Volleyball team faces in-state rival Missouri State in NCAA Tournament

A potential border war matchup is set for the second round of the NCAA tournament.

The players’ eyes were glued to the screen waiting to see their name with a number beside it. They’d see their name, but there would be no number.

The Missouri women’s volleyball squad held a watch party Sunday at the Clinton Club in Mizzou Arena for the team, friends and family. The Alabama-Notre Dame college basketball game that came before the selection show couldn’t end soon enough.

When the show finally did begin, the commentators started by revealing the top 16 teams, squads with the potential to host the first and second round. After being ranked all season, Missouri knew there was a chance.

Kansas was in, Texas A&M was in, but Missouri was not.

“I don’t want to say that we were expecting it,” coach Wayne Kreklow said. “I’m sure at some point we were in the conversation; I’m sure that we were. You just never know what factors go into it. Traditionally, the league doesn’t get as much respect around the country so I think that factors in sometimes in terms of seating.”

Although they would not go into the tournament ranked, the players knew they were in. Knowing the committee wanted to limit travel time, ears perked when Kansas was placed on the bracket.

After a cluster of “boos” aimed toward their age-old rival, more excited remarks filled the room as Missouri State was placed in the same region. And with the next reveal came the loudest reaction of all.

The Tigers were set to play Missouri State. If they could get past that first round, they would likely meet their border rival.

Players immediately pulled out their phones to capture the matchups before they disappeared from the the screen. Then the text messages began.

Junior Julia Towler, a Kansas City native who knew the rivalry all too well, immediately received messages from her old club volleyball teammates who now sported the Jayhawks’ blue and red. Her friends teased that they’d see her on the court soon. She said she’d be ready.

After growing up with the rivalry battles as second nature, the dry spell since the conference switch has been far too long for Towler.

“It’s about time,” she said.

Although excitement surrounds the potential rivalry matchup against Kansas, which Kreklow thinks is one of the best teams in the tournament, the players and coaches alike recognize the Jayhawks are not their first concern.

“We will have to play very well to have a shot at even advancing,” Kreklow said. “By no means do I look at that and say, ‘How do we beat Kansas?’ Missouri State is a very good team and they’re very formidable opponents. We’re going to have to play really well; there’s no guarantee we get out of that one.”

Redshirt sophomore Kira Larson admits “it's hard not to think about,” but she too recognizes that contemplating potential future matchups can distract from the job at hand.

So rather than thinking about a hypothetical border war matchup, the team will instead turn its attention to in-state rival Missouri State.

With their speedy offense and lack of significant height, the Bears are reminiscent of another in-state team Missouri fell to earlier in the year.

Breaking their perfect preseason streak, the Tigers lost to the Billikens of St. Louis University on Sept. 23. The players agreed that they slipped up on intensity in that match, but that they have come a long way since then.

“That’s a lesson we’ve learned in the preseason,” junior Carly Kan said. “It really helped us understand that we still have some flaws; we’re not perfect. There’s still more we can get better at. That was good in the preseason. Now that we’re playing another in-state team, I think we’ve learned our lesson from that. We’ll be ready.”

After their loss to SLU, the Tigers dropped only four more games, two of which were neck-and-neck battles against Texas A&M, this year’s Southeastern Conference champions.

The players spoke to the team’s change in mindset and their work ethic that pushed them to be the squad that fulfills their “grit.” But not just in games.

Every practice they come in ready to work and wanting to improve, and according to Towler, they truly get better every day.

With its new mentality, the team has proved it’s ready for the tournament. And according to their captain, the Tigers are even more prepared than two years ago after an undefeated, Cinderella season.

“Freshman year we were on a high of winning all the time, we were used to it,” Kan said. “No one pushed us to the brink and that’s what Purdue did. That’s how they beat us because we didn’t know how to push back. This year is a little different where as we’ve been pushed a lot and we’ve come back. I think that’s something that’s helped us be that gritty, hard-working, never-give-up team.”

With three transfers and a freshman starter, the Tigers have come a long way in terms of growing as a team rather than individual players. Now, Larson believes that they are no longer just strong players, but a strong team, peaking at the right time.

“I think right now we’re playing our best volleyball,” Larson said. “We’ve had some ebbs and flows throughout the season, but we’re getting it together, getting in the groove of things. (Senior night) was a big confidence boost at the end of the year when you want it.”

Despite the confidence going into the tournament, the players and coaches alike withhold setting any expectations. Sometimes a win or loss in the tournament can simply be determined by the matchup, Kreklow said.

“Your draw is often about how you match up,” Kreklow said. “Do your strengths match up with their weaknesses? Do their strengths match up with your weaknesses? That you don't have any control over, so you just have to go out and do the best you can and see what happens.”

Their matchup against Missouri State will be tested 4 p.m. Thursday in Lawrence, Kansas. If they advance, they will see the winner of the Kansas-Furman game 6:30 p.m. Friday.

To advance, Larson believes all of the added playing pressure needs to be shed.

“We just need to go out there and play volleyball,” Larson said. “Have fun and remember why we're here and why we love volleyball because when we have that mindset we play good. The second you start thinking what’s my hitting percentage, am I getting enough blocks, am I getting enough kills, that’s when things fall apart.”

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