Monday, August 13, 2007

Point Mizzou!

I didn’t grow up with volleyball on my radar screen. In Oklahoma it’s purely a private school sport. To me it was just a game you played with about 20 other people after summer cross country practice. So when I began attending Mizzou in the fall of 1997, I didn’t even remotely think about Mizzou Volleyball. I’d have been more likely to pay attention to Mizzou Curling or Water Polo (“Water polo? Isn’t that terribly dangerous?” “It sure is. I had two ponies drown under me.”*)

Slowly but surely, volleyball worked its way into my consciousness. I saw a match here and there, but Mizzou was so horrid in the late-‘90s that it really wasn’t much fun.

Then the Kreklows moved across town. A massive success at Columbia College, Susan and Wayne Kreklow took over a 10-21 squad in February 2000 and immediately turned the Tigers into an NCAA-caliber team. They went 24-7 in 2000 (NCAA First Round), 20-11 in 2001 (NCAA First Round), 26-8 in 2002 (NCAA Second Round), 19-11 in 2003 (NCAA First Round), 20-9 in 2004 (NCAA Second Round, hosted regional), 25-5 in 2005 (NCAA Elite Eight, hosted regional), and 18-13 in 2006 (NCAA Second Round).

The Kreklows have taken a team with no history whatsoever (they’d never made the NCAAs before the Kreklows arrived, and they haven’t missed the NCAAs since) and turned them into a power (six NCAA tourney wins in their first six years). With each progressive season, I’ve found myself attending more and more matches. And I’m not alone. Here is the average attendance for Mizzou home games, starting in 2000:

2000: 875
2001: 1,175
2002: 1,398
2003: 1,418
2004: 1,357
2005: 2,670
2006: 2,565

Also worth noting: the last home match PK (pre-Kreklow) drew 363 people, and that was against Nebraska, who probably had about 300 of those fans.

So we’re basically looking at an increase in attendance of about 800% from the beginning of the Kreklow tenure. I’m sure part of it is the simple Bandwagon Effect, but there’s something else at work here: Mizzou Volleyball matches are just so much damn fun to attend. I poked and prodded at my wife until she finally gave in and decided to attend a match halfway through 2005, and she ended up attending every other home match the rest of the year. You get hooked really quickly, and the bonus of seeing a fun, likeable team that seems to get better every season (sans 2006, a rebuilding year in every way), is quite a perk.

Now the question becomes...will all these relatively new Mizzou Volleyball fans like what they’re seeing in 2007?

The 2005 season was so fun for everyone involved. Mizzou started off 12-0 and drew 7,300 fans for their home match against Nebraska (#1 and also 12-0). They won Game 1 (30-26) and after dropping Game 2 and 3 (30-22, 30-23), they led 21-16 in Game 4 before running out of gas and losing 30-27. It was an insane atmosphere for everyone involved, and that insanity seemed to carry throughout the rest of the season. Mizzou finished the regular season 22-4 and was chosen to host an NCAA regional for the second straight year. They drew 6,300 for Round One, sweeping SMS, then in front of an additional 2,500 they embarassed Arkansas (30-25, 30-16, 30-11) to make their first ever Sweet Sixteen at Penn State. After taking out Hawaii, 3-1, they slipped up in the Elite Eight, losing 3-1 to a surprising Tennessee club. The 25-5 finish was rewarding for everybody involved, and while they would return most of their offense and defense in 2006, they’d have to replace All-American setter Lindsey Hunter.

Redshirt freshman Lei Wang took over at setter in 2006, and despite the veteran presence of seniors Jessica Vander Kooi, Nicole Wilson and defensive specialist Abbie Booth, and juniors Na Yang and Tatum Ailes, this was a thin team with almost nothing but freshmen on the bench. While Wang flashed lots of potential (she was unreal in Mizzou’s 7-match win streak in October, including a demolition of Texas at home, and she performed well in the NCAAs), Mizzou limped home down the stretch and finished 17-12, barely making the NCAAs. After taking down Santa Clara, 3-1 (avenging an early-season 3-1 loss), Wang and seniors Jessica Vander Kooi and Nicole Wilson carried Mizzou to a fifth game with eventual National Runner-Up Stanford in Palo Alto before falling.


