Team of the Year: New rotation and team chemistry were crucial to Mizzou volleyball 2016 success

After making an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2010, the Tigers achieved one of the program's most successful seasons.

Maneater File Photo

The Missouri volleyball team swarmed the court to embrace each other, sharing laughter, smiles and tears just seconds after defeating Purdue to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.

Three years after falling to Purdue in the second round of the 2013 tournament, the Tigers achieved a victory that was a testament to their climb back to prominence and development as a team over the past few seasons.

Together, the 2016-2017 team eclipsed what others had accomplished in recent years. The Tigers conquered the regular season and won nine consecutive matches against Southeastern Conference opponents before capturing an SEC title. In the NCAA Tournament, the team made its way to the Sweet Sixteen before having its season ended by No. 2 Minnesota.

“I’m really proud of these guys; they have worked so hard for so long,” head coach Wayne Kreklow said after the loss. “It’s really nice to see everyone get where they want to go; we have wanted to get here for a long time.”

The team's triumph relied heavily on its new additions, timely rotation adjustments and an unbreakable bond. Syncing the components together, the Tigers emerged as one of the toughest teams in the SEC.

New Talent

Packed with an extensive amount of power, all it takes is one glance at redshirt junior Melanie Crow’s monstrous swing to know the damage she is capable of doing. On offense, Crow, a transfer from Ole Miss, played the role of the go-to hitter, a reliable option for the setter with the ability to get a dominant hit from anywhere on the court.

“Melanie was the biggest addition to the team this year,” Kreklow said. “She was the missing piece to our team and made a huge difference for us in the front row.”

The 6-foot-1-inch outside hitter not only dominated at the net for the Tigers, but had a killer jump serve that proved tough for opponents to handle.

During her first year as a Tiger, Crow earned SEC offensive player of the week three times. She paced Mizzou in single-match kills for a team high of 22 and ranked No. 11 in the country with .276 hitting. Additionally, she contributed a total of 48 aces and was named a third team AVCA All-American outside hitter.

“I never imagined that I would be here and be this successful,” Crow said in a press conference after the Purdue match. “Coach Kreklow changed my life.”

Though her time at Mizzou may be coming to an end after next season, Crow is expected to continue leading the team for now.

Rotation change

In previous seasons, the team ran a 6-2 offense, utilizing a setter from the back row to create the option of having three hitters attack at the net. While the team opened with the 6-2 rotation in the first few preseason matches, the coaching staff quickly made the adjustment to a new rotation, a 5-1. Running a 5-1 offense means there is only one athlete on the court playing the setter position. The new offense had junior setter Courtney Eckenrode playing all over, setting from both the front and back rows.

“With the 5-1, you have more substitutions, more opportunities to put in defensive players; that helped us out a lot,” Kreklow said. “Having one setter, it is easier to get into a flow.”

This particular rotation was an advantage for the Tigers, as they had immense talent in all positions. Having Eckenrode set from the front row allowed for more defensive players to command the court, giving more controlled passes to carry out plays. From an offensive perspective, this rotation presented the convenience of having heavy-duty hitters like Crow and Carly Kan to attack unexpectedly from the back row.

With Eckenrode returning for her senior season, along with rising freshmen defensive stars Riley Sents and Andie Hanus, it would only make sense for the Tigers to stick with the successful offense next season.

Chemistry

The team’s 2016 success would indicate they worked well together on the court this season. However, what takes place behind the scenes makes this program differ the most.

Since training begins in August, and the season runs through early December, the athletes and coaches are guaranteed to spend plenty of time together. Luckily, none of the players seem to mind.

“The athletic department has such great chemistry and is a family atmosphere,” Hanus said.

Sentiments like these seem to be a reoccurring theme, and the feeling of family is easily recognized by not only the players, but the coaches, too.

“I feel the interpersonal relationships, they are important and something we work on,” Kreklow said. “Knowing your teammates is what gets you through tough times and the trust, respect and love for each other is what lays the groundwork.”

Having this type of bond is a strong advantage for Mizzou. During matches, the players continuously have a sense of trust and can easily motivate each other. A second advantage is how well the family perception can attract recruits, making potential players feel welcomed and wanted.

“Mizzou felt like a family,” Sents said. “I come from a small town, and the athletic department just felt like home.”

Not only does Mizzou have several core players returning, but three highly talented athletes will join the team next season, too. Mizzou opened up its recruitment with outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh from St. Louis and wrapped up the new class by signing right-side attacker Dariana Hollingsworth-Santana and setter Andrea Fuentes, both from Puerto Rico.

Looking back on 2016, the volleyball program has a lot to be proud of and more to strive for going forward.

“Going into a new season, we always expect to do well and go deep into the NCAA Tournament, even though we know there are a lot of things we can't control,” Kreklow said. “We approach every season the same way: We work hard to be successful.”

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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