Along the bare, two-lane road that runs through farm fields to Columbia Regional Airport, frost has painted the grass white, and fog blankets the landscape as the sun hints at emerging.
Shortly after 6:30 a.m, the puffy-eyed members of the Missouri volleyball team emerge from their vehicles one by one, their black Missouri volleyball suitcases bumping and crunching along behind them on the gravel covering the parking lot.
Selection Sunday for the NCAA championship volleyball tournament will take place on Sunday.
With a record of 20-10 (12-8 Big 12), Missouri expects a place in the tournament this year after not appearing in the tournament for the past two seasons.
Their destination, a hangar converted into temporary offices for Central Missouri Aviation, provides warmth for cold hands and a barrier from the cool morning breeze. Wearing matching baggy gray sweatpants and carrying an array of colorful bed pillows — lime green with polka dots, striped, hot pink — the players look as if a cozy bed and restful sleep were the only things on their minds.
Chilly air and loud laughter float into the large room through the open door.
“Is that Lindsey?” senior Caitlyn Vann asks. “How does she have that much energy this early in the morning? You can hear her from like seven miles away.”
Lindsey Petrick, a sophomore, bounces in, smiling enthusiastically.
“Good morning!” Petrick says. “How is everyone this morning?”
Tired groans make up the majority of the response to her peppy greeting.
Sitting and standing around a table in one of the many temporary cubicles, the team consumes a breakfast of Panera Bread bagels. Freshman Paige Buchanan sits cross-legged on the concrete floor, leaning against the cubicle and hugging her striped pillow.
Petrick teases media relations graduate assistant Shawn Davis, saying she had watched "Shrek" the night before, and Lord Farquaad reminds her of him “because he’s short.”
Moments later, the players walk out onto the tarmac to board the airplane that awaits them. They climb the foot-and-a-half wide steps leading to the plane's door that has been pulled open and to the side. The plane, a Jetstream 41, a model that ended production in 1997, was chartered to fly the team from Columbia to Waco, Texas for its final Big 12 Conference road game last Saturday at Baylor.
“Hey guys, did anyone realize this is our last road trip? Our last away game?” senior Catie Wilson says, poking her head over her seat to see her teammates.
“It’s bittersweet,” Vann replies, her voice tinged with sadness. Vann has played defense for the Tigers since her freshman year in 2007.
Dull noise soon fills the air. The vibrations of the plane are all that can be heard as the black propellers on each wing whir to life. Players settle into the worn gray leather-like seats. The plane can hold 30 passengers, two seats on one side of the aisle and one seat on the other. They cuddle up with their pillows and blankets to rest as much as they can on the 2-hour plane ride before the demanding day ahead.
Although travel might seem glamorous, it is grueling. With tournaments in California and Kentucky and 10 road games during the season, travel becomes a way of life for the Missouri volleyball team. Players, coaches and staff quickly develop strong bonds. They learn to support and entertain each other as the season passes one game at a time.
“Freshman year, it’s crazy,” Wilson says, explaining how the team travels. “You feel like you’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off.”
For most away conference games, the team leaves early in the morning, travels by bus or plane and returns late that same night. For the Tigers’ Nov. 17 game at Texas, the Tigers departed for Austin that Wednesday morning and didn’t return to Columbia until one o’clock Thursday morning.
When they travel, though, there’s no shortage of amusement. Senior Julianna Klein recalled a grape fight the team had at Iowa State, assuring that no one on the losing side was hurt, “There were no injuries … just their pride.”
For transportation from the airport to Baylor's Ferrell Center, the team rents vans that coaches, assistant coaches and staff drive. Klein is quick to explain that Davis drives the “90s van.” When players ride with him, they blare songs from a 90s station through the van’s stereo and sing with shameless enthusiasm.
After unloading their bags from the white, 14-seat van, the players walk toward the stadium's back entrance. A locked door greets them, and sophomore Marissa Ferri shrieks when she discovers a bee is in their midst. Wilson keeps her composure as some of her teammates run frantically from the bee while urging her to move when the bee hovers near her shoulder. Director of volleyball Susan Kreklow, who had found an open door around the side of the building, opens the locked door from inside just in time.
After entering the domed arena that houses Baylor volleyball and basketball, the team is less than thrilled with the lack of bright light. Long black curtains hang from the curved ceiling, absorbing light and sectioning off the upper deck of seats. Many voice concerns that the dim lighting might make playing difficult.
After dropping off their bags in the locker room and changing into their practice uniforms, the Tigers walk out onto the court, waiting for practice to begin. Sitting with legs dangling over the padded green scorer’s table, Ferri gestures animatedly to describe the intricacies of the Harry Potter series to teammates Molly Kreklow and Vann who sit beside her. She had just been reading the final Harry Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," on the plane ride.
Klein sits down on the padded black chairs lining the court as Susan Kreklow asks her how she is doing. After Klein’s reply of “fine,” Susan Kreklow repeats herself. “No really, how are you?” Klein then tells her about the pain she is having in her shoulder and what she had been doing to keep it from hurting.
Head coach Wayne Kreklow gives a short pre-practice speech to remind the players of the importance of focus in every game, especially because the NCAA tournament is near. He advises them that people on Internet message boards might say Missouri has a bid to the tournament, but no one knows for sure until the teams are officially announced. He emphasizes that the Tigers must play to prove they deserve a spot in postseason play.
After practice and lunch at Chili’s, the team returns to Ferrell Center and files into its small locker room. Looking for a place to nap before the match, Ferri, Buchanan, Ashton Bodenstab and Molly Kreklow climb up into the 3-foot tall cubbies that make up the upper part of the lockers. Pillows in hand, they sit on the shelves of the cubbies with their feet dangling down. After some persuasion, Wilson and junior Brittney Brimmage, both 6 feet, 3 inches tall, climb into the cubbies and giggle when they are able to fit inside them.
Eventually, most team members end up moving into the media room, curling up on the floor with pillows, blankets and iPods for a 40-minute nap before watching film and starting the match.
A sparse number of Baylor volleyball fans have come to cheer on their team. The Bears' football game against Oklahoma across town is due to start 2 hours after the start of the volleyball game. Missouri’s bench drowns out the handful of Baylor fans as the Tigers players clap and cheer exuberantly each time Missouri scores a point.
During the first set, Wilson tries to chase down a ball but trips on the net pole and falls to the ground, whimpering in pain. Almost immediately after she reaches the bench, Petrick was by her side, rubbing her back and comforting her.
“We really are like a family,” Klein said. “We go through everything a normal family would go through.”
The match only lasts three short sets as the Tigers sweep Baylor, adding another win to their record. The Tigers then stuff their bags back into the vans and head back to Waco Regional Airport. Once there, they eat take out from Fazoli’s in a group around the television in the lobby, sitting on the couch, chairs and even the floor to watch part of “What Women Want.”
“We are each other’s closest friends,” Klein said from her seat on the plane, looking around and smiling at her teammates who were boarding and getting settled into seats of their own.
For a solid hour on the plane ride home, the team plays a word game, shouting out movie titles that began with the last letter of the movie title before it.
As the plane nears Columbia, the city lights twinkle in the darkness. Wilson and Klein discuss how excited they are to go see the new Harry Potter film together as soon as the plane lands.
With the NCAA volleyball tournament selections set to be announced Sunday, the Tigers are hoping the trip to Baylor might not have been the team's last road trip after all. No matter how early they have to wake up to make another journey.