COLUMBIA — The cheer comes whenever she goes back behind the serving line: “V-A-N-N! V-A-N-N!” Courtesy of her friends from her hometown of Muncie, Ind., MU freshman Caitlyn Vann has her own cheering section, complete with signs bearing her name and number.
“I love it, they traveled seven hours just to come,” she said. “It’s really exciting hearing your name, people screaming your name across the gym, being the loudest.”
It’s fitting that her friends have the loudest chant, since she’s probably the loudest player on the volleyball team. That’s something MU coach Wayne Kreklow is just fine with.
“I think the energy that she brings to the court, not just on game day, but on a daily basis in practice, I think helps keep things interesting for everybody, help keep things fun,” Kreklow said. “It’s really nice to have a player with that kind of personality, especially this time of the year, because the season’s long.”
Vann’s comic relief shows up outside of volleyball just as much as on the court. Four hours before the Tigers’ biggest match of the year to date against Nebraska, Kreklow stepped out of his office and outside the Hearnes Center just as Vann and senior Lindsay Smith pulled up in the parking lot. On Vann’s suggestion, the two immediately honked the car horn at their coach.
“We just saw him, and I thought it would be funny,” Vann said. “I always like giving people a hard time and joking around with people.”
But when she came to Columbia, Vann wasn’t sure she’d be able to do that. Initially, she was much less sure of how her personality would be received by the other Tigers as she entered a new situation, until her coaches convinced her otherwise.
“In the beginning, it was kind of difficult, because I didn’t know how people would react to my loud, outgoing personality,” she said. “But (assistant coach) Chen Feng actually pulled me aside and told me not to change, because that’s what they need on the team. They need more of an emotional leader, so I just kind of slowly adjusted to it and became more of an emotional leader.”
She might not have worried had she known the ringing endorsements Kreklow had received from her previous coaches from their experiences working with her.
“She was one of those players that everybody I ran into that had anything to do with Vann, it was always the same thing, ‘I love that kid, you’ve got a great kid,’” he said. “I’ve never met anybody that’s ever had anything other than those kinds of things to say. She leaves an impression on people.”
On game day, she wastes no time leaving an impression as the Tigers begin their warm-ups. While MU’s taller players work on their attacks, Vann stands on the other side of the net, shouting encouragement to and joking with each player coming up for a swing.
“We’re warming up before practice or before games, and she’ll yell out somebody’s name and they’ll yell back to Vann,” Kreklow said. “She’ll kind of pick and choose different people. She’s adding a lot emotionally to what we’re doing.”
She provides just as much emotion in practice when only her coaches and teammates are around.
“I wouldn’t say talking trash is what she’s doing, because it’s not disrespectful,” Kreklow said. “It’s always in a joking way. She’ll dig somebody, and she’ll laugh and make some kind of wisecrack about how easy that was. She does that all the time.”
Senior libero Tatum Ailes said that Vann’s energetic performances are welcomed by a team sometimes in need of a jolt.
“It’s very important, especially when you have a couple girls out there that don’t consistently bring energy every night,” she said. “It really helps having her out there. She’s just as loud as two or three people.”
Combined with her play at the defensive specialist position, Vann’s fun-loving attitude has made her one of the Tigers’ vocal leaders. Kreklow says that a freshman stepping into that role doesn’t happen a lot, but Vann doesn’t see anything strange about her position.
“On my past teams, that’s been part of my role,” she said. “I’ve just always been real loud, the loudest one on the court, so I was used to it. It just took me a while to feel comfortable doing it here.”
The transition has come quicker partially due to Vann’s relationship with Ailes, the team’s main senior leader. Vann was recruited as a libero and is the likely successor at the position when Ailes graduates, making the pairing natural between the two.
“We have kind of the same mentality,” Ailes said. “She’s very aggressive, and she wants the ball all the time. She reminds me a lot of myself.”
To Vann, Ailes has served as a coach on the floor to an extent, pointing out things that she has picked up through three prior years of experience in the Big 12.
“She’s more experienced, so she knows more of what the other team’s running, she can point things out easier,” Vann said. “It’s just nice to look to her for advice and help for where to go with different shots.”
That Vann wants to learn as much as possible from Ailes comes as no surprise to Kreklow, who sees that as an example of Vann’s confidence without arrogance.
“I think Vann’s got a lot of confidence tempered with the knowledge that there’s a lot of things (she) can get a lot better at,” he said. “I think she’s grounded enough to know that, ‘I can learn a lot from watching this person every day.’”