The Maneater

MU volleyball’s success derives from its failures

An important conference win over South Carolina showed that the Tigers are quick to learn from their mistakes, both mentally and technically.

Missouri’s Alyssa Munlyn celebrates a successful save during the third set of a match against Drake on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Munlyn, originally from Suwanee, GA, was SEC Freshman of the Year in 2015.

The 2018 Missouri volleyball team is a case study in success by trial and error, still agonizing for how far its talent potential could take it, still marveling at what it has accomplished so far from its ever-growing experience.

But as Oscar Wilde famously put it, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

So when pre-match practice Friday was a “sloppy,” mistake-filled affair, Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow could only hope his Tigers would learn from their mistakes that night against an SEC-unbeaten South Carolina team.

“I kind of left here [after practice] going, ‘Oh god, can I get an Ibuprofen?’” Kreklow said. “I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.”

That was the mantra before the season too. Much like Friday night did, it has exceeded expectations.

Mistakes were few and far between Friday night at Mizzou Arena – no, not Hearnes Center – and when they did occur, they quickly corrected themselves in Missouri’s three-set sweep of South Carolina (13-2, 4-1 SEC).

“I was really pleased with the consistency from start to finish,” Kreklow said of the win. “The problems that we’ve had in some of the previous matches is we do that in spurts and then we fall into a missed serve, another missed serve, a net, a ball out of bounds, and you kind of let them off the hook.”

That was the case last weekend when Missouri (13-4, 3-2 SEC) lost two straight games on the road, but it wasn’t the case Friday. That learn-as-we-go notion has been a microcosm of the Tigers’ 2018 season. Kreklow stressed it in August when uncertainty reigned on a roster defined by seven new faces, and his team has thrived on it while having to adapt to itself through the first 17 games.

“Most of us are sophomores, so we’re gonna have some mistakes,” sophomore transfer Kylie Deberg said. “But if we see mistakes, the next day we’re gonna work on those mistakes.”

Missouri’s latest mistake was letting a first-set win slip away at ranked Kentucky last Sunday, victimizing itself with missed opportunities on its way to a 29-27 fourth-set loss and 3-1 match defeat.

Missouri’s latest trick was not letting the same thing happen against South Carolina.

Instead, after Missouri prevailed 25-22 in a closely contested opening stanza, it gained traction throughout a dominant middle game that ended 25-11.

Lesson learned, Kreklow said: “You’ve gotta follow up in the second one.”

The Tigers did that by means of some technical adjustments, which isn’t unusual for a Kreklow team. Especially this one. He said that after rotating two setters against Kentucky didn’t work, he changed the formation entirely from a 6-2 to a 5-1. That meant redshirt freshman Andrea Fuentes would play the entire rotation as the team’s lone setter.

“Dre was getting into a nice rhythm there, so we stuck with that,” Kreklow said. “She had a good feel for running the tempo and the offense.”

He also brought Deberg and sophomore Leketor Member-Meneh through the back row in another rotational switch to throw off South Carolina, saying afterward he “thought we were getting predictable.”

That assessment may be paranoia more than anything, but it goes to show just how observant the Tigers have been of every mistake this season, every negative trend that might warrant fixing.

Another one to be wary of: South Carolina had rallied from a 2-0 hole to beat Georgia in its last match, a fact that was on Kreklow’s mind as the closing set went to extra points. Kentucky had clinched five days ago in a similar set, 29-27. This time it was 30-28, and this time, the Tigers were on the upside.

Kreklow said that against Kentucky, the Tigers were too intent looking for one dynamic play down the stretch to catapult them. Lesson learned.

“It’s often not just a single knockout blow,” Kreklow said, “but it’s just the slow and steady squeezing that eventually [wins games].”

And again, there’s no escaping the sense that those words are reflective of Missouri’s season so far. The team never had one epiphanic coming of age, but has developed steadily to stockpile wins against Alabama, ranked No. 25 at the time, and a South Carolina team that received 11 top-25 votes in the latest coaches poll.

After the harrowing two-loss weekend, the latter win was a clear product of Missouri’s experience. All that’s left for its next trick is figuring out how to learn from the wins, too.

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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