The Maneater

Preview: Missouri volleyball looks to build off of historic 2016 season

The No. 19 Tigers will face stiff competition to defend their SEC title.

Coach Wayne Kreklow holds the SEC Championship trophy after Missouri beat Tennessee on Nov. 26 2016 Maneater File Photo

Mizzou volleyball exited the court at the Sports Pavilion after taking a tough loss to the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Dec. 9. The defeat in Minneapolis was the final chapter in a historic 2016 season for the Tigers.

With the end of the 2016 season came the end of the college careers of four graduating seniors, Carly Kan, Emily Thater, Julia Towler and Alexa Ethridge. The seniors finished as the winningest four-year class in school history with 105 wins and two Southeastern Conference titles during their time as Tigers.

This year’s Tigers enter the season ranked No. 19 in the 2017 American Volleyball Coaches Association Division I Coaches Preseason Top 25 poll, marking the program’s first appearance in the poll since the 2014 season. The team’s schedule includes five encounters with ranked opponents, No. 10 BYU, No. 12 Florida, No.14 Kentucky, No. 22 San Diego and No. 23 Utah. Now, the Tigers remain poised to contend for the SEC championship as returning players and new additions fill in the gaps left by the departing stars.

Here’s a look at who some of those crucial players might be.

Key Returning Players

The Tigers will once again be led by a core of seniors in 2017, with setter Courtney Eckenrode and outside hitter Melanie Crow as integral parts of Mizzou’s lineup.

Crow, a redshirt transfer from Ole Miss last season, brings a strong arm to Mizzou’s frontline. Last season, Crow dominated in her debut season with a wicked topspin jump serve and killer swing. Crow led the Tigers during the 2016 season with 48 aces and recorded a career high in kills with 445.

Eckenrode emerged as a key player last season when the team switched from a 6-2 offense to a 5-1. The switch gave Eckenrode the opportunity to set from both the front and back rows. Having her set all the way around the court gave Mizzou the option to substitute in more defensive players to offer controlled passes that would help carry out the offense. She led the Tigers in single match assists with 31 and reached a single season career high of 1,193 assists.

Both in their final seasons wearing black and gold, the responsibility of leading this Tiger team falls upon the shoulders of these two seniors.

After losing libero Ethridge to graduation, sophomores Riley Sents and Andie Hanus are the two contenders to take her place in the back row. The two sophomores gained experience as defensive specialists while playing alongside Ethridge during the regular season. Overall, the team has 10 returning athletes, five being seniors.

New Additions

The Tigers have added three freshmen to the roster this year with outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh, setter Andrea Fuentes and outside/right-side hitter Dariana Hollingsworth-Santana joining the team.

#2 Leketor Member-Meneh

The 5-foot-8 outside hitter from St. Louis may be a little short for her position, but her incredible jumping ability more than makes up for it. As an outside, Member-Meneh will constantly be digging balls up on defense and then immediately transitioning to spiking balls at the net, a role she thrived in during her high school career. As a high school senior, Member-Meneh led Lutheran High School South to its first ever state championship, and she led her area with 610 kills on the season. That same year, Member-Meneh was named Missouri High School Volleyball Coaches Association Player of the Year and was also named to the Under Armor Girls Volleyball All-American Third Team.

“Her huge jump and lethal arm combined with her positive infectious personality are going to make her a crowd favorite,” Kreklow said in a November press release after Member-Meneh signed with the Tigers.

Fellow outside hitters senior Sydney Deeken and Crow will take on a big role in helping Member-Meneh get accustomed to playing at a college level. With the right guidance, Member-Meneh could become a huge force on the team for years to come.

#7 Andrea Fuentes

As captain of the U20 Puerto Rican national volleyball team, the 5-foot-9 setter from San Juan, Puerto Rico, has experience as a leader, an important attribute for her position. Fuentes is intended to touch the ball every single possession as a setter and is tasked with making the decision to set it to whomever has the best chance to get a kill. As the setter for the Puerto Rican national team, she lead her team to a fourth-place finish and was named best setter of the 2016 U-20 Women’s Continental Championship against teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean.

“Andrea is one of those rare players that has the ability to make everyone around her better,” Kreklow said in a press release upon Fuentes decision to join the Tigers in November.

#13 Dariana Hollingsworth-Santana

A tall opposite hitter who also hails from from San Juan, 6-foot-1 Dariana Hollingsworth-Santana is an offensive machine. A teammate of Fuentes’ during the Continental Championship in 2016, Hollingsworth-Santana was named best scorer of the competition. Last summer, she was captain of the U20 Puerto Rican team that finished fourth at the U20 Pan American Cup against teams from all over the Western Hemisphere. Hollingsworth-Santana finished the tournament with 32 spikes, placing her in the top 10 in that regard.

“She possesses a rare combination of size, skill and athleticism that makes her one of the top players in the Class of 2017,” Kreklow said in a press release last fall.

Hollingsworth-Santana adds to the Tigers’ size advantage, becoming the seventh girl on the team who is at least six feet tall. Mizzou’s opponents will have to deal with the team’s high wall of blocking hands.

Key Games

Vs. Kentucky Wildcats (#14): Sept. 20, 7 p.m.

Last year, Mizzou defended its home court against the Wildcats in a close five-set game in which four sets were decided by less than five points. Look for junior middle blocker Alyssa Munlyn to again be the defensive difference maker in this contest, as she had a game-high eight blocks against the Wildcats last year.

At Texas A&M Aggies: Sept. 24, 12 p.m.

Coming into Texas A&M’s Reed Arena last year, the Tigers had won 13 games in a row, but the streak came to an end at the hands of the Aggies when they defeated the Tigers 3-1. One of Mizzou’s biggest problems in the contest was its inability to side out on tough servers, as the Aggies had three different runs in which they scored at least four points in a row. This year, the Tigers will have to keep their cool against tough servers and remember not to force big offensive plays.

Vs. Florida Gators (#12): Nov. 25, 2:30 p.m.

The Tigers upset the No. 5 Gators in last year’s back-and-forth game at Hearnes Center, and the victory would ultimately become the difference maker in deciding the SEC champion. However, this year’s Florida team returns 12 out of the 14 players from that game and will be out for blood. It is very possible that this match once again decides the SEC championship.

Mizzou kicks off its regular season at the Culver’s Governors Challenge in Clarksville, Tennessee. The Tigers will play a doubleheader Aug. 25 against Marshall and Middle Tennessee. The first serves are set for 12:30 p.m. CT and 5:30 p.m. CT, respectively.

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

Share: Facebook / Twitter / Google+

Article comments

0 comments

This item does not have any approved comments yet.

Post a comment

Please provide a full name for all comments. We don't post obscene, offensive or pure hate speech.