Missouri senior libero Alexa Ethridge didn’t want to leave Nebraska.
Ethridge, a 2013 Lee’s Summit North graduate, enjoyed her time with the Cornhuskers’ powerhouse volleyball program. She appeared in 63 matches as a freshman and sophomore but only in a limited capacity for a deep and talented program.
“I genuinely loved my two years at Nebraska,” Ethridge said. “I learned so much there, and it was such a great experience. I honestly have nothing bad to say about Nebraska, but I was just personally looking to have a bigger role on a team.”
That quest led Ethridge to the Tigers, where she transitioned from a defensive specialist role to the libero position.
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“Last year was actually my first year as a libero, but I think I’ve become really comfortable in the position this year,” she said. “I’ve been able to be very consistent for this team.”
Ethridge recorded 493 digs as a junior, the seventh-most in program history, and added a team-high 442 this season, helping Mizzou reach the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 for the first time since 2010.
“She’s not the most athletic libero that we’ve had or that we’ve played against by any stretch of the imagination, but what she does really well and what keeps her out there in that position is she’s a good, consistent passer for us,” veteran Tigers coach Wayne Kreklow said. “That makes us go.”
No. 15 seed and SEC co-champions Mizzou, 27-5, will need Ethridge to sparkle again when the NCAA tourney resumes at 7:15 p.m. Friday at No. 2 seed and Big Ten runner-up Minnesota, 27-4, in Minneapolis.
“We know we’re the underdog, but that gives us a feeling of wanting to go in and prove everybody wrong,” Ethridge said. “That’s kind of a fun way to play. I like being in that situation, going for the upset.”
The flip side is that means there’s a lot of pressure on Ethridge for the upset-minded Tigers.
“Our serve-and-pass game for us has really been the cornerstone of what we’ve been able to do throughout the year,” Kreklow said. “We’re going to have to do that well. … That’s what we kind of hang our hat on and we’ve got to go fast.”
Ethridge understands and welcomes the challenge.
“I love pressure,” she said. “I may be in the minority of players with that, but I love that pressure. That’s what I play for, so for me that’s the exciting part. I’ve always said pressure is a privilege and I feel like that’s the best part about sports. Yes, I feel the pressure, but I like that.”
Besides, she’s got help from senior outside hitter Carly Kan, the team’s other primary passer. The two are comfortable together and their confidence is surging.
“We have one of the top defensive teams in the SEC … and I think what makes us so good is our back row is so solid,” said redshirt junior outside hitter Kira Larson, who transferred along with Ethridge from Nebraska after the 2014 season. “There’s very few games where we struggle in the back row or we struggle passing it defensively.”
Ethridge hopes her experience against Big Ten opponents, and a few quick scouting reports from former Cornhuskers teammates, will help her continue to flourish Friday with a spot in the regional final at stake.
Kreklow expects she’ll come through.
“She’s one of those kids that the more competitive the match gets the more dialed-in she becomes,” he said.
NCAA Volleyball Sweet 16
Who: Missouri at Minnesota
When: 7:15 p.m. Friday
Watch: Live streaming on ESPN3