COLUMBIA — It’s another volleyball match at the Hearnes Center. And as always, the MU volleyball players are waiting to be introduced.
Each player will toss a shirt into the crowd and high-five the kids who are lined up around the court and hoping to see an MU win over this match’s opponent, Baylor.
It’s a moment of excitement for everyone, but it’s something else for sophomore Lauren Nuckolls and freshman Ali Groomes. It’s the only time either one will set foot on the court until the match is over.
MU coach Wayne Kreklow decided to make this a redshirt season for both players, meaning neither will play in a match this year, but both will retain their current eligibility heading into next season.
That doesn’t make standing and watching their teammates play any easier on them.
“In the past, we’ve both been big contributors, we played every second,” Groomes said. “You get used to it, but as the season goes on, it gets harder and harder, because obviously we don’t get to contribute in the ways we’re used to.”
For this season, the contributions Nuckolls and Groomes have made come in the form of vocal support for their teammates during matches.
“We just try to stay positive,” Nuckolls said. “If there’s someone on the court not showing enough energy or looking like they’re down, we try to get them up. We can see those things since we’re on the bench.”
They’ve come up with an official name for their position: cheermeisters.
“When we were at the Texas State tournament, we were making up tons of cheers, and I think Tate (Tatum Ailes) said it once to me in the locker room, so then we just joke around about that,” Nuckolls says, laughing at the memory.
“We always say we’re better than the Mizzou cheerleaders,” Groomes adds.
The MU players certainly appreciate the emotional lift that the cheermeisters provide.
“We get a ton of support from our bench,” Catie Wilson said. “They’re always cheering us on and giving us words of wisdom. It’s always good because they’re being positive and giving you the little extra oomph that maybe you can’t get by yourself.”
The situations where the Tigers need that extra oomph from the bench, such as MU’s five-game survival against Baylor, require Nuckolls and Groomes to get something extra from another source.
“Red Bull,” Nuckolls laughs. “If the game’s going really slow, there’s not any big plays, those are hard to stay really excited. Those games, they need us more than ever, but that’s also the hardest time to be more encouraging.”
But while adjusting to the role of cheermeister has been simple, Nuckolls’s and Groomes’s transitions to defensive specialists have not come as easily. Both played attacking positions before coming to MU, making this season the first time either has focused on defense only.
“Coming here, just focusing on one thing, I was behind the defensive players who have just been defensive players their whole life,” Groomes said. “It’s different. We both get really frustrated because it’s not as fun, not being able to be out there.”
That situation isn’t helped by the fact that attention from the coaches has come less often as the season has progressed. With just five matches remaining in the regular season, Kreklow’s focus has been on improving the players who are in the lineup.
“This time of year is always focused on team development,” he said. “Once we get into conference play, our constant focus is getting ready for the next match. It’s a little tough, because there’s not a lot of opportunities to devote to individual skill development.”
That’s forced Nuckolls and Groomes to listen to what coaches say to teammates who play their same positions and essentially coach themselves.
“Every chance we get out there, we have to really take advantage of it,” Groomes said. “Even in drills, he focuses on the people that play. You kind of have to hold yourself accountable for it.”
Both players said that they get additional help from the older players, making the task of improving without playing a little easier.
“I know Lei (Wang) always helps me on a lot of stuff,” Nuckolls said. “We both have people that can help us out. If we have any questions, we can go to anyone and ask them, they have good answers for us.”
But as much as the veterans on the court provide assistance, it’s the friendships with their fellow bench players, freshman Shayli Meyer and senior Lindsay Smith, that mean the most to Nuckolls and Groomes.
“If we’re frustrated, we can talk to each other,” Groomes said. “It’s different if I’m talking to a player that plays, because they don’t understand. But Lauren understands, Shayli understands, Lindsay understands. We relate to each other on that level.”
After the bench players’ support helps MU pull out a five-game match against the Bears, Nuckolls and Groomes head over to the autograph tables with everyone else to sign for fans, some of whom don’t know that they didn’t play.
“One time, this little girl told me I was her favorite player,” she said. “I was like, ‘Did you see me warm up or something?’, because I didn’t understand.”
But the other players do understand the situation and the work that the bench puts in, which might be the most satisfying part of a difficult experience.
“It doesn’t go unnoticed,” Nuckolls said. “They do a really good job of telling (us) ‘You did a really good job.’”