Missouri’s Southeastern Conference opener against South Carolina on Friday looked like it would be a disappointing one, a haunting cry of the ghosts of season past.
When the Tigers fell behind the Gamecocks at the start of the first set, they were handicapped by a heath of service and hitting errors and shady offense that left the them straggling for points under the pressure of a conference opener.
Then everything went right.
The Tigers rallied to win 11 of the final 13 points of the first set behind rapid-fire rotations and pinpointed swings. The offense again fizzled in the second set. The Gamecocks led 10-7, and the Tigers did it again, winning two, three, four points in a row in an aggressive streak that capped the second set with an 18-4 run.
“I think that we started feeling a little bit more confident in ourselves,” said senior hitter Lisa Henning. “We got into a better pass, a better set, a better swing or being a little bit smarter.”
The match was tight in the third set, but Missouri’s offense prevailed, allowing the Tigers to win in straight sets (25-16, 25-14, 25-18). Missouri’s victory was its 16th of the year, and the loss put South Carolina near the bottom of the SEC standings with a record of 8-5. The victory increased the Tigers’ stretch to 10 matches without dropping a set.
“Eventually, we’ll get deep, but I think somebody’s going to have to play pretty well to do it,” coach Wayne Kreklow said.
Missouri’s offense was pumped by its slew of ready-to-go bench players (four finished with more than 5 kills), something that made this year’s match against South Carolina a blowout rather than last year’s nail biter.
“It’s an accumulation of passing and ball handling,” Kreklow said. “You’ve got a great setter…, and you’ve got a lot of different hitters. When you’ve got multiple hitters out there that can terminate play, inevitably you can find holes.”
Although Missouri tallied 13 block assists in the match, a new season-high, it struggled with blocking. South Carolina’s Juliette Thevenin, a 6-foot-2-inch Belgian who entered the game leading the SEC in kills per set (4.98), challenged the Tigers with to 10 kills.
“For a lot of the night, we were really baffled,” Kreklow said. “Sometimes it’s just hard to try to dial in and figure out how you block a particular hitter.”
The usual players highlighted the match’s box score, as freshman Carly Kan (13 kills) and Henning (14 kills) led all players with kills.
“I really just tried to stay focused, go out there and be a smart hitter,” said Henning, whose .722 hitting percentage was a career high.
The match represented a new era in the Tigers’ SEC timeline. As Missouri did last year, it stunned its opponent in its first conference match, but this year it has more weapons and more versatility.
Missouri shut down a competent South Carolina team in front of 2,904 fans, a pleasant hello to family weekend and the team’s season-long motto: Something to Prove.
“It’s exciting to know that Columbia supports us,” said junior blocker Whitney Little, who finished with two blocks and seven block assists. “There are so many things going on right now…, but it’s nice to see the fans, the families, the friends that support us.”
But now that Missouri has a conference match completed, it will have to prove that it can play cleaner, more dominant volleyball when it battles Arkansas on national television Wednesday.
“Even though we beat South Carolina and have done great things, we haven’t proven anything yet,” Little said. “We’re really excited to start SEC and show people what our team is about.”
After her round of interviews, Little flashed a smile and jogged back into the empty, quiet dome. A testament to what’s ahead, she slapped a sign on her way out that read “STP.”