Last season ended abruptly for the Missouri volleyball team, especially considering it started out 10-2.
And that didn’t sit well with Molly Kreklow.
“We had a great start and then everything fell apart,” the senior setter said, “and we were very bitter about that.”
Missouri lost four of its last six matches to finish 19-12 overall and 10-10 in its inaugural Southeastern Conference season.
After a fantastic prep and club career, Kreklow didn’t forsake offers from most of the country’s powerhouses and leave her home in Minnesota to play for her uncle and aunt and not play postseason volleyball.
So when a season-ending five-set loss to Alabama left the Tigers sitting home for the NCAA Tournament, Kreklow was ticked off and prepared to do something about it.
“We didn’t make it to the tournament, we felt like we wasted a whole year because of a couple of people who caused a lot of drama on our team,” said Kreklow. “I think a lot of us had a really big chip on our shoulders and were really mad about that.”
Evidently that anger has been well channeled.
After winning at LSU and Texas A&M last weekend, 25-0 Missouri is one of just two unbeaten Division I teams (Colorado State is 19-0), and it’s a safe bet that the seventh-ranked Tigers won’t be watching the NCAA Tournament from home this year.
Rather, a group of seven returning players have combined with six freshmen to vault Mizzou into this season’s elite. Which is even more remarkable when you consider the Tigers weren’t even mentioned in preseason polls.
“[After last season] we talked and said there was a lot we want to work for in the offseason so we don’t have another year like we did last year,” Kreklow said. “We worked our butts off all spring. We got better at a lot of things and then in the summer we had six freshmen come in. We didn’t really know what to expect.”
They certainly wouldn’t have expected a 5-foot-9 defensive specialist from Honolulu to win an outside hitter’s job. That would be Carly Kan, a spectacular leaper with a wide range of shots who, through Sunday, was hitting .384. To wit: At LSU last Friday night, Kan had 24 kills in 50 swings and hit .400, abusing the block from the front row and launching vicious attacks from the back row. And then she followed up with 12 more kills at Texas A&M, was perfect on 32 pass receptions in the match, and was named SEC Player of the Week.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Wayne Kreklow admitted. “Honestly, when we recruited Carly, we were recruiting her as a potential libero.”
But every time he saw her play in club ball, he was so impressed with her play on the outside. What’s more, she has fantastic ball control and sets a great out-of-system ball.
“Now we just can’t keep her off the floor,” he said.
When she was in high school, Kan happened to be planning a trip to the Midwest when Missouri assistant Deng Yang found out and told her to come see campus.
“So I stopped by and the rest is history, basically,” said Kan, whose father Darryl is an orthopedist who had NFL tryouts as a quarterback after playing at Dartmouth.
“They have been through a lot last year and I know it wasn’t pretty,” Kan said of the Mizzou upperclassmen, “but all we can do this year is our best. We’re just freshmen coming in. I’m glad I can help out and I’m glad I’m on this journey right now.”
But no one is enjoying the journey more than 6’1” senior outside Lisa Henning, who leads Missouri with 353 kills and is hitting .333 this season. Henning, from Blue Springs, Mo., currently at 1,658, needs 11 kills to become the all-time Missouri leader. She’s also second on the team with 55 blocks.
Molly Kreklow is second in the nation at 12.61 assists per set and is always a threat with a wicked second-ball attack.
Whitney Little, a 6’3” junior middle from Keller, Texas, and 6’2” junior outside Emily Wilson, from Omaha, Neb., have 191 kills each. Little leads with 93 blocks, 32 solo. Little is also ranked second nationally in hitting percentage at .493.
Like Texas A&M (Laurie and John Corbelli) and last year’s final four participants Michigan (Mark and Leisa Rosen), and Oregon (Jim Moore and Stacy Metro), Missouri has a husband-wife coaching team, although their coaching relationship has a few little different twists.
From 2000 to 2005, Susan Kreklow was the Missouri head coach. Then Wayne took over and Susan became his assistant so Susan could spend more time as a mom to their three children, including Ali, who will join the team as a setter for her parents next year.
Susan was also the head coach at Columbia College from 1990-93 before she and Wayne became co-head coaches there from 1994-1999. What’s more, they started the men’s program at Columbia in 1997. Now, the Mizzou website lists Wayne as the head coach and Susan as Director of Volleyball.
Missouri has had success before, including a trip to the NCAA quarterfinals in 2005.
This year, “a lot of things fell into place,” Wayne Kreklow said. “Our two seniors, Molly and Lisa, have done a tremendous job since the end of last season providing a lot of great leadership. They’re two of the hardest workers and they’re really committed.
“That was a starting point, but the influx of the freshmen really made a huge difference.”
Molly Kreklow agreed.
“There are two different stories going on,” she said. “The coaches set us up well with the recruits they brought in and it’s six people who fit what we needed and who are ready to contribute to our team, and then we had seven people who were already here who had worked really hard all offseason to improve themselves and improve this group.”
Molly Kreklow is one of eight children. Her father, Mike, is Wayne’s brother. He played college basketball at Wisconsin and Drake. Her mom, Marcia, played volleyball at Drake. Three of her older brothers played college basketball.
By all accounts, her recruiting process at Missouri was extremely low key.
“I wanted to make a difference with people I really cared about,” she said. “It took a while,” she said with a laugh. “It took a while.”
Perhaps, but now Mizzou is poised to do something special this season. The Tigers have the most wins in the nation and are ranked sixth in the RPI. But they have yet to go five this season and have a tough weekend at home coming up with Ole Miss and Kentucky coming to Columbia. The remainder of the schedule includes five SEC road games, not the least of which are at Florida and Kentucky.
However, just one more victory will tie the most wins the Kreklows have had at Missouri, when they went 26-8 in 2002.
“We don’t feel like we’ve accomplished anything yet,” Molly Kreklow said, pointing out that it’s just about the halfway mark of the season.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done and we’re proud of how far we’ve come from last year, but at the same time we’re nowhere near satisfied with what we’ve done.”