COLUMBIA — The change in conference came last season for the Missouri volleyball team. The shift in success has come this season, which has excluded losing, included an increase in support and hinged on mental toughness.
By MEGAN ARMSTRONG
Special to The Star
Weekly sports psychology meetings with Scotta Morton, a team assistant, are the cornerstone to the No. 7 Tigers’ program-record 25-0 start.
“It’s just something that you didn’t realize how important it is until you’re out there in the game, when you’re serving up game point and you have to have those positive thoughts in your head,” said Tigers senior outside hitter Lisa Henning, who played at Blue Springs High. “And you can’t have those positive thoughts if you don’t practice them.”
That practice came into good use when the Tigers faced their toughest test yet last Friday at LSU, winning 3-1 after losing the first set and falling behind 17-10 in the final set.
“We were down by a lot, but we got up and won because our team was mentally ready for that,” Henning said. “And I don’t think that’s something that our team has always been.”
A very “goal-oriented team,” according to Henning, the Tigers write out individual goals before every practice. As a whole, the team’s motto for this season is “Something to Prove.”
“I think that’s something that we want to prove,” she said. “Missouri belongs in the SEC, and they can compete in the SEC and not only can they compete, but they can be at the top in the SEC.”
Thus far, Missouri is at the top of the Southeastern Conference with a 9-0 record in conference matches. The Tigers have zoomed to the program’s highest ranking at No. 7 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. A 3-1 home win against the then-No. 2 Florida Gators on Oct. 20 — the highest-ranked opponent MU has ever defeated — gives context to how far the Tigers have come since they lost to the Gators in the first round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
Senior leaders Henning and Molly Kreklow have used Morton’s lessons to set the precedent for self-produced positive energy, which has permeated throughout the team all the way down to freshman standouts such as Carly Kan. Kreklow has appreciated Kan and the freshman class as a whole for its humble attitude and extreme work ethic.
“That is probably the key to having young kids blend in with veterans,” MU coach Wayne Kreklow said. “It’s you come in, you work hard, you defer—that doesn’t mean you can’t say anything and be assertive on the court—but you’ve got to be smart enough to defer to the upperclassmen.
“Allow them to be leaders, and you have to be a good follower.”
In the week following the football team’s first loss of the season, spirits spiraled downward across the Missouri campus, except for inside the Hearnes Center, where the morale of the volleyball team is sturdier than ever.
Susan Kreklow, MU’s director of volleyball, has seen a bump in followers as the season has worn on. A season-high 4,202 fans watched the win over Florida.
“We average about 2,500 (people) a match for our conference matches,” Kreklow said. “But just with the exposure for the team this year and the things that we’re doing at a grassroots level, our average attendance is over 3,000.”
The Tigers are aware of their undefeated record and take time after each game to indulge in what they’ve accomplished. Then, the sun sets, and the focus on one thing: “Next Ball.”
“We talk about this a lot in the locker room,” Henning said. “About how when you go out there, the ball doesn’t know who is ranked higher or who is playing better or stuff out that. So, just going out there and kind of playing who we are.”
Henning emphasized that the team never plays simply to win, but rather to “go out there and just try to play your best every single time.” They’ve been doing both.
Henning and her teammates look to move to 26-0 against Mississippi on Friday at Hearnes. More than that, the Tigers are aiming to become SEC champions and, undefeated halfway through the regular season, become the SEC’s first NCAA volleyball champion.
“Obviously, our record, we’re undefeated, but we have so many things that we want to work on and so many things that we want to reach,” Henning said. “And our goal is to just keep getting better every single day.
“So, I think that, even though we’re undefeated, we all just want more. We’re not really settling for 25-0.”