Deberg has been the surprise star of Missouri the volleyball season, over Member-Meneh and Hollingsworth

The transfer from Illinois has been the Tigers’ go-to attacking weapon, but what happened to last year’s breakout freshmen?
Missouri outside hitter Kylie Deberg has risen up the depth chart in his first season in Columbia after spending last season on the Illinois bench.

It seemed obvious.

Outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh, coming off a freshman season with 197 kills despite only appearing in 59 percent of Missouri volleyball sets in 2017, was supposed to be the headline of the Tigers’ 2018 season.

The 5-foot-8 sophomore, who seems to double her height when she jumps, along with her Puerto Rican counterpart on the opposite side–returning starter Dariana Hollingsworth, who had 236 kills in her freshman season last year–were relative veterans for Missouri, which added seven new faces to the 2018 roster. The hitting duo looked primed to be the explosive offensive weapons that the rest of the team would look to when the chips were down.

But instead, one of those new faces has emerged as the star.

Sophomore Kylie Deberg, after spending most of 2017 on the bench for Illinois, now leads Missouri in kills, hitting attempts and even serving aces in 2018.

“She is a big physical player at the net; she causes mismatches for the other teams with her size,” coach Wayne Kreklow said. “She’s been a big help for us so far and we will need her to continue to do that for sure.”

Not that the 6-foot-4-inch transfer herself is surprised with her rapid rise.

“When I talked to Wayne, he said I would be one of the major parts [this season] so I kind of knew that coming in,” Deberg said in a phone interview.

The graduations of seniors Melanie Crow and Sydney Deeken last year left two holes in the lineup at the outside hitting position. Member-Meneh was locked in to fill one spot, but throughout the preseason, it was unclear who would take the other. It was a three-way fight between Deberg, senior Paige Perego and junior Sun Wenting, who had played in a combined total of 88 Division I collegiate sets.

By last month’s Black & Gold Scrimmage, however, Deberg had emerged as the clear favorite for final starting spot.

“I was pleasantly surprised the last two weeks in practice with [Kylie],” Kreklow said after the Hudson, Iowa native finished the exhibition match with a match-high 16 kills. “Players her size usually aren’t as fluid and don’t have that sense that she does. She’s very well skilled for her size and moves surprisingly well. She’s just got a good feel for the game.”

But the Black & Gold performance was just a taste of what was to come. Deberg, who has already surpassed her total of 23 sets played in 2017, has led the Tigers in kills in five out of nine matches this season, culminating in a total of 147 kills thus far for the transfer (well ahead the duo of Member-Meneh and Hollingsworth, who total 133 and 86 kills, respectively).

But strictly looking at the kills statistics can be misleading in terms of figuring out how important a player is to a team, as there is a certain luck involved in the fact that one’s team cannot control how the opposition defends its attacks from play to play.

What the team can control, however, is the way in which it attacks each play, which is why Deberg’s domination of the Tigers’ hitting attempts is even more significant than her lead in kills. She has led Missouri in attempts in seven matches this season, including six of the past seven matches; she was second in the remaining three.

Deberg’s 395 attempts account for 27 percent of her entire team’s efforts. This means that setters Andrea Fuentes and Jaden Newsome chose to set the former First-Team All-State player out of Iowa almost once every three sets, a huge portion for a team that regularly plays six different hitters. For comparison, in 2017, Kira Larson led the Tigers with 18 percent of their total attempts.

This is a huge display of trust and chemistry between the setters and Deberg, and on the flip side it seems curious that Member-Meneh and Hollingsworth have yet to reach the levels expected from them this season. But taken in wider context, it makes a little more sense.

Fuentes and Newsome are both new to this Missouri team. They each redshirted their freshman seasons—Fuentes at Missouri and Newsome at Colorado—so they do not have the same established connection with Member-Meneh and Hollingsworth as last year’s setters did. The entire team is forging connections with each other at the same rate, and Deberg’s connections have blossomed the fastest.

“Both setters do a really good job of just keeping the ball really consistent no matter where they are from the net,” Deberg said. “During the summer we really worked on it a lot and it was really easy to connect with both of them.”

Sometimes the inexperience does show. Her 62 errors–Deberg has the second-highest error percentage on the team–is a testament to the fact that the sophomore is still growing into Missouri’s system.

“She’s learning how to transition a little bit stronger and getting in a physical condition where she can last in long matches mentally more than physically,” Kreklow said.

But Deberg knows that and is always striving to better herself. She is focused on improving “literally everything” about her game, and her potential is just as high as that of her fellow Tiger hitters.

Whether or not Member-Meneh and Hollingsworth gradually become a bigger part of the offense in the future is yet to be seen. For now, Deberg is putting on a show that is just as successful as it is surprising.

Edited by Bennett Durando︱bdurando@themaneater.com

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