COLUMBIA — MU volleyball coach Wayne Kreklow knows what it’s like to lead his Tigers to a victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers. He did it in 2003, when his team went to Lincoln, Neb., and notched its first win against the Huskers since 1982 by overcoming a two-game deficit. He almost did it a second time in 2005, when his Tigers had the Huskers down two games in Lincoln before falling in five to the top-ranked team in the nation.
But while Kreklow knows how it feels to beat the Huskers in Lincoln, neither he nor anyone else connected with the program today knows the feeling of victory over Nebraska at home. The Huskers have won 22 straight in the Hearnes Center, dating back to that 1982 victory, MU’s only win ever over the Huskers in Columbia.
Add in that four players on the current roster, senior Tatum Ailes, freshman Catie Wilson and redshirt sophomores Amanda Hantouli and Megan Wilson, are originally from Nebraska, and it would appear that there is a lot of pressure on the Tigers going into Wednesday’s match.
But any thoughts of pressure couldn’t be further from the minds of the MU players. Instead, they see it as a challenge that just so happens to be against a team that they’re very familiar with.
“I think it just gives me more energy and more excitement,” Megan Wilson said. “I know a lot of these girls, I played with them in high school, I played against them. They’re a great team, it’s fun to play against a team like that.”
To Hantouli, the pressure that she once felt playing in the shadow of a team she knew well is no longer there, replaced by the feeling of merely having to face a tough team.
“There is no pressure,” she said. “We have a lot of friends on that team. The only difference is that we know the girls on the other side, some of them. Being here a couple of years now, it really has become not that big a deal to me. I remember the first time playing them, I was like, ‘Whoa, this is weird,’ but now it’s really no big deal.”
Kreklow thinks that although his players might feel no pressure, the match feels a little different to them because of the opportunity to play against people they faced in high school.
“I think they like it,” he said. “For them, it’s a chance to try to put on a good showing in front of the crowd for the home folks. I think I’d probably feel the same way, I’d want to really get myself ready to go and hopefully put on a good showing. I think they look forward to it, I think it’s their chance to play well against the home team.”
For Catie Wilson, the match marks her first experience facing her home school after spending last season playing high school volleyball in Omaha, Neb., the city where the Huskers won last year’s national title match over Stanford.
“I’m really excited about it,” she said. “We’re going to go out there, we have nothing to lose playing against the No. 1 team in the country. Just that it’s Nebraska makes it a little more exciting.”
She’ll get no argument from Ailes. Wednesday night marks her final match on the Hearnes Center floor against the Huskers, one of many schools in the Midwest that recruited her four years ago. But with years of experience against the Huskers already under her belt, the main thing she looks forward to is the chance to face the best in the nation.
“We have a really great opportunity playing in a tough conference, and we have a great opportunity playing against the No. 1 team twice,” she said. “It’s kind of a fun experience.”
Despite being one of only two players left from the team that was within a game away from upsetting Nebraska, Ailes said she doesn’t focus on MU’s struggles against its rival at all.
“I try not to think about it too much, because pressure can crack people,” she said. “I just want to have a great game, that’s all I can ask for. If a win comes out of it, then a win comes out of it.”
Mental mistakes are the least of Kreklow’s worries. Since starting 0-4 in the Big 12, each player has given herself a subtle reminder of what to do or not do during a match by writing a message on her hand. Megan Wilson’s hand tells her not to think or Hantouli’s reminds her to stay off the net.
“If we come away from that match and not win it, I really don’t anticipate it being because we panicked or were intimidated,” he said. “I think it’s simply going to be that Nebraska played really well. I’m not worried about our players not being mentally ready.”