Tigers fall to Aggies in four

“We have to learn to punch back,” Thater said.

Missouri volleyball needs to learn to punch back.

That’s the analogy assistant coach Deng Yang gave sophomore Emily Thater and the rest of the Mizzou volleyball team this past week. A boxer in the ring isn’t just going to take every punch, Deng said to her players. The Tigers need to find a way to thrust back after taking knocks.

“We have to learn to punch back,” Thater said. “We have to respond better to runs of four or five points, and that’s tough.”

The Tigers fell in four sets to No. 23 Texas A&M Sunday, putting them at 5-6 in Southeastern Conference play and 14-12 overall. After Missouri dominated the first set, the Aggies responded and pounded a Missouri team unable to defend itself.

What seemed to work for Mizzou in the first set didn’t translate to the final three. Thater credited strong serving toward the first-set success. Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow thought it was the Tigers’ passing.

Whatever that strength was, it was missing in the latter games.

“We really came at them, and I don’t know if they were expecting that,” Thater said. “We went after them and were aggressive.”

Mizzou attacked at .515 in the opening game, more than twice as high as their season average, but could not replicate the success later on. Twenty-two attacking errors and sloppy passing helped Texas A&M control the flow of play and capitalize on easy balls. The Tigers finished the night attacking at just .154.

Kreklow blamed poor passing on the lack of offense coming from the Tigers. On paper, the Tigers are a top-tier team in the SEC, but passing and setting has been a struggle for Mizzou all year.

“In that last game, I don’t know if we had one ball in that 10-foot line,” Kreklow said, referring to the sets for outside hitters. “Everything was inconsistent.”

Kreklow, a former NBA player, compared passing in volleyball to shooting in basketball — confidence is key. Missouri was missing it Sunday.

“As a shooter, if I know I’ve got some rebounding beasts inside, I don’t have to make every shot to win the game,” Kreklow said. “I don’t have to worry as much. Passing is a lot like that. Last year, Molly (Kreklow) took a lot of average passes and made them look good, and that let others relax. (Without that presence), it puts a spotlight on weaknesses.”

The passing and setting would fail to put Mizzou into a smooth offensive system, which gave the Aggies chances to attack.

Once Texas A&M did attack, the Tigers were on their heels, unable to respond. Missouri attacked at just .154. Sophomore Carly Kan said the Tigers need to be more mentally strong during long runs from opponents.

“We got into ourselves and in our own brains,” Kan said. “We weren’t refocusing well, which hurt us in the end. If we don’t have confidence in ourselves, we can’t have confidence in the team.”

Kan recorded her SEC-leading 16th double-double of the season with 12 kills and 12 digs. The Tigers will continue play on Friday at Tennessee, a team Missouri swept in Columbia earlier this season.

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