The Maneater

Practices underway, Missouri volleyball makes most of limited time searching for identity

“At this point you’re almost just throwing stuff up against the wall and seeing what sticks,” coach Wayne Kreklow told local media this week as the Tigers try to adapt to a brand new roster.

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Before practice on Monday, Missouri volleyball coach Wayne Kreklow addressed the elephant in the room.

“You can already sense the anxiety,” he recalled while speaking with local media the next day. “Looking around, who’s next to who, who’s doing well, who’s doing well on that side, on this side … people are getting nervous because we’re keeping stats when we’re doing passing and serving and things like that. And you can’t make that stuff go away. That’s part of the game.”

Kreklow knows the unfortunate truth is that the stats being kept at these preseason workouts are especially vital. They’ll play a factor in evaluating Missouri’s options and, ultimately, determining the starting lineup and rotations come opening night on Aug. 24.

“We just have to make sure that they feel comfortable enough to make mistakes and know it’s not gonna be the end of the world,” Kreklow said. “We just don’t want to repeat the same mistake multiple times.”

The problem the 19th-year helmsman is faced with is urgency. Missouri’s 14-person roster features six incoming transfers and is in need of complete turnover at the outside hitter and setter positions. With nearly half of the roster brand new, the Tigers will have a vastly different look from last season’s Sweet 16 team.

And unlike in college basketball, as Kreklow pointed out, the volleyball coaching staff wasn’t able to work with players this summer until official practices started on Aug. 8, last Wednesday. That gives the Tigers little more than two weeks to sort out their new cast before the season starts.

“That’s one of our big challenges as a staff, so what we’re doing now is a little different than years past,” Kreklow said. “We’ve had to get into our team system part of practice much sooner, so we’ve actually been going scrimmage, 6-on-6, for almost the second day. We’ve got to have enough time that we can put different combinations out there and give everybody a fair shot at playing with the right people.

“We’re gonna have to make some decisions, and we don’t have a lot of time to do that.”

The most pressing decision is what that team system will be. Missouri’s 6-2 system of past years thrived in its use of two setters rotating out. But Kreklow doesn’t hesitate to note that the most daunting aspect of this year’s turnover is the inexperience at that reverberating position.

One fact resonates most: Redshirt freshmen Andrea Fuentes and Jaden Newsome have “never set a collegiate match,” as their coach puts it.

“My suspicion is that when we start, they’re gonna be very nervous,” Kreklow said. “They’re probably gonna start off a little bit rough, but I anticipate them, as you go, just settling in and getting more comfortable. They’re certainly very talented.”

Those two pieces will be crucial ones in the puzzle that is Missouri volleyball’s identity. The last few seasons have established the program’s identity as a dominant one within the Southeastern Conference and beyond.

One of the factors in getting there has been senior middle blocker Alyssa Munlyn, already a three-time all-SEC honoree. She is one of the few familiar faces and solidified presences on the 2018 roster.

“It’s just been one of those things when I’ve been here all along and I’ve been in a position to make change from the time I got here, which isn’t something that everyone is able to do,” Munlyn said. “I’ve been with great leaders, I’ve been with great teams.”

Kreklow says the stability and leadership she provides will be important on a team featuring so many newcomers.

“She’s very intelligent; she’s got a really good head on her shoulders,” he said, “so when you have someone like that on your team, especially as a senior, especially with a lot of new kids, she’s a great role model for the younger ones and the new ones to come in.”

Those new ones aren’t so much freshmen recruits anymore, like in other sports. Those six transfers, Kreklow says, indicate another transforming trend within the program’s culture.

“We’re kind of at a point now where you’re always looking ... and so it has changed a little bit, our philosophy of recruiting,” he said. “If we find somebody we’re really excited about who we think can really come in and help us, we’re gonna go after her pretty hard. But if not, I think we’ve learned that we’re better off being patient, even though it’s a little nerve racking because you’re looking potentially at a big hole in your roster. But more often than not, something pops up.”

Three of the Tigers’ transfers this time around came from Illinois, a factor that Kreklow and players vouch has helped boost chemistry on a team that would be otherwise starting from square one. Instead, as the next week progresses leading up to the Aug. 24 opener against Delaware State, who plays and who doesn’t remains the biggest question mark.

“Right now we have no idea; I mean, we’re looking at everything,” Kreklow said. “At this point you’re almost just throwing stuff up against the wall and seeing what sticks. But I would anticipate [lineups] evolving over the course of the season too.”

It’ll be a slow start and a bumpy road to maintain the program’s winning identity, but Kreklow anticipates that too. And Munlyn anticipates more than maintaining.

“SEC Titles, it’s in our name now,” Munlyn said. “It’s something we have to expect. We expect to win. We expect to be in the tournament. We expect to go far in the tournament. Sweet 16, that’s great. But we’re ready to see a national championship. We’re ready to see the Final Four.”

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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