By Joyce Peng, KBIA Sports
The Missouri volleyball team keyed in on No. 5 for North Texas, monitoring where she was at all times, whether she was in the back row, in the front row, or getting a drink of water.
Mean Green’s outside hitter, Carnae Dillard, proved a challenge to Missouri at the North Texas Invitational Tournament Saturday. She racked up 29 kills on a .292 hitting percentage, along with 12 digs in the five-set match.
“She was shorter but she just jumped out of the gym,” Missouri sophomore middle blocker Emily Thater said. “She was so powerful. At one point I looked up at the scoreboard and I think it was somewhere in the fourth set but she had 22 kills. I mean, who does that? She was really a great player.”
Despite her great numbers, the Tigers did a good job containing her by making sure they knew the plays she was going to run and where she liked to hit.
“She couldn’t really make any adjustments within that short period of time,” Thater said. “We played it off on what she liked to do and we came up with some blocks and some digs.”
Beating North Texas in five sets (17-25, 25-17, 31-29, 18-25, 15-12) was one of the highlights of the season so far, according to Thater. The Tigers are off to a 2-1 after playing at the North Texas Invitational last weekend.
Thater said one of the best parts of the win was how the team came together after losing to Northwestern State earlier in the day.
“It was really cool to see that resiliency of our group,” Thater said. “I think that it really showed that we can be a mature team and even though we actually have a couple of veterans.”
Senior middle blocker Whitney Little said the team’s service game and hitting are good. In the three games so far, the Tigers served 12 aces with 15 errors, averaging 1.1 aces per set. The team’s total hitting percentage is .276, which is ranked first in the SEC as of Aug. 31.
Despite much progress and strong moments, the Tigers are still hoping to improve on many things.
Little said one of the areas they can improve upon is blocking. The team has 22.5 total blocks and nine blocking errors. They rank third to last in the SEC in average blocks per set, with 2.05. In their loss to Northwestern State, the Tigers had 5.5 blocks.
Thater said, personally, she wants to make sure she is always up and trying to do something.
“If you are not going to block, make sure you get a tip,” Thater said. “If you are not going to close, make sure you’re going up straight. I think that is something that I really can focus on because it just helps our defense to come up with more digs.”
Though Thater is focusing on fine-tuning her blocking skills, coach Wayne Kreklow said she maintains discipline in blocking and caused problems for opponents. Against North Texas, the sophomore had a career-high of eight blocks with 11 kills.
The Tigers found Northwestern State challenging. Both Northwestern State and North Texas had a majority of their team back from last year and were functioning at a higher level with an in-sync offense, Kreklow said.
“We weren’t passing particularly well,” Kreklow said of his team’s performance against Northwestern State. “We weren’t serving really aggressive. We were letting that small fast team run their stuff and we just couldn’t recover. We were always playing defense and we were always at a disadvantage.”
Although Kreklow credited a more aggressive serving game against North Texas, he said the team has to improve on offense in order to run a more efficient attack on teams, such as North Texas, who can get to shots like the off-speed tip and roll because of their agility.
Strong mid-majors teams such as Northwestern State and North Texas tend to have quick, athletic, smaller players who are highly skilled, and can defeat any team when dominating with their own pace of game, Kreklow said.
The Tigers will face mid-majors Lipscomb and Illinois State, in the upcoming Tiger Invitational. Lipscomb beat then-No. 22 Kansas, while Illinois State went to five sets with now No. 22 Oregon and earned a victory over Ohio State.
Besides competing against Lipscomb and Illinois State, the squad will face Oakland and Xavier. The Tigers are 35-3 all time in the Tiger Invitational and won six of their past seven tournament appearances.
Missouri will start off the tournament with games against Lipscomb at noon and Illinois State at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at the Hearnes Center. On Saturday, the Tigers will play Oakland at 2 p.m. and Xavier at 6:30 p.m.