COLUMBIA — After the black and gold scrimmage that kicked off the season for Missouri volleyball, a fan left a sign in the stands: "Molly is #1 in the SEC."
And throughout the season, VolleyZou, the student fan group, chanted, "She's No. 1!" whenever senior setter Molly Kreklow, wearing a 1 on her jersey, served.
The Missourian is counting down the most memorable moments in Columbia sports, honoring the top athletes and programs of 2013. The No. 1 moment will be revealed on Dec. 31.
But by the end of the season, VolleyZou could chant that about the entire 2013 team.
It was a team that defied expectations, rising to the top of the Southeastern Conference to win Missouri's first-ever SEC championship at Hearnes Center in front of a record crowd of 7,879.
"Sometimes I just forget; it just really freaks me out in the best way possible, you know?" freshman Emily Thater said, back before the Tigers had won the SEC, when they were still 31-0. "I think that we're not going to really know what we've done here until we look back on it in like a couple months or a couple years."
The Tigers didn't have time to reflect.
Even with the SEC championship secured, they weren't through with their season. They rolled through two more matches, including an away match where they prevented then-No. 16 Kentucky from finding a rhythm. Then Missouri closed out the regular season at home with a sweep of Arkansas, bidding a formal farewell to senior leaders Molly Kreklow and Lisa Henning.
It was a turnaround from 2012, when the Tigers ended the season with a disappointing 19-12 record (10-10 in SEC play) and no NCAA berth.
"When (making it to the tournament) doesn't happen, it obviously is a great motivator for the next year," coach Wayne Kreklow said.
The players were certainly motivated. They played every game to their mantra of "Something to Prove," shortened to STP. They met weekly with Scotta Morton, part of the athletics department's sports psychology program and learned to stay focused on the moment and hungry for the future.
With that hunger, Molly Kreklow earned the SEC Player of the Year title and was joined on the All-SEC team by Henning, junior Whitney Little and freshman Carly Kan.
Coach Wayne Kreklow earned SEC Coach of the Year.
Kan was named SEC Freshman of the Year, an award illustrative of her class's contributions on the court. All six of the freshmen saw playing time, and Kan and Thater were regular starters, sometimes joined by Loxley Keala.
Then the NCAA tournament came. After a messy first-round win against Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Missouri players learned that foe Florida had been knocked out of the tournament. Missouri had beat the powerhouse Gators twice, once at home and once in a sweep in Gainesville, and the thought of not facing them in regional play gave Missouri even more hope for a trip to the semifinals in Seattle.
But the night after defeating IUPUI, Missouri was stunned, shocked by a Purdue team that couldn't miss a dig. Purdue hit better and had fewer service errors than Missouri, all in front of a puny Hearnes Center crowd of 2,627.
"I told them a little in the locker room, 'That’s life. That’s sport. That’s why you play games,'" coach Wayne Kreklow said following the loss to Purdue. "I don’t care who says what about who they played, and people can badmouth the SEC all they want, but at the end of the day, they beat everybody that they played and that’s a hard thing to do. It’s a mindset that is really remarkable that at some point during the year they didn’t have a bad night, or a bad game, and they just brought it every single day."