Going into No.18 Missouri’s biggest match of the season against Southeastern Conference rival No. 2 Florida at Hearnes Center, coach Wayne Kreklow’s players were excited, but a different kind of excited.
“I felt like they were really ready to go, but not to the point where I felt like we’re just bouncing all over the place,” he said. “(It was) more of a controlled, ‘We’re really pumped and ready to go.’”
Control was evident during the first point of the game when both teams entered a loaded arena — 4,202 fans was the fourth-largest attendance in Hearnes’ volleyball history — and entered a multi-shot rally that would be symbolic for the entire match. Freshman Emily Thater and junior Emily Wilson combined for a block that set up Missouri as the Tigers controlled entire front row.
“I thought our kids did a really good job of getting quickly to the point of attack,” Kreklow said. “If you don’t challenge a team like that at the net, you’ve got no chance.”
Control was there on the back row, too, and the serving, and especially when Florida marched back in furious runs at the end of each set, flexing its top-ranked muscles.
“I think we knew what we wanted to do, we knew that we could do it and we executed really well tonight,” said senior setter Molly Kreklow, who finished the match with a game-high 45 assists. “We wanted to be confident, and we wanted to be aggressive, and that’s what we did.”
The Tigers (23-0, 7-0) remained in control the entire match, mimicking their football family in a monumental upset over the Gators (18-2, 7-1) in a stunning four-set showdown (25-23, 25-23, 23-25, 25-18), the first time the Tigers have ever beaten a top-5 team.
“It was amazing,” said freshman hitter Carly Kan. “I’m just glad that we came out to compete, and we performed.”
Throughout the afternoon, Missouri proved that it was ready to compete with its sheer willpower, something that showed in fierce rallies between the two best-hitting teams in the nation.
“I thought our defense was really, really strong,” said Molly Kreklow, who also had 11 digs in her eighth double-double this season. “We make a lot of scramble plays, and that helps us out in the long run. It really boosts our momentum.”
Missouri’s control prevailed on the front line, as the Tigers out-blocked the Gators, 9.5 to 2. The Black and Gold benefited from contributions from nearly every player they had on the court, including Wilson (14 kills), Thater (5 kills, 3 solo blocks, 2 block assists), Meister (15 digs), and junior blocker Whitney Little (8 kills, 3 block assists).
“That’s what it was going to take because we were playing a really great team, one of the best teams in the country,” coach Kreklow said. “We were going to have to have everybody today playing at a very high level for a long time.”
Serving-wise, Missouri has been emphasizing aggressiveness in the past few SEC matches. Service errors were high and aces were steady, but on Sunday, the Tigers found a likeable mix.
“Both teams were serving pretty aggressively and pretty well,” said coach Kreklow, whose team had nine aces and six errors. “We did a pretty good job today of not ending our own runs with a missed serve.”
Despite all of that performance, perhaps Kan made the biggest difference in the match.
She tallied her second double-double of the season, finishing with 13 kills and 12 digs. She struggled in the early parts of the first set, but she stormed back to complete one of the best performances of her young career.
“She starts a little bit shaky at times and she’s got a remarkable knack for settling in,” coach Kreklow said. “I think her emotional approach to the game is really good — she just plays.”
After the match, Missouri’s lively spirits continued to reign free.
Amidst a pack of postgame reporters interviewing Kan, coach Kreklow served up a high-five to the freshman. So what’s next for this undefeated team that’s accomplished seemingly everything they’ve needed to?
“Celebrate,” coach Kreklow said with a grin.