Tigers take youth into new season

On Friday, the Tigers will face Tulane and North Dakota State.
Defensive Specialist Priscilla Armendariz returns a serve during practice Thursday at the Hearnes Center. The Tigers open their season today with the Tiger Invitational.

About this time last year, things were different for volleyball coach Wayne Kreklow.

When Missouri was opening last season’s campaign with the Tiger Invitational, the roster was a comforting sight. The team was powered by returning talents such as attacking nightmare Paola Ampudia and Caitlynn Vann, the team’s libero who now is atop the program’s record book in digs.

Now, as the Tigers prepare to open the season with this weekend’s Tiger Invitational, Kreklow finds himself staring at a team bursting with potential but lacking in experience.

“Coming into the tournament last year, there was a totally different feeling,” Kreklow said. “This year, we’re coming in with an entirely new squad. It’ll be different.”

Seven freshmen form the backbone of this year’s group, and many of them are expected to contribute immediately from the opening serve of the 2011 campaign.

“Some of them are going to have to,” Kreklow said. “They’re going to see a lot of action early.”

Headlining the youngster class are front-line towers Katie O’Brien, Emily Wilson and Whitney Little, who stand 6 feet, 6 feet 2 inches and 6 feet 3 inches, respectively. The three showed promise at the Black and Gold Scrimmage last Friday, combining for 40 kills. Kreklow plans on utilizing Jade Hayes on defense over the weekend as well. He added that defensive specialist Sarah Meister will see time on the floor.

Kreklow anticipates road bumps, often reminding players of the work to be done. He’s fully aware of the pace change from high school to college that could catch his freshmen contingent off-guard.

“We’ve got a lot of young kids we’re trying to blend in to learn a lot of new stuff,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see. We’ve got to go out and execute, and there’s no way of knowing how (they) are going to respond until you actually get out there and play on game day.”

Kreklow hopes the practices have prepared his team mentally.

“What’s going to happen during a game where we’re not passing well?” he said. “What about when the other team is hitting well, and we’re struggling on defense? It’s going to (take) a lot of mental ability to refocus and bounce back when things aren’t going well."

The team's success will depend on its resilience, Kreklow said.

"That’s harder for younger teams to do.”

The team will be tested Friday by Binghamton at 12:30 p.m. and Idaho State at 7 p.m. On Friday, the Tigers will face Tulane and North Dakota State, an NCAA tournament qualifier last season.

The program looks to defend its crown at its own annual tournament after winning the past two seasons and never finishing below second this decade. Doing so may come down to underclass performance.

“I think they’re getting there,” Kreklow said. “It’s going to be a work in progress for these guys but they’re working hard and they want to be good.”

Returners such as preseason all-Big 12 honorees Brittney Brimmage and setter Molly Kreklow will assist them. As a freshman last year, Molly Kreklow was dubbed the Tiger Invitational MVP.

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