At this time last year, former Lawrence High Lion and current Kansas University freshman Tayler Tolefree was preparing for the Class 6A state volleyball tournament in Topeka.
Considering the fact that the 2008 Lions came out of sub-state with a 9-26 record and entered the state tournament as the obvious No. 8 seed and overwhelming underdog, making it to state was quite a surprise for Tolefree.
But that was nothing compared to what the 6-foot-2 middle blocker has experienced during her first season of volleyball at KU.
Tolefree committed to Kansas midway through her senior season in high school. Her thought process then was that she’d stay close to home, get exposure at the highest level and, a year or two down the road, contribute to the Jayhawks’ program. Tolefree was dead-on about the first two parts of that equation. It’s the last part she missed badly on, as the true freshman has surprised even herself by starting several matches and playing in 51 of the team’s 73 sets thus far, including 26 of 38 in Big 12 play.
“I never thought I’d start here as a freshman,” Tolefree said. “There’s just so much I have to do. I just thought I was going to sit back and learn a lot this year and maybe get in at the end of some games when we were kicking somebody’s butt.”
Instead, Tolefree has helped deliver some of those beatdowns. She currently ranks fifth on the team in kills, is second in attack percentage and also second in blocks. Through the first half of the Big 12 schedule, she was the only freshman among the conference leaders in blocking, something that KU coach Ray Bechard said was not much of a surprise considering the work Tolefree puts in each day.
“That’s about focus, concentration and skill application,” Bechard said. “As a freshman, that stat speaks pretty highly. I knew we were getting a quality kid, No. 1. But what I didn’t know was how focused and how tuned-in she is at each and every practice and on each and every play.”
That’s pretty much the status quo for Tolefree, who perfected such an approach during her standout career at LHS.
She never let the highs get too high and made sure to keep the lows from dipping too low. She continues to operate with that mind-set today while playing against some of the best volleyball teams in the country.
Already this season Tolefree has been on the same court with a few of the top teams in the NCAA. Texas, Nebraska, Iowa State and Texas A&M all crossed her path, and each time, Tolefree stood up to the challenge.
“I know now that I’m going to be in the game,” Tolefree said. “So I can’t just be out there freaking out all the time. I need to focus in and execute the game plan. We’re just trying to bring ourselves up to their level. We’re expecting more out of ourselves, and I know I’m a part of what we’re trying to do.”
Tolefree still lists blocking as her best skill, though she said the rest of her game is improving at a rapid pace because of the presence of her teammates and the demands of her coaches.
While she has been pleasantly surprised by the major contribution she has made so early in her collegiate career, Tolefree stresses that she still has a way to go before she labels herself anything more than a role player.
“I’m pushed every day in practice to be faster and to be smarter about where I’m going and what I’m doing, and that has made me a lot better,” Tolefree said. “Every day you have to come in and work hard. One day you can get your butt kicked, and one day you can dominate.
“But the main thing I’m focused on right now, individually, is just playing consistently. You get really good at hitting one shot, and teams start to figure that out, so you have to change and try to do something else but still try and impact the match.”
While she navigates her way through the Big 12 Conference — the Jayhawks are 12-9 overall and 4-7 in the Big 12 — Tolefree has kept an eye on her alma mater, which is preparing for its second straight trip to the Class 6A state tournament this weekend.
Tolefree has been back to watch a handful of LHS matches this year, and each time she was met with mixed emotions.
“Sometimes, just like going to the LHS games, I don’t feel old or anything. I feel like I should be going to the LHS practices sometimes. I don’t feel that much older than those girls,” Tolefree said. “But at the same time, I know I’ve made a lot of improvement to get where I am.”
Part of that is because of her high school experiences, which included trips to state her sophomore and senior years, All-Sunflower League honors during her junior and senior years and an all-state nod as a junior.
“My sophomore and my senior year, I learned that anything’s possible,” Tolefree said. “That’s why we line up and play because anything’s possible on any day.”
Next up for Tolefree and the Jayhawks is a home match with yet another ranked opponent as No. 25 Texas A&M comes to town 6:30 p.m. Saturday.