By Andy Lohman

Keeping up with VCU junior middle blocker Tori Baldwin can be a challenge. Off the volleyball court she talks about a mile a minute; on the court her size and skill make her one of the elite blockers in the country.

“I used to have a really strong accent my freshman year, nobody could understand me because I talk fast,” Baldwin, who grew up on a ranch in Liberty, N.C., laughed. “I talk really fast.”

As of Sept. 19, Baldwin was 28th in Division I with 1.43 blocks per set, racking up 73 total blocks over 15 games. She also ranks 19th in the nation with a hitting percentage of .421.

Baldwin credits a stronger bond with her team for her individual success.

“I had an old friend that came by for a Saturday night game and the first words she said were ‘you guys just click,’” Baldwin said. “For me personally that feeling of trust with the team, and that feeling of everyone really going for the gold is what’s making me play my game and step up altogether, because they’re helping me.”

The relationship between a front row attacker like Baldwin and a setter who makes the key passes is crucial. When that relationship is built on trust, the team performs at a high level.

“It’s like a family. It’s like waking up in the morning and for lunch you already know your mom has your bag packed and waiting on the counter. It’s just that trust, you know what’s going to happen, you know what’s going to be there,” Baldwin said. “I think the biggest thing for an athlete is to trust your team in the sense of knowing they have your back to make the spot.”

With the team firing on all cylinders, the Rams are off to their best start since 2012, matching that squad’s 13-2 record through 15 games. VCU won the Jefferson Cup with three straight victories from Sept. 8-9. Baldwin was named tournament MVP and Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Week after totaling 29 blocks across four games.

She was also named the Virginia Lottery Student-Athlete of the Week for her efforts. The previous week, the middle blocker was named Atlantic 10 Co-Player of the Week. While the accolades pile up, Baldwin maintains her goofy and energetic personality. 

“I’m not serious,” Baldwin said. “I think I’m more of the goofball of the team. The one that always plays around with you, talks crap to you, but loves you at the end of the day.” 

As a junior, Baldwin serves as a team captain. She has to balance being the upbeat goofball and being a leader on the court.

“It’s actually kind of hard when you think about it. I just think there’s a time and place [for both],” Baldwin said of the balance. “You step on the court and you know it’s game time, let’s step up. Off the court and in the huddles, that’s when the loud and energetic comes in.”

Music can be a big source of that energy, and Baldwin appreciates the diversity in tastes on her team.

“I do love music. I think that’s one of the biggest things that I use to get ready for the court,” Baldwin said. “Everybody loves dancing, so for dancing you need music. That’s what I love about this team, the different ideas and loves and genres of music that everyone likes, it’s so different. There’s country and Taylor Swift to rap and alternative, it’s all different.”

While she’s among the best blockers in the country, Baldwin may not even be the best on her team. Sophomore middle blocker Jasmin Sneed leads the Atlantic 10 and is 10th in the country with 1.58 blocks per games. 

“With her it just all goes back to her athleticism, she’s fast and quick and can get up anywhere you lay a ball,” Baldwin said.

While the Rams benefit from having two elite blockers, they also benefit from improvement in Baldwin’s game overall. She has seen her numbers balloon in a number of statistical categories, including kills per set (1.46 in 2016, 2.12 in 2017), hitting percentage (.219 in 2016, .421 in 2017), blocks per set (1.31 in 2016, 1.43 in 2017), and points per set (2.2 in 2016, 2.9 in 2017). 

The difference has been in the trust with her team.

“I feel like I’m finally clicking with my setter and finally clicking with the back row,” Baldwin said. 

So as the team grows and gets off to one of the best starts in recent years, Baldwin grows with it, forming into one of the best front row players in the country.

“I think overall I’ve evolved better with the team,” Baldwin said. “So I think as everyone’s growing better and getting better, I’ve improved as well.”