As Tayler Tolefree prepared for her senior year at Lawrence High School in 2008, Kansas University was the last place she expected or even wanted to play her college volleyball.
A highly decorated local recruit who earned multiple all-state, all-area and all-league honors and made visits to Division I schools across the country, Tolefree simply was ready for something different, a change of scenery, a new challenge.
But after realizing how much she missed Lawrence while on a visit to Maryland the summer before her senior year, Tolefree opened her mind to the idea of playing close to home, and today, the 6-foot-2 senior middle blocker ranks in the Top 10 on KU’s all-time blocks, block assists and blocks-per-set lists.
“I said there was no way I was coming to this school, and I’m so happy I ate my words,” said Tolefree after KU’s final home match of the regular season last weekend. “The coaches convinced me to come here, they convinced me that they could make me into the type of player that I wanted to be, and I believed in them and trusted them.”
There were plenty of times when the straight-A student who plans to head to medical school after graduating in May worried about what staying home for college would mean.
“It was hard,” she said. “Just sitting and thinking about it. Going into college, you’re not really sure how you’re going to interact with people, can I meet new people. ... It was really hard to reverse that and say, ‘OK, maybe I can, maybe I can rethink this and what would it be like to play at home.’ It just only got better from there.”
Throughout Tolefree’s decision-making process, her parents worried, too, but her father, Brian, said he and Tolefree’s mother, Eve, tried not to show it. Doing so, he said, would not have been fair to their daughter, the middle child of five.
“We were scared to death that she would leave,” Brian said. “But we had to coach each other all the time to not make it about us. I have a cousin who was helping us, too, saying, ‘Don’t say anything, don’t say anything, let this be Tayler’s decision.’”
KU coach Ray Bechard and his staff made it clear to Tolefree early on that they were interested in signing her. But because they knew the LHS grad was determined to go away for college, Tolefree’s first interactions with KU came in the form of friendly advice and not a full-court recruiting press.
“She had always said, ‘I want to play against the best athletes,’” Brian recalled. “So in the beginning, our visits with coach Bechard were about him trying to help make sure Tayler didn’t sell herself short even if she wasn’t coming to KU.”
Bechard’s kindness went a long way toward helping Tolefree see the kind of program KU had and proved to be the best move he could have made in his pursuit of the local standout.
“There was just something about thinking, ‘I could miss this place if I leave,’” Tolefree recalled. “So I called Coach B and said, ‘OK, I’d like to come to KU.’ He was really happy.”
He was not alone.
“We were elated,” Brian said. “We could not have imagined it being this good.”
Tolefree’s change of heart worked out for both her and the university. Although she never has been considered the team’s most talented player, she often has been viewed as the most steady. She made 12 starts and played in 24 matches as a true freshman and followed that up with a sophomore season in which she was one of three Jayhawks to start all 31 matches.
As a junior in 2011, Tolefree again started all of KU’s matches and was named to the academic-All Big 12 first team for the second straight year.
“Tayler Tolefree’s been a great role model,” Bechard said. “She’s not what people would consider our MVP stat-wise, but may be our MVP example-wise, how she goes about her business as a student, as a person, as an athlete.”
With Tolefree and the Jayhawks preparing for the program’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2005 — KU will host Cleveland State at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Allen Fieldhouse and, with a win, would advance to Saturday’s second round — the whole experience has a déjà vu feel to it for Tolefree.
Throughout high school, Tolefree was the quiet killer on a couple of decent teams but ended her career in style with a trip to the Class 6A state tournament. Although the level of competition has increased, it’s the same thing, same town, same result for Tolefree. And she could not be happier.
“It was the best reverse decision I’ve ever made,” she said. “You get here and you get to know your teammates and what the whole program is about — (I’m) really glad that I chose to stay.”