By Darren Hellwege
Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
There’s a lot of talk with week about the home opener football game on Saturday, but there’s a lot more going on in the world of Tiger athletics.
First, congratulations to everyone associated with Missouri volleyball as they hosted another successful Tiger Invitational. While Mizzou’s string of wins ended, having an event with some better teams including nationally ranked Michigan is more exciting for the fans, and a better tune-up for the Tiger players. There was some excellent volleyball over the weekend and the team has to be excited about the crowds — which ran around or even more than 2,000 both nights. Missouri finished second in the tournament.
This will be a season of ups and downs for Tiger volleyball. They looked very good in beating Virginia Tech and I expected them to give Michigan a good fight. Then, they came out and got clobbered by the Wolverines. New transfer Taylor Simpson is going to be a major factor, as are the new freshman particularly 6-foot-6-inch newbie Lydia Ely. But volleyball is very much a team sport and with this young bunch it’ll take a while for them to jell. It’ll be interesting to see how long they take to really come together as a unit, but I’m confident they eventually will with the excellent coaching Missouri boasts.
It’s natural to focus on the folks who get the big kills and play up front, but the most consistent player all weekend for Missouri may have been Jade Hayes, who’s settled into the starting libero position and did very well in all four matches. There is some measure of depth at the position, but expect Hayes to be an anchor of the back line all season.
While there has been inconsistent play for this young volleyball squad, the Missouri soccer team has been anything but. Beating California in Berkley last weekend show that the win over nationally ranked Memphis in their first match was no fluke. Missouri moved to 3-0 on the season with the 3-2 win.
There are a lot of exciting scoring options on the team but one that bears watching especially closely is Taiwo Adeshigbin. She scored a ton of goals playing junior college ball in Georgia but failed to notch a single goal last season. It had to occur to some that Adeshigbin was going to turn out to be a bust.
You can officially cross that possibility off the list. After excellent play in the home matches on the first weekend, Adeshigbin scored again in Berkeley and now has the team lead in points with three goals and an assist in three games. Alyssa Diggs, an All-Big 12 performer last season, has performed as expected and you have to be impressed with three assists in as many games from Haley Krentz. But here are several little things to keep an eye on as this team plays Friday night against Arizona State (weather permitting — we’re expecting what’s left of Hurricane Isaac to be dumping buckets of rain on Missouri by then) and then Sunday against Tennessee Tech.
• Missouri keeps making things happen on set plays, off free kicks and corner kicks. That’s a good sign this early in the year, a mark of a team that’s well coached and has come into the season prepared. It’ll be interesting to see if that continues through Southeastern Conference play, although there’ll be little in the SEC that’s much more challenging than playing at Cal.
• I can talk all day about the scoring, and everyone loves to see lots of goals, but the role McKenzie Sauerwein plays in these victories cannot be overestimated. It’s weird to think of a sophomore as an old vet, but after starting 20 games in the net last season, “Mac” looks the part of an experienced team leader. She makes good decisions, can be aggressive and physical when the time is right, and with this new set-up of four defenders in front of her she’s adjusted brilliantly. While Sabrina D’Angelo at South Carolina will be tough to unseat as the conference’s top goalie, Sauerwein can comfortably be considered among the top three or four netminders in the SEC.
• Some might think it a bit perverse for me to celebrate the Tigers three yellow cards in the second half against the Bears, but I really do think it’s a good sign. I like to look at the number of fouls and when Missouri leads in fouls it means they’ve played their style of game, they’ve played “BlitzBall.” Not nasty, but physical, attacking soccer that wins 50/50 balls and will not be intimidated. The foul numbers from Berkeley Sunday? Missouri 13, Cal four. As long as they can keep players on the pitch and not end up with yellows turning into reds, this style of play bodes well for the future of this club.
The Tigers come into the weekend ranked as high as No. 10 in some polls, and while I put very little stock in the soccer polling process, it’s a nice thing for Mizzou to receive this kind of attention and respect nationally. They play a tough club in Arizona State Friday. The Sun Devils went to the NCAA tournament two years in a row before an injury-riddled year gave them a losing record in 2011. They’ve started 1-2 on the season with losses to Cal State-Northridge and San Diego State but I expect a good challenge out of them. Then, after what should be an easier time with Tennessee Tech on Sunday, the Tigers travel to Ohio State next weekend before starting SEC play at Auburn and South Carolina the second weekend of September. Give Bryan Blitz credit, this team’s non-conference schedule and preseason conditioning will have them ready to take on whatever their new conference foes can throw at them.
SEC football starts today as Vanderbilt hosts South Carolina. It’s a game full of importance for Tiger fans as both the Commodores and Gamecocks will be on the MU schedule this season. South Carolina in particular is a team Mizzou could compete with for a championship in the SEC Eastern Division. Vanderbilt’s not expected to be among the stronger teams in the league, so we’ll be watching for signs that they could exceed expectations. As for South Carolina, they have a very strong defense, the big question is on offense. If you think the talk you’ve heard about how strong the SEC teams can be on the defensive line is just blowing smoke, tune in (the game will be on ESPN with a 6 p.m. kickoff) and watch out for No. 7, a dude with one of my favorite names in the league, Jadeveon Clowney. He’s an incredibly talented end and as a sophomore, a guy we may be watching for some time in Columbia East if he doesn’t leave early for the NFL. Another major player to watch is Marcus Lattimore. When healthy he’s as good as they get but the tailback missed most of the second half of last season with an injury. The Gamecocks are also strong at quarterback with Connor Shaw, and if they can put all the parts together to be as strong on offense as they are on defense the Gamecocks could be a serious national championship contender.
The other early game this week was to be Texas A&M at Louisiana Tech, but it’s been suspended due to Hurricane Isaac. That leads me to close by sending prayers and best wishes to all the folks on the Gulf Coast. Hammond, home of Southeastern Louisiana, is directly across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans so they won’t get the full brunt of Isaac but they’re dealing with some ugly stuff. I’ll be cheer for the Tiger on Saturday but also wishing for the safety of this week’s opponent, their classmates, and families.