COLUMBIA — Firefighters trained in the Hearnes Center and rappelled from the rafters down into the stands as the Missouri volleyball players trickled in for Wednesday's practice.
Junior middle blocker Whitney Little looked up at them and wanted to try rappelling, but was told by a staff member that the team would need her intact to shut down Florida middle blocker Chloe Mann on Friday in Gainesville, Fla. The match will be the second meeting between the Tigers and the Gators this season. On Oct. 20, the Tigers beat the Gators at the Hearnes Center 3-1 (25-23, 25-23, 23-25, 25-18).
Missouri volleyball at Florida
6 p.m., Friday
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The rankings gap has closed between the two teams since their last match. Last time, it was No. 2 Florida versus No. 18 Missouri, and now it's No. 5 Florida versus No. 7 Missouri.
"This match is a big deal, and the fact that it's televised only adds to the hype," Little said.
"Pretty much, the whole country's gonna know who we are," freshman middle blocker Julia Towler said.
Towler and middle blocker Emily Thater worked on their swings before practice. One stood on a step and held a sheet of paper, while the other swatted the paper until it tore down the middle.
The two talked about their excitement for Friday's match, but didn't sound nervous. It wasn't always that way.
"I remember my freshman year, and I would freak out before every game," Little said.
Not this year's freshmen, though.
"If they do (get nervous), they hide it very well," Little said.
Little said the Tigers will not change their mental approach for Friday's game. The fact that it's away does give an advantage to the Gators, but Missouri has a strategy for dealing with away crowds: translate that noise into motivation.
"I just remember playing there (at Florida) last year, and they had a lot of fans, they were loud, and they were really ridiculous. Like the student section just yelled stupid things at us," junior outside hitter Emily Wilson said. "That's always something you just have to work through as a team and just really stay focused on each other."
The whole team is ready to do just that. Little is excited, especially, to face off with Mann, a highly-touted Southeastern Conference player.
"I really make things a competition, so I think like, 'If this person can do that, well, I can do this better,'" Little said.
Little, the SEC Defensive Player of the Week, feeds off that sense of competition; she loves playing against the tough players and teams because she knows it'll be a good game.
"It just brings so much more fun to it," Little said.
She can't wait.
Even if it means she can't rappel down from the ceiling of the Hearnes Center.
"I guess I can live with that," she said.
As long as she can try it after the season ends.
Supervising editor is Sasu Siegelbaum.