COLUMBIA – On Dec. 7, Lisa Henning and Molly Kreklow walked into a long-dreaded news conference.
Their eyes still held tears. Few words flowed from their lips.
The previously unbeaten Missouri volleyball team had been defeated by unranked Purdue in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and the seniors' careers as collegiate athletes were over.
The loss might have been the last time that the inseparable pair would share a court, and it meant a time of certainty in each of their lives had ended.
Neither knew where nor when they would play the sport they loved again.
Henning, like many other collegiate volleyball players, sought opportunities in the national game.
She hired an agent, who found her a spot with Humacao, a Puerto Rican professional team.
Now, she plays for Indias Mayaguez, also in Puerto Rico. Humacao traded her 2½ weeks after she joined the club.
“It’s weird down here,” Henning said. “(Getting traded) happens all the time.”
That is just part of Henning’s tenuous situation.
She said that she has seen multiple Americans get cut since she arrived on the island Jan. 2. That, too, is pretty common.
“It’s a business; it’s professional,” Henning said. “So if they don’t like how you perform, they drop you.”
Staying on the roster isn’t Henning’s only concern. If her performance drops off, she could lose practice time and any chance to compete.
Her contract only takes her through the end of this season. Like most other professional volleyball players, uncertainty looms on Henning’s horizon.
“I think she’s being exposed to the realities of professional athletics, but I think she’s doing well,” MU volleyball coach Wayne Kreklow said.
The next chance for Molly Kreklow to step onto the court came slightly later than Henning’s.
She decided to stay home and was invited to participate in an eight-week training program with the U.S. National Women’s Volleyball team in Anaheim, Calif., that began Jan. 27.
Karch Kiraly, a former Olympian known as one of the best men's volleyball players of all time, coaches the Team USA women and has been impressed with Molly Kreklow so far.
“I think she is a good example, among many, of how engaged one can be in the learning process,” Kiraly said. “She knows, ‘What got me to this gym isn’t good enough.'”
Even if she improves, however, the eight weeks is all Molly Kreklow is guaranteed, and it is as far as she can afford to look into her future.
“I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in six months, one year,” she said. “It’s not stable. I don’t know if I’m going to be playing volleyball in a year.”
Molly Kreklow hopes her time in Anaheim and discussions with the coaches there will help her figure things out.
“(Playing for the national team) is my first priority,” she said. “That’s what I want to do in the long run. I’ll do whatever the coaches think is best. Maybe next season, like in August, I’ll sign a contract and go overseas.”
While salaries greatly vary, Wayne Kreklow said that a first-year American player can earn up to $45,000 in Puerto Rico for a season that runs from January until April.
In one of Europe’s top leagues, players can pull in six figures for a season. These leagues begin sometime between August and October and usually end between March and May.
The opportunity to travel also appeals to many American players. Airfare and lodging are part of the contract, as well as health insurance and, sometimes, a car.
“It’s an adventure,” Molly Kreklow said. “I’m just excited to see the different places and different teams. It’s a whole 'nother world.”
Things are certainly different in the world of international volleyball when compared to its collegiate counterpart, and there are drawbacks that come with the excitement of traveling the world.
It’s not for everyone.
“Some people thrive in that kind of environment,” Wayne Kreklow said. “Some people try it once and say, ‘That’s it, I’m good.’”
Team structure also plays a role. Henning had no Americans on her team when she was in Humacao, and without a familiar face or someone who knew her circumstances, she struggled.
“I wasn’t super happy down there," Henning said. "But then I got traded, and there’s another American on my team."
The other American, Shonda Cole, has been in Puerto Rico for eight years and translates for Henning at practice. While many players on the team speak English, Henning’s coach does not.
That's something she might have to get used to if she looks to continue her international career.
While Cole decided to stay awhile, Wayne Kreklow speaks of Puerto Rico as a launching pad.
“The Puerto Rican league is a fairly short one, so that’s an opportunity for players to get their feet wet,” Missouri's coach said. “From there, you have an opportunity to possibly go to Europe, where you’re going to be over there for nine months.”
The jump to a top international league could be especially tough for Molly Kreklow because she is a setter — the quarterback of volleyball, Wayne Kreklow said.
Kiraly, who played indoor and outdoor volleyball at the highest level into his 40s, has seen others struggle with the transition.
“Blockers are far more sophisticated, far more effective,” Kiraly said. “There is a huge jump up to go to the international level. Setters are way more accurate, way more organized in how they make their choices.”
Molly Kreklow is not just competing against the other young players currently in Anaheim. She is competing with the best volleyball players the U.S. has to offer for about a dozen active spots.
She would have to separate herself from the pack in Anaheim, though she doesn’t like to look at it that way.
“If you were constantly thinking about (competition), it would be a long eight weeks,” Molly Kreklow said.
For now, she is trying to enjoy the volleyball, the relationships and the weather as much as she can — even with so much uncertainty looming in the weeks to come.
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.