The 13,611 seats at the Hearnes Center are empty as Sarah Meister comes through the shadowy tunnel to the floor.
A left from the team room walks her past a vast mural of Tiger greats, Lindsey Hunter and Paola Ampudia. A right around a bend brings her past the white script of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.”
Though the decks are bright, the tunnel is dark — the overhead lights are few and far between. Emerson’s words are hardly readable.
Meister emerges, head held high. Her season has taken a similar turn — from darkness to light.
She sits on the third chair from the left in row A, across from where the pep band plays Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” in pregame.
Want you to see everything / Want you to see all of the lights
A sophomore on the Missouri volleyball team, Meister was stopped by Columbia City Police for a traffic violation on the 400 block of Rollins Street, a stone’s throw away from fraternities Sigma Tau Gamma and Delta Tau Delta.
Meister was swerving through traffic on the two-lane road, police said. Meister said she was coming home from a quiet evening with “just a few” friends. She dropped a friend off at a party, she said, and was on her way home.
Police performed a field sobriety test. Meister failed. Then a Breathalyzer test. She failed again.
“It was the immediate scare that got to me,” she said. “Something like that happens and you immediately think, my life has changed. That’s your immediate thought. Your life has changed. … It’s one of the darkest places you don't want to be.”
Meister was supposed to start as defensive specialist for the Tigers to open the season against North Florida at the Tiger Invitational. Of those competing for playing time on the MU back row, the San Diego native had by far the most experience, starting nine matches in 2011 and digging 224 balls.
She and sophomore defensive specialist/libero Jade Hayes had pulled away, it seemed, from sophomore Niki Collier over the spring and would receive the lion’s share of reps in the back row. Collier would rotate in when frontline blockers and hitters stepped to the service line.
“From the get-go, we knew that after losing (Priscilla Armendariz), the staring libero from last year, that position was open,” coach Wayne Kreklow said. “I think throughout the spring it looked as though Sarah and Jade would be the ones probably competing for that spot. We kind of entered the season in the fall with that still up in the air and relatively undecided.”
Meister’s arrest forced Kreklow’s hand. Directly following the incident, Meister was suspended indefinitely from the team, a penalty that was lifted a week later as MU wrapped up its day-one doubleheader of the Tiger Invitational in a win over Virginia Tech.
Hayes started at libero and Collier at defensive specialist, but Meister did enter the game, prompting murmur among some members of the crowd. She was yanked two serves later and did not return, finishing with one serve-receive error.
In limited action against Nicholls State the next morning, the typically ball-hawking Meister pulled in only two digs. Against Michigan that night, she subbed out after three serve-receive errors.
“You come back on that court for the first time, you’re scared,” she said. “A part of me felt like I didn’t deserve it, and that was the hardest thing. Another part of me felt like, ‘Here’s my chance to prove to everyone that I can do this.’ And I think I was initially shocked and a little bit scared and timid. At the same time I wanted to perform really well for the team. I hadn’t practiced that week either, so it wasn’t easy, but it’s about working through those things, about overcoming all that.”
Off the bench in the Lipscomb Invitational and Eagle Challenge at Morehead State, Meister saw more playing time, but never topped 11 digs as she struggled to right the ship.
The Tigers returned to the Hearnes Center on Sept. 12 to host then-No. 17 Tennessee, the big, bad wolf of the Southeastern Conference. Two minutes before the Tigers commenced their epic five-set upset broadcasted live on ESPNU, Kreklow told Meister she’d start at libero.
“It was a game-time decision. That’s how close it was,” Kreklow said of his choice to start Meister at libero. “I didn’t feel like anyone had really taken that and run away with that position. It was still up in the air.”
Meister surely did not disappoint. She set what was then her career high with 23 digs (she posted 27 at LSU on Sept. 23) flying around the back row through what she called a “surreal feeling.”
“You put all this time and hard work and you’ve invested so much and we just did it,” she said. “Our team just did so well. We worked so well together. We were all smiles and we were having so much fun and that’s what was so great about it.”
Already five weeks from Meister’s arrest, the team had put the incident behind them. Aided by a team meeting to reach a solution that served as part apology and part venting session, the Tigers moved on, deciding to leave Meister’s legal troubles in the room and proceed with the season as planned.
“As mad as we were about it and as disappointed as we were, we all accepted the fact that it happened and we couldn’t go back and change it,” junior setter and team captain Molly Kreklow said. “I think we all talked and realized the only thing we could do was move forward. And that’s with Sarah. We all had to forgive, and not necessarily forget, but get over it so once her suspension was up she could be back on the team and back to normal.”
The new normal for Meister is a starting position at libero, which she seems to have nailed down after posting three 20-dig efforts in her last six matches. In six less sets, she is only 10 digs shy of the team lead, trailing Hayes.
Wayne Kreklow says Meister is the most consistent passer on the team.
Molly Kreklow says opponents have started to serve away from her because she is MU’s best serve-receive option.
Meister says she has her confidence back.
“From where I started to where I am now, it’s been a big journey,” she said. “But the cool thing is that I feel like I’m in such a great place in my life and I feel like I know myself better than I have for the past 18 years. It’s those bumps and those things that can get in the way and hinder things in your life, but it’s about how you choose to overcome it and how you choose to move forward.”