The 2007 Mizzou roster is a bit of a contradiction. It’s deeper and more experienced than last year’s squad, but it also features five freshmen and a JUCO transfer. It’s hard to gauge the talent that will be replacing Vander Kooi and Wilson, but the key to everything will be the setter position. In the offseason, the Kreklows recruited a JUCO All-American, Luiza Jarocka, to push Wang, who was just too predictable at times and risks being even moreso without Vander Kooi and Wlson bailing her out. After years of impeccable table-setting from Lindsey Hunter, it’s pretty hard to lower one’s expectations, and though Wang’s freshman struggles were predictable, they need to be remedied as soon as possible.

Let’s compare apples to apples for a second. Here are the stats for both Lei Wang and Lindsey Hunter in their freshman campaigns:

Lindsey Hunter (2002): 0.65 kills/gm, 14.08 assists/gm, 0.23 service aces/gm, 2.18 digs/gm, 0.54 blocks/gm

Lei Wang (2006): 0.58 kills/gm, 12.46 assists/gm, 0.17 service aces/gm, 2.39 digs/gm, 0.56 blocks/gm
That pretty much verifies my own impressions: Wang is as good as or better than Hunter from a defensive perspective. Her block and dig stats were as good or better than Hunter’s, but she still has some things to learn offensively. Here are Hunter’s sophomore stats:
Hunter (2003): 0.88 kills/gm, 12.29 assists/gm, 0.38 service aces/gm, 2.43 digs/gm, 0.58 blocks/gm
Her assists went down, which had as much to do with the loss of Christi Myers and Lisa Morris as anything else. The loss of Vander Kooi and Wilson might be comparable, so let’s look at Wang’s “projected” 2007 stats assuming a development similar to Hunter’s:
Wang (2007): 0.78 kills/gm, 10.88 assists/gm, 0.28 service aces/gm, 2.66 digs/gm, 0.60 blocks/gm
Those are pretty well-rounded numbers, but if her assists really do go down, that might open the door for JUCO transfer Luiza Jarocka.

The other part of that assist total is who the setters are setting for, and Na Yang will be the go-to Outside Hitter. She’s been occasionally dominant each of the last two seasons (she’s also my favorite Tiger volleyballer ever, but that’s a different story), but she’s always been the #2 or #3 option. Her 2006 season started with her trying to work her way into shape after offseason surgery, and from what I’ve heard she’s totally healthy this year.

However, teams have two outside htters, and the other spot is up for grabs. Julianna Klein is a Na Yang type—more strong than high-flying—and was a decent contributor during an up-and-down freshman year. Megan Wilson (Nicole’s sister) was quite dependable on serves and defense as a redshirt freshman, but her offense left a bit to be desired. Also, Weiwen Wang, the latest Chinese import, could play, but I believe she’s a true freshman, and the Kreklows usually try to redshirt their overseas imports to acclimate them to America, so we’ll rule her out for now.

At middle blocker, it appears that sophomore Amanda Hantouli is the favorite to replace Nicole Wilson. Hantouli improved progressively throughout the season (she had 10 kills and 3 blocks against Stanford), and she’s got the potential to be an all-conference type of MB. She’ll get competition from 6’3 freshman Catie Wilson, a high school All-American from Omaha (no relation to Nicole and Megan, also from Nebraska). Hantouli and Wilson have a combined one year of experience, but they’ve got potential, and I’m less worried about the middle blockers than the outside hitter.

Though question marks exist on offense, the defense should be as strong as it’s ever been. Libero Tatum Ailes...
Actually, let’s stop there for a sec:
The libero is a player specialized in defensive skills: the libero must wear a contrasting jersey color from his or her teammates and cannot block or attack the ball when it is entirely above net height. When the ball is not in play, the libero can replace any back-row player, without prior notice to the officials. This replacement does not count against the substitution limit each team is allowed per set, although the libero may be replaced only by the player whom they replaced. The libero may function as a setter only under certain restrictions. If she/he makes an overhand set, she/he must be standing behind (and not stepping on) the 3-meter line; otherwise, the ball cannot be attacked above the net in front of the 3-meter line. An underhand pass is allowed from any part of the court.

