COLUMBIA — Coach Wayne Kreklow wants it to be known: The Missouri volleyball team is not the same as it was last year.
Coming off a 35-1 season that secured the school's first ever Southeastern Conference championship, the Tigers' roster brings back 11 veterans, but two-thirds of the players are underclassmen.
"We've tried to make sure that they all understand that this isn't last year's group, and they don't have to be last year's group," Kreklow said Wednesday. "Because honestly, what happened last year was such a rare thing that we've got six sophomores now whose collegiate experience thus far consists of losing one match."
The team will have to figure out how to replace All-American standouts outside hitter Lisa Henning and setter Molly Kreklow, both of whom graduated in May.
Freshman Ali Kreklow and sophomore Loxley Keala are battling for the chance to lead the Tiger offense as starting setter. Wayne Kreklow will use both in the position at Friday's season opener at the North Texas Tournament until he determines the permanent lineup.
Ali — Molly Kreklow's younger cousin and Wayne Kreklow's daughter — led Rock Bridge High School to the 4A State Quarterfinals last year. Despite her high school success, Ali said her biggest struggle has been adjusting to the pace of collegiate play.
"I've played volleyball all my life, but when you get to the collegiate level, the pace is just a lot faster," she said. "So adjusting and being more mentally prepared and quick-minded and being able to move on to the next play is important."
Keala played last season primarily as a defensive specialist but often acted as a backup setter for Molly Kreklow. This fall, she has been developing her setting in addition to a rigorous schedule of digging and hitting.
"It's definitely a difficult transition," Keala said of her increased role. "It's a huge change with everyone, not just me. Everyone was so used to Molly and her style and the way she handled things."
Varying playing styles between the Keala and Ali Kreklow have made for stiff competition during the offseason.
"The competition is really what drives everything," Wayne Kreklow said. "The challenge for us as coaches is trying to make that competition as positive and helpful as we can."
Although the coach cited Keala's experience last year as an advantage in the offseason competition, he anticipates playing both her and Ali Kreklow on Friday running a 6-2 offense instead of the 5-1 scheme the Tigers have favored in the past. This means that both players will be considered dual setters and offensive options, giving the team six potential attackers on the floor as opposed to five.
The new versatile offense is just part of the changes Missouri is undergoing entering the season to what Keala described as "a target on our backs."
The Tigers are picked to finish at No. 15 in American Volleyball Coach's Association preseason poll, coming in second in the SEC only to No. 10 Florida. The ranking, Missouri's highest preseason ranking since being named to No. 13 in 2006, only elevates expectations.
"I think anytime you do a turn as a defending champion, people are going to always give you their A-game," Wayne Kreklow said. "That just adds to the challenge that these guys have, which is just to know that there's no sneaking up on anybody now."
Supervising editor is Raymond Howze.