Despite lofty preseason expectations, the Missouri volleyball team is not placing extra emphasis on a Tiger Invitational win.
Rather, the Tigers, ranked 21st in the country, hope to use this weekend’s second annual Tiger Invitational to mesh the six incoming freshmen with the eight returning players from last season’s NCAA Tournament team that finished 26-8.
The round-robin tournament, which includes Arkansas, Montana State and Toledo, starts at 4:30 p.m. today at Hearnes Center. The Tigers open their season at 7 p.m. against Montana State.
The tournament concludes Saturday. The Tigers play Toledo at 12:30 p.m., and Arkansas at 7 p.m.
With so many young players, Missouri coach Susan Kreklow said she knows it will take time for her team to jell.
“Anytime you take a large number of players and try to put them into your program, it will take some time to develop as a team,” Kreklow said.
The players also sense that winning is not the most important thing this weekend.
“I don’t think we’re worried right now with winning,” sophomore Lindsey Hunter said. “We’re concerned with seeing where we are and what we need to work on. We need to go out there and play together and learn to play together.”
Senior Juliana Godoi, a defensive specialist, also views this weekend as a building block.
“We just want to apply everything we’ve been learning in practice and make sure the freshmen get that first shock out of the way,” Godoi said. “Then in the next tournament, when it really matters, we’ll be ready to play.”
Despite being ranked in the preseason for the first time, the Tigers do not believe the expectations have changed.
“I think we always have good expectations,” Godoi said. “Our expectations are really pretty high. I think we can win the Big 12 and go to the (NCAA) tournament in pretty good shape.”
Kreklow said she welcomes the added pressure a preseason national ranking brings.
“I think for a program like ours, who is developing and building, being ranked in the preseason is a confidence builder for the players in the program,” Kreklow said. “It certainly means a lot to be respected by your peers.”
Kreklow determined her starting lineup Thursday.
Sophomores Lisa Boyd and Lindsey Noll will start at middle blocker. Hunter will start at setter, and freshman Jessica Vander Koi, sophomore Shen Danru and senior Mary Lauren Smith will start at outside hitter.
Junior Sara Parks and Godoi will be counted on to lead the defense.
Arkansas finished second in the Southeastern Conference last season, barely missing a NCAA Tournament berth, with a 27-6 record. This season, the Razorbacks are again expected to challenge in the SEC. Montana State was 21-10 last season – finishing third in the Big Sky Conference – and has been picked to finish third in its conference again. Toledo is looking to improve on an 11-19 record.
“All three are strong teams,” Kreklow said. “ It is a very strong field and a great way for us to start out.”