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Thursday, July 31, 2014

A casual step into the dance

If the Missouri soccer team was antsy inside the cafe when its postseason fate was being decided, it didn't show.

Nov. 6, 2012

It’s 15 seconds until 3:30 p.m. Monday at Coley’s American Bistro in downtown Columbia, and Missouri soccer coach Bryan Blitz is staring at his phone.

In a quarter of a minute’s time, the NCAA Tournament selection show will start streaming live onto a projector screen in the cafe dining room to announce Missouri’s preseason fate. 

Blitz doesn’t look like a man about to witness the fate of his team. He just looks focused.

“I was looking at how everything was setting up,” he said. “As soon as it is announced, (the players) deserve to celebrate, but us as a coaching staff, as soon as we know, it’s a mad scramble to get tape and scout and find out who, when, where.”

If the rest of the Tigers are jet-lagged from their flight home from the 2012 Southeastern Conference Women's Soccer Tournament in Orange Beach, Ala.; if they’re deflated after their second-round loss to Florida in Friday night’s ugly 3-0 shellacking that could have been a season-ending defeat and that featured cards of all colors; if they’re dejected thanks to the nature of their season, which looked a lot different a month ago when they were 12-2 than it does now after a 2-5 finish; if they’re worried about being left out of the tournament for a third straight year, they don’t show it — not above the table, anyway. 

Above the table, they are laughing and giggling and scarfing down chicken wings, sporting smiles like it’s Aug. 17 again, the day the Tigers took down then-No. 11 Memphis by a dominating 5-1 score on opening day, or Aug. 26, when they rallied for three second-half goals to beat then-No. 15 California in Berkeley, Calif. 

But below the table there are jitters.

“I was holding hands with Kelsey Mulcahy, who was also holding hands with Allison Hu,” senior midfielder Jessica Greer said. “I had butterflies like we were about to have a game. It was that kind of waiting game.”

Greer and the gang had to wait for eight minutes after 3:30 p.m. before the news broke. In that time, 19 other teams were called. Then, after names like North Carolina, Radford, and penultimately Illinois, the word “Missouri” splashed onto the screen, and the room erupted in applause.

“It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders," Greer said. "I almost teared up a little bit. It was kind of like, ‘Ah, finally.' Finally we’re in. It’s been a long time since Mizzou’s name has been up there.”

It’s been four years exactly since the Tigers made the tournament. That year, 2008, Missouri beat Evansville in the first round before falling in penalty kicks to Illinois, its opponent once again this time around. 

“We know them well, they know us well,” Blitz said. “It’ll be a heck of a game.”

Blitz was on the sideline that night, like he has been on most nights during his 17-year tenure at Missouri. That night he coached his Tigers to a 1-1 draw and watched as they came up one goal short in the shootout. 

He won’t be on the sideline this Saturday night, though, when the Illini come to town. Instead associate coach Todd Shulenberger will be filling in for Blitz, who will serve a one-game suspension for the red card he received last weekend against Florida.

“I felt like I had to protect my players,” said Blitz, who was ejected for arguing a no-call he thought should have been a foul. “We had a disagreement with the referee, and I’m fine with that.”

When asked if he regretted what happened, Blitz first said the system he and his coaches have in place will make for a smooth transition in his absence. Then he expressed some personal sentiment. 

“I want to be here for my seniors, coaching their first (tournament) game,” he said. “I’ll be here next year — they won’t."

It seemed to be those seniors cheering the loudest at 3:38 p.m. Monday at Coley’s, especially Greer and Mulcahy and Haley Krentz, the only players remaining from the freshman class that helped win the Big 12 then got left out of the NCAA tournament in 2009.

They sharply contrasted Blitz, who amid the screams and shouts picked his head up only to whisper something in the ear of Shulenberger.

Strategy, possibly? Impossible to say. Whatever it was, it was brief. Then he went back to his phone. 

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