COLUMBIA — Emily Thater has always been a middle blocker. And she takes her job seriously.
So when she had to sit out Missouri volleyball's first game of the season Friday because of a back strain that flared up, she was not happy.
“That was kind of hard, just to have to be like, ‘OK, you’re really going to have to take some time off,’” Thater said. “My trainer kept telling me, ‘It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.’”
Thater subbed into the team’s game against Northwestern State the following day, but the coach played her sparingly in Missouri's first loss in 34 games. When she did return fully healed for the Tigers’ third match Saturday against the North Texas Mean Green, she was ready to sprint again.
The sophomore, who started every match of her freshman season, posted a career-high 11 kills against the Mean Green. She also tallied a team-high eight blocks, matching her career best.
Her return meant relief for coach Wayne Kreklow.
“She makes a big difference,” Kreklow said. “Having somebody with that kind of size and ability along the net just took away some of the options. I knew we needed her to be healthy, so she could be back out there for that purpose.”
Thater, who was ranked as the No. 36 recruit by PrepVolleyball.com coming out of high school, was happy to have served that purpose.
“It was a good day for me, definitely,” she said. “Everything just kind of clicked against UNT. It was really great to come back to that and just get going immediately.”
As for what happened during the Tigers’ brutal 3-0 loss to Northwestern State: “We had a bit of a hiccup, if you will,” Thater said Tuesday.
Hiccups are expected in Missouri’s offense this season. The team is struggling to find a rhythm while adjusting to two new setters and a revamped 6-2 offensive scheme. If Thater has her say, though, fans can expect the Tigers' blocking to be a strong force this season.
“My job is to help out the defense so we can run our offense,” Thater said. “That’s what's cool about volleyball, is that everyone relies on each other. … It’s all a collective effort, and blocking is my main priority, always.”
Learning to play defense
Thater’s commitment to volleyball, and to blocking, started at an early age. She grew up in Springfield, Mo., playing several sports, but she decided at 13 to focus primarily on volleyball. Thater says her club coach, Trish Knight, pushed her to recognize the importance of good blocking.
“When you’re young, all you care about is attacking and getting kills,” Thater said. “But she taught me that a couple of blocks can completely change the game. It can change an attitude, it can change the player that you’re blocking, you can get in their heads. Blocking is one of those things that’s very important and just a good skill to have.”
That’s not to say that playing defense comes easily to Thater.
“Mentally, blocking is really exhausting,” she said. “You could go up and close and do everything right and still not come up with a block. So it’s one of those things where you’ve got to keep doing it and doing it.”
Missouri will need plenty of practice going into this weekend's 11th annual Tiger Invitational. After a brutal five-set win over North Texas, Missouri is preparing for hard battles against teams that include Lipscomb and Illinois State, both of whom are coming off wins over then No. 22 Kansas and Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State, respectively.
But if any of this fazes Thater, she doesn’t show it. She’s just focused on business as usual.
“We have to realize that and just come up to the challenge, accept it, and do our best to get the win,” she said. “It’s really just important at this point to make sure that we just take care of business on our side of the net.”
Supervising editor is Raymond Howze.