COLUMBIA — All year long, Missouri volleyball coach Wayne Kreklow has been saying his team is a top 25 team when it plays its best volleyball. Wednesday night’s five-game loss at No. 2 Nebraska won’t give the Tigers the votes to get them ranked, but Missouri’s performance against the Cornhuskers should convince the Tigers that Kreklow’s words haven’t been just a coach trying to pump up his team.
“It’s one thing to have a coach tell you that ‘I feel like we’re playing well, I think we’re doing some really good things,’” he said. “That’s only going to go so far. I’m hoping that seeing that we can go into somebody’s home gym like Nebraska, that we can do that, that we really are, when we’re playing well, a very good team.”
If the Tigers’ reaction to becoming the first team in almost 11 months to win even a game against the Huskers at the NU Coliseum is any indication, they’ve received the message.
“I think we learned a lot about ourselves last night as a team,” sophomore hitter Megan Wilson said. “We beat them (in two games), we were right there, and we’re a great team when we play together.”
The challenge now for the Tigers becomes finding that level on a more consistent basis over the rest of the season, something MU has had problems with throughout the year. When the Tigers faced Nebraska in Columbia two weeks ago, they were beaten soundly after putting up a fight in the opening game.
Senior Tatum Ailes said even though the Tigers came up five points short of the upset, playing Nebraska that close the second time around should make them more consistent.
“We just played one of the best teams in the nation, if not the best team in the nation,” Ailes said. “We’ve also got to realize that there’s no excuse not to play like that every time now. It gives us the boost of confidence we need to finish out the Big 12.”
The Tigers will have to play well to return to the NCAA Tournament for the eighth straight year. Missouri, 6-8 in the Big 12, has six games remaining. Playing in one of the nation’s top conferences helps, but that might not matter if MU can’t get its conference record above .500. The Tigers say they’re trying not to give their record and tournament chances a lot of thought.
“I think the real key to being in a situation like this is that you have to push all of those thoughts way to the back of your mind,” Kreklow said. “You just have to focus on the task at hand. If you start looking ahead, it’s inevitable, you get tripped up. It never fails.”
Although four of MU’s last matches are on the road, the majority are against teams in the bottom half of the conference. Texas Tech and Colorado have combined to win just one game in the conference. But Kreklow said that won’t make the task ahead any easier, using his own team’s performance as an example of the Big 12’s depth.
“Looking at the remaining part of our schedule, in this conference, you only have good teams and you have really good teams,” he said. “There’s nothing else. There’s no average teams and no bad teams. On any given night, a lot of teams are capable of beating just about anybody.”
The Tigers also have to get their players healthy soon. The offense is hampered by the loss of Julianna Klein to an ACL tear in September, and Wilson is battling mononucleosis, limiting her ability to contribute on the offensive end for extended periods of time. Because volleyball teams are only granted a set amount of substitutions per game, the Tigers were forced into a rotation where freshman Caitlyn Vann and senior Lindsay Smith, neither of whom is taller than 5 feet 7 inches, were forced to play at the front row against Nebraska’s huge middle blockers.
“We knew that at times, energy was going to be an issue (for Megan),” Kreklow said. “You’ve got to have people swinging, you’ve got to have people who can terminate a play. The sooner we can get her feeling better, the better off the team’s going to be.”
With eight days off coming up after facing Baylor on Friday night, Wilson said her focus is getting through the next match first and then trying to recover.
“It’s towards that point of the season where we’re just wearing down,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a concern, but I think we can do it. We’ll just give it all we have, and then we get a little bit of a break.”