With their eyes glued to ESPNews on a big screen television on Sunday afternoon at the Clinton Club at Mizzou Arena, nervous Missouri volleyball players squirmed in their chairs and bit their nails.
Sixty teams had been announced as part of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament’s 64-team field. Missouri was not one of them. One by one, the Tigers watched as several teams considered to be on the bubble appeared on the bracket. First, Arizona State, then Missouri State, Arkansas, Colorado State and Notre Dame. Suddenly, Missouri’s chances to receive an at-large bid, which seemed to be a lock before the selection show began, were in doubt.
Then, it happened. Missouri flashed across the screen, and the players and coaches stopped holding their breath. The players jumped out of their seats, and high-fives and applause filled the room, which was dead silent a minute earlier. The Tigers had received their seventh straight bid to the tournament.
Senior outside hitter Jessica Vander Kooi said she was worried her career might be over.
“I was a little nervous, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “To be in the last bracket announced is hard, but I’m just glad we’re in.”
After the elation died down, the Tigers stepped back, realizing what they are up against. If Missouri was rewarded for its 17 wins, winning Big 12 Conference record, and high RPI, it was also punished for its 12 losses and sixth-place conference finish. The Tigers will head to Palo Alto, Calif., where they will face a brutal draw. Missouri opens with No. 23 Santa Clara at 6:30 p.m. Friday, and would likely face No. 2 national seed Stanford if it advances to the second round. The Cardinal will take on Big Sky Conference Champions Sacramento State at 9 p.m. Friday. The Palo Alto subregional is the only one to feature four teams in the RPI top 35. Traditional power Stanford is joined by a Santa Clara team that reached the Final Four in 2005, and a Missouri squad which advanced to the Elite Eight, make it seemingly the toughest of the 16 subregionals in the tournament.
The three California schools are familiar with each other. They were in the Palo Alto subregional in 2005, when Santa Clara knocked off Sacramento State before stunning No. 5 national seed Stanford. But, though Missouri will be the only outsider, it will be prepared for its first-round match. Santa Clara beat the Tigers 3-1 on Sept. 8 in Austin, Texas. Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow said he is looking forward to getting another shot at the Broncos.
“I did feel it was a fairly competitive match, and I don’t think we really played well,” he said. “If we go out and play the way we have the last couple weeks, I think we’ve got a good shot.”
Libero Tatum Ailes has another reason to be excited for the trip west. Her family happened to be at the airport ready to return from a visit to Stanford, where Ailes’ younger sister Gabi has committed to play volleyball next year. When her family got the news that the Tigers were headed that way, travel plans were put on hold.
“It’s neat that we’re going out there, and I’ll get to see where my little sister is playing next year,” Ailes said. “I just talked to my mom and she’s in the airport right now, and she said ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, we’re going to be out here for another week.’”