Column: Missouri volleyball can still salvage let-down season

The Tigers and Florida Gators, defending SEC co-champions, will meet on Nov. 25 to close out regular-season play.
Coach Wayne Kreklow holds the SEC Championship trophy after Missouri beat Tennessee on Nov. 26 2016 Maneater File Photo

12 months ago, Missouri volleyball was sitting in second place of the Southeastern Conference, boasting a 12-2 SEC record and preparing to face off against the 21-time SEC champions, the Florida Gators. The match was one the Tigers would go on to win, leading to an SEC championship and one of the most successful seasons in program history.

Mizzou only graduated four players coming into the 2017 season and returned multiple starters for their senior years. Add this to an incoming freshman group that included two Puerto Rican national team captains and the 2016 Missouri High School Volleyball Coaches Association player of the year, and expectations were high for the Tigers, who were ranked No. 19 in the AVCA Coaches Preseason Poll.

However, the 2017 season has not panned out as well for Mizzou as fans may have hoped. SEC losses to Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida have left the defending co-champions on the outside looking in as Florida and Kentucky battle it out for SEC supremacy. As a result, this season has turned out to be somewhat of a transitional season, but one that can still have a successful ending as the season comes to a close.

Injuries to multiple players early in the season robbed the team of a consistent lineup, disrupting the flow of play and forcing freshmen into roles they might not have been ready for at the time.

“We have been really unlucky with injuries this year,” head coach Wayne Kreklow said. “We have players like Melanie Crow who has had to sit out a couple of weeks because she was injured.”

Crow, a redshirt senior with four years of collegiate experience, was primed to be one of Mizzou’s most reliable offensive weapons. But this season’s injury bug bit her hard and she has been forced to play a more supportive role in the attack as opposed to being the focus of it.

The silver lining from the injuries is that now more players would be getting playing time and experience. This has evolved into the team’s biggest positive takeaway from the season: its depth on offense.

Mizzou has seven individual players with at least 120 kills this season. No other team in the SEC has even six such players. With so many attacking options, the Tigers have been able to adapt to any injuries or off nights that came their way by simply shifting the focus off of one player and onto another.

This depth also helped to take the pressure off of freshmen Leketor Member-Meneh and Dariana Hollingsworth, who were both introduced to the starting lineup almost immediately at the start of the season. Each player shoulders the burden of high expectations to improve quickly, and that burden only got heavier when Crow’s injuries started to pile up.

However, Mizzou’s plethora of offensive weapons allowed veterans like redshirt senior Kira Larson, senior Sydney Deeken and junior Alyssa Munlyn to ease the pressure on the freshmen, who in turn have been able to surpass their preseason expectations in absence of that pressure.

The other major storyline of the year for the Tigers has been their excellent blocking. Mizzou’s 302.5 total blocks and 2.91 blocks per set rank first and second in the SEC, respectively (ninth and 13th nationally). Middle blockers Munlyn and redshirt freshman Kayla Caffey have a combined total of 251 blocks and 2.41 blocks per set. Munlyn individually ranks first in the SEC in total blocks and second in blocks per set (seventh and 13th nationally), and the junior reset Mizzou’s record for most total blocks in a single season with four regular season matches yet to play.

So Missouri volleyball (17-10) may not have fulfilled its high preseason expectations, and it almost certainly will not repeat as SEC champions, but there is still a lot to be played for, including a possible NCAA tournament berth and another big matchup against Florida, this time on senior night.

The No. 3-ranked Gators avenged last year’s loss against the Tigers on Sunday, Nov. 12 in a tight 3-1 home victory, but they will have to face Mizzou once again on Nov. 25, this time in Hearnes Center.

While this game will not be the de facto SEC championship game as it was last year, it is still the most important game on the schedule for the Tigers. A win could give this season new meaning in terms of success, and would exponentially raise the team’s momentum and confidence, especially that of its younger members. A loss means that Mizzou would go 0-6 against AVCA Coaches ranked teams and could end the hopes of being selected to the NCAA tournament.

“With big games against big opponents, you don’t have to worry about your players being mentally ready,” Kreklow said. “The players know who they are facing and they are able to raise their playing level to the occasion.”

Mizzou still has to play matches against Mississippi State, Arkansas and Alabama before its conference finale in a little over a week, and each of those games are must-wins in order to limit the damage done by four SEC loses thus far, but the Tigers should be able to win all three with relatively low difficulty — they already beat Mississippi State and Alabama a combined six sets to none in October.

Fans and players alike will be anticipating the big matchup between the defending co-SEC champions on Nov. 25.

Edited by Joe Noser |

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