Getting beaten at home last Sunday by Kentucky might have been a wake-up call that Missouri needed.
The No. 16 Wildcats came to Missouri and left with a 29-27, 25-23, 25-21 victory.
“After that Kentucky loss we all got together and talked as a team and figured out what we were going to do moving forward,” setter Andrea Fuentes said. “I think that helped us a lot emotionally.”
When the No. 22 Tigers played at LSU this past Wednesday they won 25-10, 19-25, 25-23, 25-18 and certainly looked happy about it on the court.
“I think we were a completely different team emotionally,” said Fuentes, a sophomore from San Juan, Puerto Rico. “We were celebrating points, we were having fun and that’s a key factor that we’ve been working on and will continue working on, having fun, playing loose and looking like want to be out there.”
Missouri is 9-3 overall, 1-1 in the SEC, as it prepares to play host to Texas A&M on Sunday.
The coach, Josh Taylor, obviously has discussed the emotional aspects of the game with his players.
“I think physically we’re superior to most teams,” said Fuentes, who is averaging 11.44 assists per set and is second on the team with 73 digs, “but emotionally we’re getting there.”
“Every time I talk about this team I say that physically we’re a pretty dominant team,” Taylor said. “One thing we need to continue improving on is the psychological piece, the emotional piece of the game and relying on each other. Our default at times is being inwardly focused rather than outwardly supportive of teammates. We’re getting better at that and I think we’re playing good volleyball.”
Few in the nation are playing better than 6-foot-4 junior outside Kylie Deberg. Against LSU, her 20th kill ended the match. Deberg leads the team in kills (220), kills per set (5.12), is hitting .330, has a team-high 26 aces, and has 21 blocks. She’s lethal in the front row and is extremely effective hitting out of the back row.
But Deberg, who is from Hudson, Iowa, and transferred to Missouri after her freshman year at Illinois, is hardly the only option for Fuentes.
The other outside, high-jumping 5-8 Leketor Member-Meneh, a junior from St. Louis, is hitting .301 with 128 kills (2.98/set), 13 aces, 34 digs and had 10 blocks.
The middles can more than hold their own. Junior Tyanna Omazic, a 6-2 product of Kansas City, has 115 kills, is hitting .448, has 18 aces and leads with 36 blocks, six solo. And Kayla Caffey is a 6-foot superior leaper from Chicago who has 63 kills, is hitting .416, and has 30 blocks.
“She’s an education major and she gets only 45 minutes to an hour of practice every day,” Taylor said, “because she has to come late every day because of student-teaching. So she gets the least amount of training significantly compared to her teammates. Not that I’m surprised at how well she’s doing, but she gets less training and is still playing at a crazy high level.
As a team, Missouri is hitting .327 this season, third in the nation behind only Texas and Baylor.
“We have such a well balanced team, but when I throw it out to Deberg it makes it so much easier,” Fuentes said. “Blockers on the other side of the net, they’re confused. I’ve got a great right side, two great middles, two great outsides, so when I throw it out to Deberg she gets one-on-one whenever she wants. And that’s great because whenever she has one-on-one she’s terminal.”
Pretty much Missouri has been hitting on all cylinders for a while. Missouri has been to the NCAA Tournament 15 times, including the last four seasons. Last year, the Tigers finished 24-8, which included sweeping Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before getting swept by eventual national finalist Nebraska.
Then on July 18, longtime coaches Wayne Kreklow and his wife, Susan, who was his director of operations, retired. That allowed the school to tab another assistant, Taylor, as the interim head coach. Taylor is also married to his top assistant, the former Molly Kreklow, who was not only a great player at Missouri — an All-American who played with the USA national team —but also Wayne’s and Susan’s niece who was on staff the past two seasons.
“We are going to get better. We have some things we need to continue to improve on,” said Taylor, who is from Honolulu and played at Pacific (2012-15) before a pro career that included time with the USA national team.
“If you look too far ahead it’s kind of a daunting task. We’re concerned with our next practice and improving.”