When a dream dies, it doesn’t go softly.
Saturday night, Missouri volleyball’s dream died.
The Tigers’ undefeated season, a storybook penned by senior leaders Molly Kreklow and Lisa Henning, wrestled with a white-hot, battle-tested Purdue team (22-11) at Hearnes Center. It took the Boilermakers four painful, sweat-drenched sets of overpowering volleyball (18-25, 25-23, 16-25, 25-27), but Missouri (35-1) clinged for life.
“When a team’s beat, you can see it,” Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow said after the match. “I never saw that.”
Purdue’s nearly flawless 6-2 scheme tired and baffled Missouri, amounting to a 22-19 Boilermaker lead in the fourth set. Missouri received a serve, and Henning combined with freshman blocker Julia Towler to stuff a kill, pulling the Tigers within two points of a tie. Junior hitter Emily Wilson attacked to make it 22-21, and she did it again after Towler blocked another kill. It was 23-22, and Towler spiked a ball to bring her team within one point of a holy fifth set.
Purdue tied the set at 24 after a drawn-out kill and an ace, with Missouri junior libero Sarah Meister (11 digs) falling to the ground as her dig careened out of bounds. The Missouri squad, stern during the final points, lost its grip on the dream after the match moved to 25-all. A pair Wilson attacks tumbled when they reached the hands of the taller, more aggressive Purdue blockers.
“I think up until the last point we thought were going to win,” Molly Kreklow said.
Purdue stunned Missouri as soon as the match started. It paired a two-setter scheme, something the Tigers hadn’t seen much of all season, with its gritty, fast-paced offense.
The Boilermakers hit .471 in the first set under the guidance of junior hitter Val Nichol (13 kills, 24 assists, 10 digs). The Tigers had held opponents to .176 hitting this season.
“I think we have a really good team of people who put together good game plans for us,” Nichol said. “I think we executed that, and it made us successful.”
Freshman Carly Kan, Missouri’s 5-foot-9 hitter opponents had targeted all season, led Missouri in its back-and-forth second set victory. She finished the night leading all players with 18 kills.
The Boilermakers, who had 12 blocks in the match, stifled her and the rest of Missouri’s offense in an overpowering third set, one in which Purdue out-hit Missouri .571 to .083. Molly Kreklow’s signature dumps at the net were stuffed. All of Henning’s spears were tipped.
“They were playing really well tonight, and it’s frustrating for us as attackers when … every time you swing they’re getting a touch,” Henning said. “They were kind of relentless in that way.”
All season coach Kreklow has preached to his team that victories and losses aren’t the most important after each match. He said he cherished improvement and effort. In the locker room after his team trudged off the court, he repeated his wisdom.
“I think at the end of the day you want to make sure that when that happens, whether you’re in sport, whether you’re someplace else, is that when you’re finished, when it’s over, you can walk out feeling like ‘I competed,’” he said.
Henning and Molly Kreklow, the team’s only seniors, bred a new culture after last season’s disappointing debut in the Southeastern Conference. They taught players to set lofty goals, that sometimes aspirations of winning a conference championship can come true, that maybe you can stretch closer to your biggest dreams than you ever thought.
“I think we’d definitely like to feel that we left our mark here and, you know, we’ll find out,” said Molly Kreklow.