By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
COLUMBIA, Mo. – The Missouri volleyball team entered the 2013 campaign with something to prove. In fact, that’s the team’s mantra this year; one that appears conspicuously and is spoken often.
Sure, on paper, the 2012 season – Missouri’s first as a member of the Southeastern Conference – was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a poor season. The Tigers won 19 matches, including 10 league contests, and barely missed a berth in the NCAA Tournament. But for the players in a program that has made it to volleyball’s version of the Big Dance all but three years since the turn of the century, they fell short of their accomplishments.
“We started out the season really strong, but we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in my career,” said senior setter Molly Kreklow. “That left us with a chip on our shoulders. We weren’t bad, but we definitely didn’t meet the standards. As a program, we’re a tournament program, and last year was a rude awakening. It’s just something I never really envisioned happening.”
The Tigers won 10 of their first 12 matches a year ago, but a tough schedule, coupled with several personnel issues that left Missouri with just eight uniform players by the end of the 2012 campaign, made many returners feel as if a variety of external factors contributed to the inability of the team to reach its goals.
“Last year, I think the general feeling of the group was just one of collective disappointment,” said Wayne Kreklow, Missouri’s 14th-year head coach. “Most of the players felt like things happened that were out of their control that were just unfortunate. A lot of them felt a little bit short-changed. The overriding feeling, beginning this January, was that they wanted to do everything they could to prepare and do everything they can this year.”
Still, the 2012 season was not one without valuable lessons that have served the Tigers – who are off to an 8-0 start, their best since 2005 – well this year. Missouri is the only team to rank in the top-five nationally in every offensive category, and has hit no lower than .333 in a match all year. The Tigers also lead the SEC in service aces.
“I think the thing that we learned the most was just having to adapt,” said senior outside hitter Lisa Henning. “We went through a lot last year and learned the mental part of being tough. It has really helped us grow as players and people for having to overcome so many obstacles.”
From those lessons, a rallying cry was born.
“Lisa and I came up with the motto this past summer,” Molly Kreklow said. “The team and this whole program has really bought into it. Last year was kind of a season that we felt didn’t represent what Mizzou volleyball is. Going into this year – our senior year – we really feel like the players and program have something to prove.”
There are bracelets, posters, a sign that the players hit as they come out of the tunnel prior to matches and even a hashtag #STP.
But it’s much more than a slogan. It is a mantra that the Tigers live and breathe daily.
“We go at it hard in practice,” Henning said. “We are really out here to prove who we are and push each other in practice, on both sides of the net. You’re only as good as the people you practice against. We have something to prove and that kind of sparks something in your mind if you’re having a bad day or not feeling like you want to be there.”
The players understand, as does Wayne Kreklow, that the effort to reach new heights isn’t just something that happens in each of the team’s matches. It’s a concerted attempt to give one’s best in everything she does.
“One of the things we talked about was that it’s ongoing,” Wayne Kreklow said. “For me as a coach, my first response was that we needed to prove that every day in practice. If we don’t, we’re not going to be able to summon what we need on game night. I do think the players understand the importance of what happens in practice every day translates into winning or losing on game night.”
For Henning and Molly Kreklow, one of the winningest senior classes in school history with 70 victories during their playing days, their final season brings with it a sense of urgency for success.
The example that the senior class of 2010 set for this year’s fourth-year duo is one that Henning and Molly Kreklow hope to pass on to the freshman on their team.
“We don’t want to feel pressure, but this is the last year for us to prove who we are,” Henning said. “We take pride in being seniors, but we also want to show the freshman how to give everything they have, not just for our experience but for their experiences. My freshman year, we went to the sweet 16 and what sticks with me is how hard-working our seniors were. They were pushing the team to get better every day.”
While Missouri is 8-0 entering this weekend’s trip to the Rice Invitational in Houston, the Tigers are quite conscious of the danger of becoming complacent.
“We have the attitude that we haven’t done anything yet and we talk about it all the time,” Molly Kreklow said. “Every single day that we haven’t accomplished what we set out to accomplish, we are not going to be satisfied until it happens. It gets harder with long road trips and tournaments, but that gives us a great opportunity to dig down and focus on our goals. We have something that we are striving for and we aren’t going to be satisfied until we accomplish everything.”
Still, Wayne Kreklow knows that there will be adversity along the way. His team can’t avoid the hard times, but it will be defined by how it handles them.
“The fact is that it is not going to be easy and it is not going to always be good; sometimes you have bad outcomes,” Wayne Kreklow said. “Every weekend there are unpredictable results and it’s inevitable that at some point things aren’t going to work. As crazy as it sounds from a coaching perspective, we have to try to prepare our kids for failure. We spend a lot of time focusing on how we are going to win, but we also have to spend a little bit of time on how we are going to handle it when we fail.”
For now, the Tigers are enjoying their undefeated start to the season and looking to build on what they’ve learned through eight matches played.
“All around, we’ve just been better this year,” Molly Kreklow said. “Our statistics kind of show that and so does our win-loss record. So far, we’re a team that never gives up. We’re always going to play with confidence and as a tough team. We’ve really worked hard and I think we will always go back to that. Our team, no matter what, always comes back fighting and that’s something we’ve really embraced as a team.”
No matter what the record in the win-loss column may show, Missouri still knows it has something to prove.
“Those games in the past don’t matter,” Henning said. “We’re always wanting more and not okay with what we have. We want to stay hungry throughout the season and never be satisfied. We’re always pushing to get better.”