Tori Baldwin’s hands were shaking.
“Do you see this?” she asked, holding out her hands. “My hands are still shaking I’m so excited.”
Baldwin, a senior Volleyball middle blocker, had just finished leading her team down the court to celebrate with the band, following her team’s exhilarating come-from-behind 3-2 victory against the Dayton Flyers on Friday.
“This game was such an extra rush of emotion,” Baldwin said. “The first two points, I’m coming in and thinking, ‘Ah, just gotta tip the ball over’ … It was an emotional rollercoaster for me a little bit. This was such a fun game to play in.”
Baldwin, the school record-holder for career blocks with 498, leads with her emotion. When she gets a block or spike — or a teammate does — she lets out a roar and turns to celebrate with her team, and they feed off that passion and energy.
“Getting a block is really exciting because you don’t get them as much as you get everything else,” said junior opposite hitter Gina Tuzzolo. “It’s exciting for the whole team. The bench gets really excited and there is this energy in a block that we just feed off of.”
That energy is transferable — when Baldwin is subbed off in a rotation, in comes junior middle blocker Jasmin Sneed, the NCAA leader in blocks per set this season and the second-leading blocker in VCU history. Sneed will often pick up where Baldwin left off. In the match against Dayton alone, there were three separate occasions in which Baldwin and Sneed blocked an opponent’s attempt on consecutive points.
“We just gotta keep the block party going, always, and of course, it’s my job to block them,” said Sneed, who set a new school record for blocks in a single season with 180 last season.
Barring injury, Sneed will supplant Baldwin for the career block record before she graduates. It is a feat Baldwin hopes she accomplishes.
“Records are meant to be broken,” Baldwin said. “I never imagined when I came [to VCU] that I would set the school record or get 500 blocks. And I’ll be rooting for Jasmin. I hope she breaks my record.”
Having two elite — and ultra-competitive — middle blockers is a luxury for any volleyball coach, but one of the factors that make the duo of Baldwin and Sneed so effective is how they block. At 6-foot-3-inches tall, Baldwin has height to her advantage, while Sneed, a former standout basketball player in San Antonio, Texas, has unparalleled athleticism.
“They both have that strive to be awesome and they are both so competitive,” said head coach Jody Rogers. “They hate losing even if it is like checkers, and that mentality permeates throughout the program. Tori Baldwin walks into a room and demands respect immediately. But [Sneed] just jumps so high. She can come out of nowhere and is like Spider-Woman.”
For the Rams, the abilities of Baldwin and Sneed to get their hands onto more balls leads to a more productive offensive counter-attack. In 10 of the last 11 games, VCU has recorded double-digit blocks and has three players — Sneed (1st), Baldwin (2nd) and senior opposite hitter Julia Adler (4th) — ranked in the top-5 in the Atlantic 10 conference for blocks this season.
“It’s great because they both bring two different sides of play,” Rogers said. “[Baldwin] is a little bit more physical and [Sneed] is more athletic. [Baldwin] brings in such a leadership piece. The team is always on point when she is in there.”
The prowess of the Rams’ frontcourt to disrupt their opponents offense and the impact of getting touches on balls has not gone unrecognized by the rest of the team.
“It’s the thing that allows us to be able to [have the opportunity for kills]. We have really great setters and without good net defense and good passes, we can’t run our offense,” Tuzzolo said. “Having a solid defense allows you to run the offense from wherever you want … The middle crew, they bring such a great energy. They feed off each other and they mesh well together.”
With only four matches remaining in the regular season before the A-10 Tournament in mid-November — which VCU will host for the first time — Baldwin is focused on keeping her team ready to play, no matter the opponent.
“We aren’t going to lay down or underestimate anyone,” she said. “We are going to fight to the very end, no matter who we are playing against. We are going to act like the underdogs the entire time.”
For a team that has won 26 consecutive conference matches, that mindset could leave VCU’s future opponents shaking, and not out of exhilaration.