COLUMBIA — A white, black and gold sign sits in the dim arena, resting on empty chairs a few rows up from the court: "Molly is #1 in the SEC."
A devoted fan left the sign behind after the Black and Gold volleyball scrimmage Aug. 22, proclaiming what may be close to fact. After all, Missouri senior setter Molly Kreklow and senior outside hitter Lisa Henning, both returning captains, were named to the preseason All-SEC team by the conference's coaches.
Friday, Aug. 30
2 p.m. — Missouri vs. South Dakota
6:30 p.m. — Missouri vs. Pittsburgh
Saturday, Aug. 31
Noon — Missouri vs. Idaho State (note change in time)
4 p.m. — Missouri vs. Arkansas State
The team is already seeing a difference from last year as it prepares to host four teams at this weekend's Tiger Invitational. Missouri lost four players throughout the 2012 season as players quit, transferred or simply needed time to deal with other issues. The Tigers ended with a disappointing 19-12 record, going 10-10 in Southeastern Conference play with no NCAA berth.
"Our ball control just wasn't consistent enough to allow us to utilize our hitters and Molly as a setter," said coach Wayne Kreklow, senior Molly Kreklow's uncle. Coach Kreklow is entering his ninth year at the helm and 14th overall as a Missouri volleyball coach.
The "standard expectation is always to make it to the NCAA tournament," coach Kreklow said. Beyond that, the team also sets goals such as winning the SEC and NCAA championships.
"When (making it to the tournament) doesn't happen, it obviously is a great motivator for the next year," Kreklow said.
This year, the team is recharged, with six freshmen and seven returning players. Molly Kreklow said she expects a strong offensive year with a balanced offense, more strong hitters and better overall ball control.
And then there's the defense.
This year, the back row features freshmen Carly Kan, Loxley Keala, Courtney Meek and Linda Steinhardt, who will join forces with junior starting libero Sarah Meister. The defensive presence at practice forces the entire team to work harder, better preparing the team for tough opponents, coach Kreklow said.
"You're only as good as the weakest person in your gym," he said.
The biggest challenge for this weekend will be shaking off first-game nerves. Nobody knows exactly what to expect from their opponents.
"This time of year is always kind of a crapshoot, 'cause you just don't know," coach Kreklow said.
In addition to new players, the team has a new mix of country, rap and rock to play during warm-ups. The women put together a new mix for the first time since Henning and Molly Kreklow arrived at Missouri. The only thing missing?
"Celine Dion is really my favorite, but we don't have anything like that on the mix," Molly Kreklow said. "And that's actually a serious comment."
Missouri faces South Dakota, Pittsburgh, Idaho State and Arkansas State on Friday and Saturday at the Tiger Invitational.