COLUMBIA — Missouri redshirt sophomore Lei Wang doesn’t look like the typical attacker. At 5 feet 11 inches tall, she is several inches shorter than the average outside hitter for a Big 12 Conference volleyball team.
There’s a reason for the disparity. Lei wasn’t supposed to be an attacker, at least not according to the Tigers’ plan at the start of the season. Her normal position is setter, which she has played well, finishing sixth in the Big 12 last season in assists per game.
Lei, a Shanghai, China native, has been alternating between setter and hitter because she is willing to do whatever will help the Tigers win.
“Lei’s a very gutsy player,” MU coach Wayne Kreklow said. “If you talk about a warrior’s mentality, she’s got it.”
Kreklow cited a team meeting held before the team’s match this season with Oklahoma as evidence of that mentality and will to win.
“She came out and said, ‘I don’t care, I’ll do whatever I have to do to help the team win,’” Kreklow said. “‘If I have to hit, I’ll hit. Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it to try to help the team win.’”
That included getting the offense involved behind her if necessary. With little experience on the collegiate level as a hitter, Lei told the Tigers’ more experienced hitters that she could require them to back her up at times.
“I’m not carrying too much of a burden on my back,” she said. “Not making too many errors, that’s my goal. (If I get) a kill, sure, I’ll take it, but if not, they’re going to cover me.”
Since that meeting, Missouri has won three straight matches heading into Wednesday night’s meeting with Texas A&M at Hearnes Center, in part because of players stepping up and taking motivation from Lei’s speech.
“For me, it was like, ‘Wow, Lei’s willing to sacrifice herself for the team in that way,’” redshirt sophomore Megan Wilson said. “If I’m a friend or a true teammate in any way, I’m going to support her and I’m going to work my butt off so that not all of the pressure’s on her. She really cares about this team, and it rubbed off on everybody.”
Although Lei cares about the results her team posts, she doesn’t worry as much about the result of her individual attacks. Instead, she focuses more on how she’s attacking the ball rather than looking at where the ball lands after she attacks it.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m making a mistake or being blocked,” she said. “So what? I’m a setter, so I don’t care. I do the process, I don’t care about the result that much.”
But Lei also says she has to avoid going too far toward the side of not caring while making sure not to overthink.
“If you (overdo it), you put yourself outside the team,” she said. “You have to have a certain level, I really can’t tell how much. It’s kind of hard to adjust (between) ‘I don’t care’ and above it or below it, because you have to have a certain amount.”
According to Kreklow, who encourages having his hitters just going out and playing rather than thinking too much, her mind-set is exactly where it needs to be.
“She’s got a great mentality for a hitter, she’s going to take up there and rip it,” he said. “She’s very aggressive, and when she’s over there, it always gives us a third hitter, which helps to spread (our offense).”
That has opened up areas for MU that were not available when senior Na Yang was the team’s only proven offensive threat. Against the Sooners, Lei recorded MU’s first triple-double in six years by notching 49 assists, 10 kills and 15 digs. A match later against Colorado, freshman Weiwen Wang set a record for blocks with 13 to go with 19 kills.
“It definitely gives us more chances to run the offense,” setter Luiza Jarocka said. “Every time, we have three hitters on the net, and it makes it harder for the other side, because every setter has their own tempo, so it’s harder for blockers. I think it’s much better for us if we have three hitters all the time.”
Spreading the offense has produced immediate results, but it also appears to be providing Lei with a different benefit for when she sets. In adjusting to being on the receiving end of Jarocka’s sets, Lei has acquired a new perspective of the attack.
“Because I was a setter, I can tell now when I set bad balls how hitters feel,” she said. “I won’t blame her, it’s like, ‘I got it, I got you, don’t worry about it, just push me out,’ whereas someone who has not been a setter is like, ‘Push me out, push me out, why can’t you do this?’”
It’s not surprising that she would react in that manner, given that she’s gone as far to joke with Jarocka that she is “officially fired at setter,” even though she prefers setting to hitting.
“It’s kind of difficult for me, because I’m used to setting and I love setting,” she said. “But my feeling doesn’t really matter to the team, because what the team’s doing is better than how I feel, so I try to adjust to the team.”
WEIWEN WANG BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE WEEK: MU freshman Weiwen Wang’s record-setting performance against Colorado Wednesday went a long way to her being named Big 12’s Offensive Player of the Week on Monday.
Against the Buffaloes in Boulder, Weiwen recorded a school-record 13 blocks to go with 19 kills, the most for a Tiger without an error. She followed up that performance with 13 kills and a .476 hitting percentage in MU’s sweep of Texas Tech last Saturday.
Weiwen credited the move back to her natural position of middle blocker for her performance in MU’s recent victories.
“I have played the position for a lot of years,” she said. “I’m not as (tall) as Amanda (Hantouli) or Megan (Wilson), but I have the feeling of a middle, so I think I can play it well.”