Less than 24 hours after setting an NCAA tournament record, the Missouri volleyball team took to the court again Saturday afternoon. The night before, unseeded Missouri beat overall fifth seed Northern Iowa, the highest-ranked team to fall in the first round of the tournament since seeding began in 2000.
On the same court inside McLeod Center in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Missouri faced a new opponent – Northwestern.
For the Tigers, fatigue was a major concern. They played to five sets the night before with the game ending at almost 11 p.m., and they didn’t return to their hotel until midnight.
They then woke up to another full day. The Tigers ate lunch and watched film at noon, then completed a low-key practice before facing Northwestern at 4 p.m.
“I would describe it as a real character test, a real toughness test,” Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow said in a phone interview.
The Tigers trounced the Wildcats in the first set 25-13, but the real challenge came in the second set, when the Tigers fell 23-25 to Northwestern. Kreklow compared it to a "near-drowning type experience."
“People get to a point where they are so tired, it's tempting to give up. Some people let themselves go under, and some people keep fighting,” Kreklow said. “Our girls came out and kept fighting until the end.”
Senior libero Caitlyn Vann said the fatigue melted into the back of their minds.
“The adrenaline and competitive edge just took that away for us during the match,” Vann said in a phone interview.
Missouri went on to claim a 3-1 victory (25-13, 23-25, 25-22, 25-20) over Northwestern to advance to the Sweet 16. Vann completed a team-high 24 digs, while freshman outside hitter Lisa Henning led the team with a career-high 18 kills on a career-high .556 hitting percentage.
While Henning was on the court, though, the numbers didn’t matter.
“I don’t really think about how many kills I have, I just think about what we need to do.” Henning said in a phone interview. “I just knew we needed to come out harder than the other team.”
Henning served as a secret weapon for the Tigers during the match. Kreklow said it was clear Northwestern had prepared for senior outside hitters Paola Ampudia and Julianna Klein, and junior middle blocker Brittney Brimmage, who have been go-to players for Missouri, but the Wildcats weren’t prepared for Henning.
“She did a really outstanding job for us tonight,” Kreklow said. “Molly (Kreklow) did a great job of finding her and using her and Lisa did a great job of making some great shots.”
Henning said her connection with freshman setter Molly Kreklow was the best it had been all season. Their timing was perfect.
“I’m just really excited,” Henning said. “I never thought we’d be going to the Sweet 16.”
Henning said the locker room erupted with shouts, cheers and applause when Wayne Kreklow entered after the match ended.
With the win, the Tigers (22-10) advance to the Sweet 16 and will face overall 12th-seeded Duke (26-6) on Friday at Penn State in University Park, Pa.
For now, though, it's a celebration for the Tigers.
“The only thing that can come out of my mouth is ‘awesome,'’’ Vann said. “I feel awesome. We played awesome. Everything is just awesome.”