," she said. "I don't know if you're going to make it."
"You don't believe in me?" he said. "You don't have faith?"
"No," she said. "I trust you."
That trust has only grown in the seven years since. Representing a different school, Baird is the most dominant player on Hambly's team as Stanford opens NCAA tournament play Friday against Iowa State in Minneapolis.
What did Hambly envision for the 14-year-old Baird?
"What she is," he said. "All-America potential and the potential to be a national-team player."
This season and this tournament is the first for Baird, a human biology major and redshirt sophomore outside hitter, as essentially the face of the Cardinal.
Photo by Mike Rasay/ISIphotos.com.
When Baird was a true freshman in 2019, the team was so loaded that Hambly could afford to redshirt her and Baird could focus on improving aspects of her play behind closed doors while Kathryn Plummer pummeled opponents to lead the Cardinal to its third NCAA title in four years.
The 2020 season was supposed to be the first look at Stanford in the post-Plummer/Jenna Gray/Morgan Hentz/Audriana Fitzmorris era. But it didn't really turn out that way.
COVID-19 protocols prevented practicing or playing within Santa Clara County. Instead, Baird and eight teammates lived in a San Diego-area home, squeezed around the kitchen table while taking classes remotely, and tried to stay fit in open gyms. When the season finally began in February, the Cardinal was far behind in preparation and went 2-8, though Baird offered a glimpse of her potential with 25 kills each in back-to-back season-ending losses to eventual NCAA semifinalist Washington.
This season offers a truer look at the new Cardinal. When healthy, Stanford beat powers Florida, Penn State, and Nebraska. Baird had 20, 24, and 20 kills in those matches. But the team was besieged by in-match injuries, and the Cardinal lost four straight in Pac-12 play, winning only one set and losing 12. Stanford finished the regular season 18-10 and tied for fourth in the conference, at 13-7.
"It's been choppy at best to try to kind of find some rhythm and find a flow," Hambly said. "In some ways, this has helped Caitie with her out-of-system game, and her ability to manage bad sets and still find ways to score points. There's some blessing in that, even though it's been frustrating at times."
Though Baird's hitting percentage dropped, her expectations for herself did not.
"That stretch was really tough, especially for me," Baird said. "I put a lot of pressure on myself that I don't need to. Kevin and all the other coaches have told me, you don't need to carry the weight on your shoulders."
Even longtime assistant Denise Corlett, now retired, saw how Baird internalized the losing and reached out.
"Play for yourself," Corlett told her. "Have fun. Be Caitie Baird."
Caitie's mother, Martha, continually offers these words of affirmation:
"You're extraordinary," she says. "You're special. There are things you can do that not a lot of people are able to do."
The support has helped Baird try to avoid being too hard on herself.
"It got me back to a good place where I can just have fun and enjoy what I'm doing," Baird said. "Knowing that everyone had my back and still believed in me … they knew I didn't have to carry that whole weight by myself. It was a big relief."
Photo by Karen Hickey/ISIphotos.com.
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CAITIE GRAVITATED TOWARD volleyball by idolizing her sister Cassie, older by five years. With their father, John Baird, coaching and following son Dusty (now a fifth-year senior pitcher at Belmont University) in baseball, Martha followed and transported Cassie in volleyball. That meant Caitie tagged along.
"Watching Cassie and seeing the fun she had and the passion that the game brought out in her encouraged me to give it a shot and see if that's what I'd love," Caitie said.
At every tournament, Caitie would find a ball and find somebody, anybody, to play pepper with. Soon, she joined Cassie's club, Circle City, and by age 14, had captured the attention of recruiters. Cassie went on to University of Denver and plays professionally in Finland, following seasons in Switzerland, Portugal, and the Czech Republic.
Martha recalls a conversation with a college coach during those early recruiting days. He told her that Caitie would one day be among the top five recruits in the country. Martha laughed at the ridiculousness of such a proclamation. The coach was not laughing.
"Are we talking about the same person?" Martha said.