The libero is the most skilled defensive player on the team. There is also a libero tracking sheet, where the referees or officiating team must keep track of who the libero subs in and out for. There may only be one libero per set (game), although there may be a different libero in the beginning of any new set (game).

Furthermore, a libero is not allowed to serve, according to international rules, with the exception of the NCAA women's volleyball games, where a 2004 rule change allows the libero to serve, but only in a specific rotation. That is, the libero can only serve for one person, not for all of the people for whom she goes in.
Got that?

Anyway...libero Tatum Ailes is one of the best in the nation at her position. She’s a digging machine. She struggled at times in 2006, but a) there is an infinite amount of defensive pressure on the libero, b) she picked it up down the stretch, and c) despite her occasional struggles, she was still by FAR the best libero I saw all season.

The hitters get all the attention, and the setter is seen as the quarterback of the team, but in a football analogy I guess the liberos and defensive specialists are the can’t do anything without good play from them, but they won’t get any positive attention whatsoever. I find myself guilty of this too, as I find myself believing that an incoming freshman—either Caitlyn Vann or Shayli Meyer can replace long-time starter Abbie Booth as defensive specialist. I hope I’m right, but I might be severely discounting the job Booth did over the last four years. Vann is Ailes’ likely replacement at libero next year, but in the meantime she could play a vital role in Mizzou’s success.


A glance at the 2007 schedule suggests Mizzou should get off to a faster start than they did last year, when they broke in a freshman setter by playing Long Beach State (in Long Beach), Penn State and Santa Clara (in Austin), and Notre Dame (in South Bend). The nonconference slate is challenging but relatively manageable.

In less than two weeks (!!), Mizzou begins the season in the Magnolia Classic in Oxford, where they’ll take on host Ole Miss (19-13 in 2006, NCAA 1st round), Jacksonville State (24-5, NCAA 1st Round), and Arkansas State (21-14), then come home to host the Tiger Invitataional against Notre Dame (18-14, NCAA 1st Round), Florida International (24-8), and Florida A&M (21-7, NCAA 1st Round).

The next weekend, they move to the CenturyTel Premier in San Marcos, TX, where they’ll play CS-Fullerton (17-12), Houston (19-17), Texas State (15-17), before heading home for a matchup with UMKC (7-23). They should be able to escape the non-conference season with something around an 8-2 or (even better) 9-1 record, though that could be more like 6-4 if they struggle out of the gates.

The Big 12 schedule for Mizzou is quite unbalanced. The season begins with four of six on the road—at Texas (preseason #2 in conference), Kansas (#10), at Iowa State (#6), at Kansas State (#7), Oklahoma (#9), at Colorado (#5).

If they can escape that stretch with a 4-2 start, they’ll be in good shape, as five of the next six matches are at home—Texas Tech (#11, dead last), Texas A&M (#4), at Baylor (#8), Nebraska (#1, duh), Texas, and Kansas State. A 5-1 record in this stretch is not out of the realm of possibility, which would set Mizzou up nicely for their next road-heavy stretch: at Kansas, at Nebraska, Baylor, at Texas Tech, Iowa State, at Texas A&M, at Oklahoma. Senior night against Colorado wraps up the regular season, finishing a conference slate likely in the 13-7 or 14-6 range.

The easier non-conference schedule should mean that Missouri a) breaks in their new pieces slowly and effectively, and b) ends up with a worse strength of schedule overall. The epic home-court advantage that Mizzou showed back in 2005 gives Mizzou a strong chance of hosting another regional, and I would think that my projected 22-8 (or so) record would put them right on the borderline.

I might be way too optimistic here, but I don’t think so. The Preseason Coaches Poll picked Mizzou #3 in the conference, and while they will have to replace three regulars—Vander Kooi, N. Wilson, Booth—the hope is that the four freshmen who made major contributions last year—Wang, Hantouli, Klein, M. Wilson—will come into their own while Yang and Ailes provide the senior leadership.

For more information, check out the 2007 preview and ongoing VolleyBlog (with entertaining contributions from the players themselves) at

* - Name that movie and win a prize.**

** - No prize. Sorry. Somebody always has to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.