As they signed autographs after Wednesday night’s match against Iowa State, Missouri volleyball players tried to put on happy faces for some of their youngest fans.
But most could only manage brief half-smiles while fighting back tears and struggling to keep their heads up. And even the dozens of children who were there for autographs seemed afraid to smile as they lined up with posters, hats, and volleyballs for their fallen heroes to sign. Gone were the laughs, high fives, and words of congratulations that usually go hand-in-hand with the postgame autograph sessions at Hearnes Center, where Missouri was 6-1 going into the match.
Iowa State handed No. 21 Missouri its fifth loss in six matches 30-27, 30-22, 24-30, 30-22 in front of 1,560 disappointed fans.
The loss dropped the Tigers to sixth place in the Big 12 Conference, and, suddenly, a team that was ranked No. 12 in the country just 10 days ago is staring at the possibility of not even making the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers made a record run last postseason, advancing to the Elite Eight.
“It’s a possibility we could miss it,” senior outside hitter Jessica Vander Kooi said. “We can definitely come out of this conference with a losing record.”
Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow, normally upbeat and outspoken, appeared down after this latest setback, and had a difficult time explaining his team’s tailspin.
“Our offense was nonexistent,” Kreklow said.” “I thought our passing was marginal, our setting was marginal at best, our choices as hitters was marginal.”
Struggling to find a bright spot, Kreklow pointed to the play of redshirt freshman middle blocker Amanda Hantouli, who had a career-high 13 kills.
“I thought she had by far her best game of the season,” Kreklow said.
Hantouli, however, was also not smiling after the match.
“Nothing ever feels good when you don’t come out with a win,” she said. “An outcome is an outcome, we go up and down as a team.”
And, despite her strong play, Hantouli said she was hoping that she, along with her teammates, could forget this match as soon as possible.
“It’s something that has to come from every single person in this program, player or coach, that we put behind tonight, and leave it alone,” she said.
Kreklow said that his team has been playing like its afraid to lose lately, and that is something that will have to change for his team to break out of its slump.
“When you play this game, you have to play fearlessly,” he said. “I told them between games two and three, ‘Who’s the most dangerous guy in a gunfight? The guy who doesn’t care if he lives or dies.’”
Vander Kooi led the Tigers (14-9, 8-6 in the Big 12) with 16 kills and 17 digs, and senior middle blocker Nicole Wilson added 15 kills. Katie Jessen had 18 kills to pace the Cyclones (16-7, 8-5).
Missouri will host Colorado, who beat them earlier in the season, on Saturday, and Vander Kooi says it’s time for the Tigers to start playing for the postseason.
“That should be our motivation now, she said.” “Looking towards the future, looking towards the end of November and where we’re going to go. Hopefully, we’re going somewhere.”