Years later, Martha ran into the coach at a gym and thanked him for his faith in her.
"You could see she was going to continue to work hard," the coach said. "And she had the right support system to do it."
Stanford wasn't in the picture for a while. Baird vowed she wouldn't consider any school more than a two-hour drive from home. Eventually, she increased her range to five hours.
But Caitie -- the No. 2 prospect in her class by PrepVolleyball.com with a 4.5 GPA – could go anywhere, and Martha helped Caitie see that she shouldn't limit herself.
Martha always had a special relationship with Caitie. She wasn't asked to do so, but Martha had a habit of staying up until her daughter was done with her homework. With three sports in high school, plus club volleyball, Caitie was exhausted and that could mean homework could last well past midnight. Martha, who worked full time, felt it wouldn't hurt to be there in case Caitie grew tired or had a question.
"If it was me not getting sleep, that was OK," Martha said. "At least she wasn't the only one awake. I was able to be there for her and let her know she wasn't alone."
Martha discovered that the five-hour rule wasn't because Caitie didn't want to leave. It was because Caitie wanted her parents to see her play. Martha reassured Caitie that distance would not deter them.
"We'll make it work," Martha said. "What you need to do is find the place that makes you happy."
From the initial drive into campus from Palm Drive, that place for Caitie has been Stanford.
"I stepped on campus and knew," she said. "I'm home."
Martha and John have made the trip often, with Martha bringing her famous "fudge cup" cookies for the team. Caitie sometimes skims a few off the top before passing them out.
It's all helped Baird find comfort in an unpredictable season. Normally quiet, Baird has been encouraged by Hambly to speak more in team settings, in huddles and timeouts. He sees the impact of her words because of the respect teammates have for her.
Photo by Bob Drebin/ISIphotos.com.
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BAIRD IS STANFORD'S most feared hitter, but she's also willing to do more, especially this year with roles evolving as players are plugged into different spots in the lineup.
"Whatever's going to help the team," she said. "If that means being a setter for this game, I'll be a setter. If that means being a libero, I'll be a libero. Whatever's going to help us win, I'll do it."
Fortunately, Baird has not had to switch roles or positions. But she means it.
At Perry Meridian, Baird was an All-Conference Indiana basketball player in addition to an Under Armour first-team All-American in volleyball. She also was a high jumper in track and field and ran the 300-meter hurdles on occasion.
Rarely does anyone volunteer to run the 4x400 relay, one of the most painful events on the track, when not trained at that distance. But Caitie did. During the sectional meet, a relay team runner was unable to compete. Of course, the 6-foot-3 Baird volunteered. "I just need you to run 65 seconds so we can advance," coach Ryan Teverbaugh said.
With the team spread out around the track to cheer for her, Baird ran the leg in 63 and the Falcons advanced. With the relay team intact and poised to reach the state meet the following year, one of the girls decided not to compete. With an open spot, Teverbaugh approached Baird again.
"Caitie, I need you," he said.
"I'll do it," she replied.
With Baird on the second leg, the Perry Meridian 4x400 team indeed reached the state championships, placing eighth. And, for the record, Baird never threw up, though she sometimes felt as if she would.
"I always tried to do what the team needed," she said. "That's always been my mindset."
This week, Stanford just needs Baird to be herself. This will be Baird's first NCAA tournament and Hambly is interested to see how she performs "in the matches that really matter," he said.
"I'm looking forward to seeing how she responds," Hambly said. "You learn how to play a season and then you learn how to play the tournament. And those are two very different things."
Baird seems ready for the challenge.
"It's just a matter of being consistent," she said. "We have all the pieces, all the potential."
Going back to the day when Baird watched Hambly squeeze the golf cart through the Illinois campus, Baird knew that with him as coach, she would be in an environment where she would be pushed and challenged and get better by the day.
And as a freshman, to watch national player of the year Plummer up close, Baird has seen how it all works.
"I just hope that one day, I can do what she did and accomplish those goals," Baird said. "That's what I came here to do."