It was a key match for the Missouri volleyball team. After the Tigers easily won the first two games against No. 23 Colorado on Oct. 2, the Buffaloes made the third-game close.
MU had a match point at 32-31, but it looked like the Tigers wouldn’t capitalize. Colorado’s best outside hitter, Allie Griffin, leaped for a set on the right side and spiked the ball.
Only one thing was between the ball and a tie score: freshman defensive specialist Tatum Ailes.
“It just came at me, and it was pretty hard,” Ailes said. “It knocked me over, but I got it up, and then (junior setter Lindsey) Hunter set it and we got a kill.”
The scene is a familiar one for the Tigers this year. Ailes filled the vacancy Sara Parks, whose eligibility ran out after the 2003 season, left at defensive specialist. Ailes’ play has been more than a pleasant surprise.
She has played in every game, making a team-best 4.2 digs a game as the Tigers have gone 10-4 overall and 5-2 in the Big 12 Conference. No one on the team dives for more stray balls.
“She’s really good about watching the hitters and watching if their hand is up or if they’re going to tip, so she’s right there on a lot of balls,” junior middle blocker Lisa Boyd said. “Most people wouldn’t even see that and they’d still be stuck on the line and wouldn’t be able to get there.”
With outside hitter Na Yang out with a pulled hamstring, Ailes is the only freshman in the Tigers’ starting lineup. Associate coach Wayne Kreklow said Ailes’ maturity and instinct allowed her to start in her first season with the team.
“We knew she was going to be an impact player right away,“ Kreklow said. “It’s one thing to be a great juniors player. It’s another to come in and play in the Big 12 right away.”
Ailes had an especially difficult adjusting to Division I because she is playing a different position than she did in high school and junior club play. Ailes, who is 5 feet, 6 inches tall, played setter and some outside hitter, but schools recruited her as a defensive specialist because she was too short to play anywhere else in college.
“(Switching) was rough because setting came so natural to me,” Ailes said. “Serve receive, I’d never done that in my life. It was a big change. It was pretty hard.”
She had doubts about her ability to play in the Big 12 until the first serve of the Tigers’ opening match against Wisconsin on Sept. 3.
“They served the first ball to me, and I passed it and I got it right to target,” Ailes said. “I was like, ‘OK, I think I can do this now.’ But I was really stressed out about it for a month.”
As a defensive specialist, Ailes has to think about many things as each ball comes over the net.
“The height of the ball and the pace of the ball, and I need to look at what’s going on around me,” Ailes said. “If everybody’s set in position I can go faster, but if everybody’s all mixed up, the ball needs to be higher.”
In high school, Ailes, who is from a suburb of Omaha, Neb., received interest as a defensive specialist from Nebraska, Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Florida State, among others. But Kreklow convinced her to play for Missouri.
“Everybody was recruiting Tatum and everybody saw the quick hands, the reflexes and the reactions,” Kreklow said. “Along with that, she’s got the mind-set that a great defensive player has to have, that never-say-die, go-after-every-ball mentality.”
That’s exactly what Ailes does for the Tigers, often reaching balls that appear to be far out of play. On an opponent’s hard spike or a teammate’s stray pass that sends a ball off the court, Ailes said she has one thought.
“Get there, get there, get there, just at least touch it,” she said. “I try to at least get my hand underneath and pop it up a little.”
Kreklow is a little more philosophical.
“(She has) God-given things that you can’t teach people… and she is always an extremely intense competitor,” Kreklow said. “She has the attitude and she has the talent.”