In a Sept. 29 match against Iowa State, the Missouri volleyball team was dealt what appeared to be a major blow: Freshman outside hitter Na Yang, who had started the first 11 matches of the year, had to be helped off the court with a hamstring injury.
Seldom-used sophomore defensive specialist Abbie Booth entered to replace Na. Even with Na’s return, Booth hasn’t left the starting lineup.
The Tigers, in fact, thrived with Booth. In the 10 matches before Na’s injury, MU was 6-4 and had a 1-2 mark in the Big 12 Conference. Starting with the Iowa State, the Tigers are 7-2, all in Big 12 play.
“Abbie’s quick, she’s a good little athlete, and she covers a lot of ground back there…,” associate coach Wayne Kreklow said. “It helped us defensively a little bit more … Overall, it’s really helped us become a better team, a quicker team.”
Booth has recorded six or more digs in seven of the eight matches she has started, including three matches with double figures in digs. Last Wednesday, she made a career-high 19 digs in the Tigers’ 3-1 loss to Texas A&M.
But even though her emergence coincides with the team’s hot streak, Booth won’t give herself credit.
“We’ve just been working really hard in practice, so I think that whatever lineup would be out there, we’d be doing just as well,” she said.
Having two defensive specialists, Booth and freshman Tatum Ailes, in the lineup gives the Tigers a formation that opposing outside hitters normally don’t see.
“It makes it more difficult for them,” Booth said, “because kind of in their mind, they’re like, ‘Oh great, where am I going to hit it now, if there’s two defensive specialists back there?’ I think it does play with the other team a little bit.”
The Tigers (13-6, 8-4 Big 12) hope that Booth’s starting role will help them beat rival Kansas for a second time this season when the Jayhawks (13-8, 4-8 Big 12) come calling to the Hearnes Center at 7 tonight.
“I think whenever the two of us play, you can throw records out the window,” Kreklow said. “And they’ve got enough talent to beat anybody in the league on any given night if they’re playing well.”
MU beat the Jayhawks in a five-game match on Oct. 16 when the Tigers used a 6-0 run to take control of the deciding game. Sophomore outside hitter Jessica Vander Kooi said Kansas will likely be looking for some revenge tonight.
“They’ll definitely be ready…and play us on our home court,” Vander Kooi said. Kreklow said it wouldn’t be easy.
“I thought their left side (outside hitters) really hurt us in that first match,” he said. “Both of them had big nights. We’ve got to do a better job defending left-side swing.”
But if Kansas’ left-side attack can get past Missouri’s block defense, there will be an extra defensive specialist waiting. Vander Kooi said that outside hitters have to play differently when facing a lineup with two defensive players.
“You have to hit smart,” she said. “If you hit a great ball, you have to be ready for them to dig it right back up. You just have to be prepared to keep swinging all night long.”