Wayne Kreklow weighs lineup options for new-look Missouri volleyball

Only half of the Tigers’ 2017 roster is returning, making for six new incoming transfers, a rebuilt roster and a lot of offseason introspection for the 18-year Missouri coach.
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Missouri volleyball’s Sweet 16 loss to Penn State last December ended a memorable 2017 season. It also spelled the end of five senior Tigers’ collegiate careers: Melanie Crow, Sydney Deeken, Courtney Eckenrode, Ali Kreklow and Kira Larson.

And with Andie Hanus’s subsequent transfer to Delaware in January, joining the already extensive list of Missouri departures, half of the 12-player 2017 roster was gone – including both starting outside hitters, both starting setters, the team’s only six-rotation player and an important serve-receive option off the bench.

Coach Wayne Kreklow had a major rebuilding project on his hands.

The 18-year Missouri coach has spent his offseason reshaping the roster by scavenging for transfers, already welcoming in six. Junior Annika Gereau, sophomore Kylie Kuyava-Deberg and sophomore Tyanna Omazic all joined the Tigers from Illinois, redshirt freshman Jaden Newsome from Colorado, sophomore Katie Turner from William & Mary and junior Sun Wenting from Miami Dade College.

Kreklow has also added one new recruit in Brynn Paumen, who reins from Maple Lake High School in Minnesota.

“We’re really looking forward to getting going,” Kreklow said. “This may be one of the deepest, most athletic teams we’ve had in a long time, so we’re really excited about the potential that the group has.”

Now that the holes are filled, Kreklow has numerous decisions to make regarding how his new-look team will line up this season.

“One of the challenges as a coaching staff is trying to figure out a way to utilize all of this talent,” Kreklow said. “The thing I don’t want to do is have a couple of really talented people relegated to the bench because there’s no spot for them. So that will be something that we have to look at system-wise, how can we utilize all of these people.”

The only player who appears to have a guaranteed place is senior middle blocker Alyssa Munlyn. Joining the three-time All-SEC honoree as the other middle blocker will likely be redshirt sophomore Kayla Caffey, with Omazic and Paumen likely to remain on the bench for now.

Caffey impressed last season, with 202 kills to go along with 130 total blocks, a number that ranked fifth in the SEC. She received SEC All-Freshman honors. Omazic posted 114 kills and 85 total blocks in her freshman season with the Fighting Illini and will challenge Caffey for the second spot, while Paumen is a likely candidate to redshirt this year and preserve a year of eligibility.

Redshirt junior Riley Sents, who tallied 461 digs last season, is one of few key returning pieces. She is expected to begin the season keeping her role as the team’s starting libero, deputized by Gereau and Turner.

But figuring out the setter and hitter positions are where the majority of Kreklow’s headaches are originating. Depending on which formation he decides best fits the team, he has to fill either one or two setter positions, and depending on the number of setters he uses, there will be three or four hitter spots to figure out.

He has just one returning starter to help him through the speculation-based domino effect. It’s why his observations in practice will become so crucial in the offseason’s home stretch.

“To me, it’s always been a set of scales tipping one way or the other,” Kreklow said. “You’re always balancing. Do the scales tip in favor of having one setter out there all the time — does that make your team better — or does having another two hitters and blockers out there? The only way to find that out is to get people on the court and look at combos. So when we get going that’s a lot of what we’ll do. We’ll look at 6-2 combinations [two setters split the rotation], we’ll spend time in 5-1s [one setter plays the full rotation] with both setters and try to see if we can figure out what’s going to make us the best.”

Kreklow has two setters at his disposal, Newsome and Andrea Fuentes. Each redshirted their first season at their respective schools, so Missouri will enter the season with setters who have combined to play zero sets in an NCAA match.

The pair’s inexperience might be cause to play them both rather than just use one of them. That would mean returning to the 6-2 formation the Tigers utilized for the majority of the 2017 season.

If Kreklow does go with the 6-2 formation, he would then need to settle on four hitters from his five options.

Sophomores Dariana Hollingsworth and Leketor Member-Meneh should be featured assets in the lineup following stand-out freshman seasons – the former recorded 236 kills as a converted opposite hitter, the latter 197 kills coming off the bench as outside hitter.

Uncertainty lingers in which combination the two coexist, though. They could form Missouri’s outside hitting tandem, but it is more likely that Hollingsworth will reappear in the opposite hitter role which she adapted to so well last year.

Once Hollingsworth’s role is settled, there are still two open spots in the lineup, with Kuyava-Deberg, Wenting and senior Paige Perego in contention for them. All three are unproven at this level; Kuyava-Deberg and Perego played in only 23 and 6 sets last year, respectively, while Wenting, although a starter for Miami Dade College, played in the National Junior College Athletic Association.

Kreklow may initially opt for seniority and choose Perego and Wenting, but it is probable that Kuyava-Deberg, who had 30 kills for Illinois last season, will eventually carve out her own place in the starting lineup alongside Wenting, a 2017 AVCA Two-Year College First Team All-American.

Team practices do not start until early August, so Kreklow will not be able to test out his new-look Tigers for a few more weeks. Then it will be a time to experiment, as a roster stocked with talent but without prior chemistry attempts to match the level of cohesion that carried an experienced 2017 Missouri team to the nation’s final 16.

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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