COLUMBIA — When the Missouri women’s volleyball team started its preseason workouts roughly a month ago, there was one constant voice of warning.
When one toe stretched over a line during a drill …
“Hey! Get behind that line.”
When the freshmen thought it would be fun to jump to the Hearnes Center floor from a chair up in the stands …
“You better not do that.”
Freshman defensive specialist Marissa Ferri couldn’t help but look up and sarcastically snark, like only a 17-year-old player can, “Thanks Ma.”
That’s how it started. That’s how the player who came here five years ago from China to play volleyball became the mom of this year’s team.
Five years ago a language barrier prevented Lei Wang-Francisco from communicating with teammates. Now, she can console players more than seven years younger than her like she’s their mom.
“I call her Ma all the time,” Ferri said. “She really is like my mom. I always look to her for advice and answers to everything. I think having a really big age difference makes us a lot closer.”
Ferri turned 18 last Sunday. Wang-Francisco, 25-years-old and married, is not surprised about the nickname that has surfaced, but she thinks it’s about more than just an age gap.
“I’m 25, and she was 17,” Wang-Francisco said. “They say also that's the way I act. Maybe I’m just kind of protective, like ‘Don’t do this, don’t do this,’ and they go ‘Yeah thanks, Ma.’ So it just started like that.”
On the court, Wang-Francisco can’t feel the age difference.
“I never thought I am actually 25,” she said. “The thing is I’m just being blended into the team. I feel like I’ll never be old. Until I’m off the court I’m like, 'Oh I’m actually 25, I’m a graduate student.' The endless energy on the court doesn’t make me feel like I’m way older than them.”
The nickname, however, does change when she steps onto the court. ‘Ma’ becomes “The Boss.” As the team’s setter, she’s constantly hollering plays and communicating with her hitters, something she couldn’t do early on in her career.
“Especially for setters it’s harder,” Wang-Francisco said. “You are the person who’s communicating with other hitters. I had difficulty, which I still have sometimes, but rarely. The hitters eventually helped me a lot. They’d call for me instead of me calling for them.”
While Wang-Francisco learned English in her classes, it was her teammates who helped her master it.
“The language was the most dramatic change. When I came here I really don’t know much,” she paused, smiled and corrected herself. “I didn’t know much. My teammates helped me a lot. They’d correct my pronunciations and slang. I didn’t know anything about it.”
With only one season left, Wang-Francisco is now looking to give back to her team. Twenty minutes before practice started Wednesday, she was the only player on the court getting some extra work in. After her reps, she worked with freshman setter Kate Harris for 10 minutes on her skills.
But it's that maternal relationship off the court, where Wang-Francisco makes the biggest difference.
"She'll tell me little things. Anything. School, volleyball, just if you're having a hard time managing things," Ferri said. "As a freshman I don't always know the little things to do. Yeah, she's got my back."