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Missouri volleyball's 'eighth man' supports winning team

Saturday, September 28, 2013 | 12:30 a.m. CDT; updated 7:25 p.m. CDT, Saturday, November 2, 2013
Missouri volleyball player Lydia Ely's family cheers for Tigers on Friday as they win their first SEC game of the season against South Carolina.

COLUMBIA — Basketball has five on court, and a sixth man off of it — made up of the best of the best fans.

Volleyball already has six on the court. 

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So at Missouri, VolleyZOU is the seventh man. At Sunday's game against South Carolina — Missouri's first Southeastern Conference match of the season and 16th straight win — 13 seventh men and women lined up with "C-O-C-K-A-D-O-O-D-L-E N-O" painted in large letters on their bare stomachs. 

The Tigers have one more man. An eighth man (or woman). One who will adopt you and become your biggest fan.

Meet the Ely family. 

They come from St. Louis, mostly, as well as Kansas City and Springfield. One cousin sneaked in from New Jersey, but he's still in high school, and they haven't talked him into coming to Missouri just yet. These are true-blooded, black-and-gold people. They love Missouri. And they would love you. Seriously. 

Sophomore Lydia Ely started playing volleyball in third grade and started handing clothes up to her sister, 2012 graduate Sarah Ely, soon after.  

"I think she was a 6 (foot) 1 (inch) eighth-grader," Sarah Ely said. 

It was after eighth-grade graduation during the father-daughter dance when they realized the baby of the family was actually taller than her dad, Doug Ely. Father and daughter are a close duo, having spent years driving back and forth from games, practices and school. He coached her seventh- and eighth-grade teams.

"Course, I didn't know anything about volleyball when I started," Doug Ely said. 

He caught on watching her club coaches and videos and reading books about volleyball. His wife, Cheryl, was a high school player back in the days of underhand serves.

Even today, Doug Ely starts to choke up when talking about the time his little girl stopped playing club basketball and they both cried because they lost time driving together.

"Her and I have always been very, very close," Doug Ely said.

It's a family trait. 

Fast forward to the present. Lydia Ely is a 6-foot-6-inch middle blocker, a third-generation Tiger, and the third of three Ely children to go to Missouri. Her brother, Matt Ely, is a senior. Her cousin, freshman Lauren Alexander, wears a volleyball outfit — literally an outfit that looks like a volleyball — and helps coordinate VolleyZOU to support Lydia.

There are so many family and friends at the South Carolina game — Sarah Ely expected 40 or 50 — that it's hard to keep everyone and everything straight.

This Friday was Cheryl Ely's birthday, as well as her aunt Sharon Misbauer's birthday and her uncle's birthday. There's a cousin — or maybe a nephew? — whose birthday is on Sunday. And there's an anniversary, and maybe another birthday or two, and also the Missouri-Arkansas football game to remember.

But if you don't know anybody's name, that's OK because they'll smile and wave and greet you like they know you anyway.

This year, Cheryl turned 50. She wears a birthday ribbon pinned to her shirt at her birthday party at The Heidelberg. It reads, "Old! Old! Old! Old! Old! Old!" The room is full of family and friends wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with, "WE (heart) M-I-Z L-Y-D" on the front and "GO TIGERS 10" on the back.

Lydia holds her 9-year-old cousin, Grace Ely, a hitter on her own volleyball team. There's a TV in the corner of the room, and the Cardinals are beating the Cubs. The family sings and turns to a two-layer tiger-striped cake.

And even if you're an outsider who's showing up at their family reunion surprise party, Lydia will hug you goodbye. Her great aunts will make sure you can get to your car safely. 

The eighth man doesn't fail.

"You're now part of the family," birthday aunt Misbauer said. "We adopt people."


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