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Saturday, October 25, 2014

‘Little spark plugs’ charge undefeated Tigers

A pair of freshmen — the shortest players on the team — are Missouri’s secret to success.

Sept. 27, 2013

When Missouri commanded Towson 20-11 in the third set Friday night, coach Wayne Kreklow called in the subs.

Freshman Courtney Meek, a 5-5 blonde-haired defensive specialist, jogged onto the court. She high-fived 5-5 Linda Steinhardt, a teammate sporting a bush of curly, black hair while standing near the back row.

Meek dribbled the ball and served it at Towson’s back line, who lobbed it up and slammed it back at Missouri’s defense. The ball ricocheted off of a player’s arms back into the black serving area near a row of seats. Steinhardt raced after the ball, popping it back up to Meek, who pushed it over to continue the rally.

“Those are the two little spark plugs,” Kreklow said after the match. “Whatever you call them, spark plugs, Energizer Bunnies, those are the two who do that everyday in practice.”

The Tigers went on to sweep Towson and win the Mizzou Classic, improving their record to 15-0, their best start in 32 years. Behind the Tigers’ monumental turnaround from last year’s disappointing season is something less evident during matches and more apparent during the week’s practices, when the stands are empty, and it’s just Missouri vs. Missouri.

“They base their practices off of working hard and being where they’re supposed to (be),” said senior hitter Lisa Henning. “It’s always really competitive.”

Meek and Steinhardt, coincidentally roommates, comprise one of the strongest inter-squad teams Missouri’s ever had. They join a pair of male assistants and the program’s best player in history, assistant coach Lindsey Hunter, to push the starting team beyond its limits.

“There’s no easy time, and it’s really frustrating for me, as a hitter, with both of them back there getting stuff up,” Henning said. “It not only makes them better, but it makes me better as a player, having to continue to hit and continue to change my game in order to get a point.”

Kreklow emphasized the tandem’s intensity in addition to its playing ability. He said that once Steinhardt and Meek get going, the rest of the team does.

“(They’re) really contagious because they’re flying around keeping balls off the floor, and pretty soon other people start doing it, and everybody jumps on board, Kreklow said. ”Those are the kind of people that you want on your team.”

Steinhardt and Meek don’t view their height as a disadvantage against opponents. Although all but two players in the Southeastern Conference can look down at them, the fiery duo does what it does best: defense.

“I find people looking at me, saying, ‘Oh, what is that short girl doing over there?’” said Meek. “I don’t let it get to me because I know, ‘Hey, I’m closer to the ground, I can dig those balls.’”

Both players led their volleyball teams to state appearances in high school. Now that they’re working into the NCAA sphere as freshmen splitting time on the bench and on the court, they’re acclimating to new their roles on a rising SEC team.

“I like both roles, honestly,” Steinhardt said. “We’re obviously doing really well, so that’s all I can ask for. I’m glad to be a part of it.”

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