After a midday romp over North Florida in which the Missouri volleyball team swept the Ospreys in three sets, the Tigers met their first test of the season Friday night against Virginia Tech at the Tiger Invitational.
The Hokies pushed the hosts to four sets in the tournament’s day one nightcap in front of nearly 2,000 supporters in a loud Hearnes Center. But Missouri came away victorious, emerging from the intermission between sets two and three and dominating the match’s remainder.
“It’s one of those (games) that at the end of the year, I think we’re going to look back at this and say, ‘That was a big win for us,’” coach Wayne Kreklow said.
The combination of the Tigers’ experienced offense and up-and-coming defense proved too much for the Hokies, who won their opening match against Nicholls State earlier in the day.
Trailing in the first set, junior hitter Lisa Henning stepped to the service line and put the wind in Missouri’s sails, delivering three solid serves, one of which was an ace. She gave her team a lead it would not relinquish, going on to take the set 25-22. Henning finished the game with 15 kills and two aces.
Freshman hitter Whitney Little provided the Tigers’ most explosive firepower. She finished the match with a career-high 23 kills on a team-best .571 hitting percentage.
“(Sophomore setter) Molly (Kreklow) and Lisa had to act like upperclassmen last year because we only had two seniors, and I think that was really good for them,” freshman blocker Whitney Little said. “Yeah, we had a season last year, but we’re still considered a young team. And I think Molly and Lisa have the confidence in all of us and themselves to show everyone that if something is happening, if we’re getting down or something, they’re right there to pick us right back up.”
Following a sluggish first set win and second set loss, Missouri took control after the second set break. Molly Kreklow notched an additional 13 assists in the third period. Henning added five kills of her own, and freshman blocker Lydia Ely, standing 6 feet 6 inches tall, made an instant impact with three kills off the bench. Sophomore libero Jade Hayes had six digs in the frame.
Aside from scoring the first point in the third and fourth sets, Virginia Tech never had another share of the lead.
“That’s why having good depth is really important,” Wayne Kreklow said.
Wayne Kreklow said he was pleased his system was humming in near mid-season form.
His touted transfer, sophomore hitter Taylor Simpson, finished the day with 13 kills and 12 digs. Wayne Kreklow said he expects Simpson to improve throughout the season.
“It’s going to take (Simpson) a little bit of time to feel comfortable,” he said. “(She’s) adjusting to a new system, and everybody does things a little bit different. I think she’s feeling a little bit more at home, and what I expect from her is she’ll get better and better and better as we go.”
Hayes and fellow sophomore defensive specialist Niki Collier anchored the Tiger back line in the absence of sophomore specialist Sarah Meister. Meister’s suspension following a driving while intoxicated arrest Aug. 18 was lifted before the match. She saw limited time in the first set.
Meanwhile, Hayes was impressive in the libero role, taking the place of graduated Priscilla Armendariz. Hayes finished with a match-high 17 digs and six assists, second best on the team.
“The coaches have been really working with and trying to get me in the right spots,” Hayes said. “I think (assistant coach) Deng Yang said it best. She was just like, ‘Your athleticism is a blessing, but you have to harness it a little bit.’ She always says, ‘Calm brain,’ and just the coaches’ positive energy toward it all is very helpful.”
The Tigers will face Nicholls State today at 12:30 p.m. at the Hearnes Center before meeting No. 23 Michigan at 7 p.m.