Missouri volleyball reaches Sweet 16, now faces No. 1 Penn State

The Tigers defeated two nationally ranked teams in Kansas and Wichita State, but Penn State promises to be a much taller hurdle.

Missouri Tigers outside hitter Kira Larson (10) celebrates with libero Alexa Ethridge (13) after the Tigers won a point Sept. 30, 2015, at Hearnes Center. Maneater File Photo

Missouri volleyball entered the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday, Dec. 1, as an underdog.

The Tigers were the volleyball equivalent of a 12th-seeded March Madness team facing off against a fifth-seeded Kansas team. Even if they won the match, they would then have to defeat the fourth-seeded and regional host team Wichita State on Saturday, Dec. 2, in order to make it to Mizzou’s second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.

However, the Tigers emerged from their season’s biggest weekend thus far unscathed, upsetting the two nationally ranked teams in the process.

In its first-round matchup on Friday, Mizzou eliminated bitter rival Kansas in a five-set thriller. Redshirt senior Kira Larson dominated the match, leading both teams with 17 kills to go along with a .400 hitting percentage and 10 digs.

In the second round the next day, the Tigers disposed of a Wichita State team that had not lost a set since Oct. 27 or lost a match since Sept. 17. Senior Sydney Deeken’s 15 kills and 16 digs guided her team to the 3-1 victory, punching Mizzou’s ticket to its fourth-ever Sweet 16.

But when the Tigers travel to University Park, Pennsylvania, this Friday for the next two rounds of the tournament, they will face a different beast entirely: The No. 1-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions.

The seven-time national champions (six titles since 2007) enter the match with a 31-1 record this season, including eight wins against nationally ranked teams. Senior Simone Lee (3.87 kills per set) spearheads a potent Nittany Lion offense that leads the country in hitting percentage (.345) and is third in the Big 10 in kills per set (14.29).

The match will be a showdown between two of the top middle blockers in the country: Penn State senior Haleigh Washington and Mizzou junior Alyssa Munlyn. The former ranks 10th nationally in blocks per set with 1.50, while the latter ranks 16th with 1.46. Both players are also very strong offensively, with Washington averaging 3.06 kills per set and hitting .513, and Munlyn posting 2.16 kills per set and hitting .391.

But for all of the firepower that Washington and Lee provide for Penn State, the Nittany Lions do not possess the same depth in attack that the Tigers carry. Penn State has only three players that average more than two kills per set while Mizzou has six, so if the Tigers are able to contain their opponent’s big hitters, they will severely limit the Nittany Lions’ offensive production.

Mizzou can take comfort in the fact that the last time it faced another outside hitter/middle blocker duo of this caliber, Florida’s pairing of Carli Snyder and Rhamat Alhassan, the Tigers shut them down offensively. Against Mizzou on Nov. 25, the tandem only tallied a combined 4.25 kills per set and hit .117.

Another interesting storyline that emerged in the first round and will continue to develop against Penn State is how Mizzou head coach Wayne Kreklow will use redshirt senior Melanie Crow.

The 2016 All-SEC team member has spent much of this season battling injuries and therefore has only appeared in 75 of the team’s 128 sets. But Crow finally became a consistent starter for a five-match stretch leading up to the tournament game against Kansas, and she looks poised to have a large influence on the Tigers’ performance in her final collegiate postseason.

Crow struggled to find a rhythm against the Jayhawks, and she was subbed out midway through the second set, leaving the game with a -.091 hitting percentage. In her absence, Kreklow opted to use the 6-1 formation that the team utilized last season, and Deeken along with senior setter Courtney Eckenrode were tasked with playing the full rotation.

Against Wichita State, Kreklow continued using the 6-1 formation without Crow, but would sub her in for a few points at a time — usually near the end of a set — to focus the offense around her, and then sub her out again. This strategy was successful and Crow finished the game with seven kills, hitting .400.

Kreklow, who earned his 600th career victory against Wichita State, will have to decide what to do with the veteran when his team takes on Penn State this Friday, Dec. 8. The first serve is scheduled for 1 p.m. CT. The winner of the match will move on to the Elite Eight and face off against the winner of Michigan State and Illinois on Saturday, Dec. 9, at 7 p.m.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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