Tight-knit Tigers volleyball team takes tournament

Junior outside hitter Julianna Klein invited her teammates over for dinner on the eve of the team's first game.
Saturday, August 29, 2009 | 7:53 p.m. CDT; updated 4:12 p.m. CDT, Sunday, August 30, 2009
Missouri outside hitter Julianna Klein, right, attempts to tap the ball past the block of Brigham Young's Casey Speredon Thurston on Saturday in the championship match of this weekend's Tiger Invitational. The Tigers claimed the title with a 3-1 victory over BYU.

*CORRECTION: Marissa Ferri is a freshman on the Missouri volleyball team. An earlier version of this article included an incorrect first name.

COLUMBIA — It wasn’t until practice ended on Thursday that coach Wayne Kreklow heard about his team’s plan for the evening.

All 14 members of the MU women’s volleyball team gathered at junior outside hitter Julianna Klein’s house after practice that night for a potluck dinner to celebrate the official start of their season the next day.

The menu featured a smorgasbord of dishes nearly as diverse as the team itself.

Homemade lasagna, scrambled eggs, guacamole, Chex Mix and s’more bars were just a few options on the buffet for a team that features athletes from China, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and six different states across the United States.

While Kreklow missed out on the team dinner, he understood why he didn’t receive an invite.

“That’s a good thing because you have to have a team that can do that stuff on their own,” Kreklow said. “If you have a team where the coaches have to organize and suggest and do all that stuff for them, then you’ve got problems.”

The meal served as the team’s first real bonding experience, propelling them to the championship of this weekend's Tiger Invitational with victories over Texas State, Ole Miss and Brigham Young University. Missouri swept its first two opponents 3-0 and topped BYU 25-21, 15-25, 25-20, 25-12 in the title match Saturday at Hearnes Center.

“We had a little bit of pre-match jitters,” Klein said. “The first couple of games we were jittery and anxious and a little bit nervous, but by the third game we were getting into our groove and just having a heyday out there.”

After a disappointing 13-17 season last year, in which the Tigers didn’t make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time with Kreklow as coach, senior setter Lei Wang-Francisco said that more off-court bonding could lead to increased success.

“This team is one of the more cozy-like-family-feeling teams I’ve ever had,” Wang-Francisco said. “We just started to bond well. Our level is way ahead from last year. I think everyone was ready to start the season. Everyone was so anxious in the locker room because they just can’t wait to come out and play.”

Missouri won’t play another home match until Sept. 16, but that doesn’t mean team dinners will be on hold.

“Everybody came back (Friday) and just said how much they loved doing that,” Klein said. “We need to do this all together. It was a lot of fun. We can talk about whatever we want. We can eat whatever we want. We just had a really good time.”

Relaxing with teammates over dinner especially helped the Tigers’ five newcomers.

“It was really nice to just be at someone’s house,” freshman defensive specialist Marissa* Ferri said. “It kind of felt like a family. It was a good way to start off the season.”    

The night together as a team away from the court allowed the Tigers to build relationships as more than just teammates.

“It was just dinner and we were talking and getting to know each other,” Klein said. “We were just having a really good time. Just girl talk. We talk about everything from volleyball to boys – everything.”

But on Thursday night, they couldn’t keep the conversation away from the start of the season, which was less than 24 hours away at the time.

“Right now we don’t have a whole lot of respect across the country, and just to come out and show what improvements we’ve made, it’s really exciting for us,” Klein said. “We were just talking about running out in front of the crowd, having a really good time and showing what we’re made of.”

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