Missouri volleyball prepares for tournament run, looks to improve 11-5 record

The Tigers seek to extend their season after an early onset of lineup changes.

As Missouri volleyball nears the end of its extended and abnormal 2020-21 season, here’s an in-depth look at what you need to know as the Tigers seek to finish strong and make an NCAA tournament run.

Season Recap

Senior middle blocker Tyanna Omazic’s scream echoed throughout the Hearnes Center as she landed awkwardly from a hit in a late October SEC matchup against Kentucky. Coach Joshua Taylor soon broke the news to his team that the senior tore her ACL and PCL and would be out indefinitely for the rest of the season.

Along with various changes in the lineup, the Tigers prepared to navigate a season like no other and dealt with the SEC’s COVID-19 guidelines and policies.

Missouri, however, proved its ability to overcome and adjust to difficult situations by reaching an 11-5 record so far for the 2020-21 season.

“With a COVID year, you’re going to have stuff thrown at you all the time,” sophomore outside hitter Anna Dixon said. “I think this team does a good job at being prepared for any situation that’s thrown at us.”

The Tigers started off their season on a high note in October with a win against Alabama. Senior outside hitter Kylie Deberg pounded the ball to the Crimson Tides’ side after many overpasses and free balls. The senior surpassed 1,000 career kills as Missouri continued to marginalize its errors and generate an explosive offense.

The season didn’t remain easy for long. The Tigers learned quickly to expect the unexpected after Omazic’s injury and dropped their only loss of the fall season to a tough Kentucky team.

Lack of available players haunted Missouri following the match against the Wildcats as backup junior setter Jaden Newsome broke her hand and senior outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh decided to opt out of the rest of the season. Taylor needed to string together a new lineup against Arkansas, and fast.

This gave bench players like sophomore middle blocker Claudia Dillon and senior right side hitter Dariana Hollingsworth-Santana the opportunity to transition into a more active — perhaps permanent — role.

Hollingsworth-Santana tallied a career-high 14 kills in a match as Dillon rattled the Razorback defense with her sneaky slide attacks. The Battle Line Rivalry win aided junior setter Andrea Fuentes to claim a 2,500 career assists milestone.

The duo that used to watch from the sidelines performed well on the court. Dillon and Hollingsworth-Santana filled the gaps within the Tigers’ offensive line and carried the Tigers past Ole Miss, LSU, Georgia and a match against South Carolina.

Despite Missouri’s ability to win amid less-than-ideal circumstances, the Tigers still struggled with consistency in tough situations. Overturned calls posed another difficulty that Missouri failed to overcome, as they dropped matches against Tennessee and South Carolina.

Team Analysis

There’s a lot to like about this team.

Despite essentially playing two seasons over the course of one academic year, Missouri is just now playing their best volleyball. Their clean sweep of Georgia two weeks ago demonstrates what the team can do and that they rebound quickly from mistakes.

The extended season also helped Missouri’s chemistry on the court. The killing combination of Dixon and Deberg has been unstoppable this year, and they are fun to watch when they get on a roll.

When they have an opportunity to set up plays in-system, Missouri’s offense runs like a well-oiled machine. With Dillon recently stepping into a more permanent role, the Tigers can have three offensive threats on the court at all times.

The same cannot be said when Missouri is forced to play out-of-system. When an opposing team traps the Tigers in an awkward formation, the back-row often falls victim to errors.

What’s even more concerning for Missouri is its inability to rebound quickly from these errors. When Missouri can’t put together long scoring runs, it tends to collapse in these late-set situations.

Missouri will need to fix this issue by recentering the attack and putting the Tigers in comfortable formations. Additionally, Taylor has been slow to diagnose when the team needs a breather and remains hesitant to take timeouts at key moments in the game.

In order for Missouri to make a deep tournament run, it will need to find other weapons to generate kills besides Deberg. When opposing defenses shift their formations to stifle the SEC’s leader in kills and points, Missouri has had trouble finding new avenues to score.

This was clear in the second match against Tennessee, where the Vols held Deberg to just eight kills, her worst performance of the year. The Volunteers strategically forced Missouri off-balance, and the Tigers committed 20 errors over three sets as a result.

Despite these shortcomings, Missouri boasts an impressive 11-5 record, lies just outside the top 25 and can be a dangerous team to face when its offense is comfortable.

What’s next

The Tigers will have a tough road ahead as they seek to make a run toward the NCAA Volleyball Championship, which will begin April 14 in Omaha, Nebraska.

After a week off, Missouri will travel to Gainesville, Florida to face the No. 8 Florida Gators. This series was originally slated for Feb. 6 and 7 but was rescheduled due to COVID-19 issues within the Florida program.

While Florida lived up to its ranking throughout the season, it showed signs of weakness. Its only two losses came against South Carolina and Georgia, two teams the Gators matched up against well.

Freshman Emily Brown and Missouri’s back-row will have a tough time stopping Florida senior outside hitter T’ara Ceasar, who is averaging 14 kills a game this season. Ceasar’s ability to precisely place a kill in defensive weak spots is a big piece of Florida’s high ranking.

The two-match series in Gainesville will be Missouri’s toughest since facing No. 3 Kentucky back in October. If the Tigers can take one of the two matches against the Gators, they can expect to reclaim a place in the top 25.

Missouri will then head home to the Hearnes Center and take on Texas A&M. At 6-4, the Aggies have been a mixed bag all year, starting strong out of the gate with sweeps against LSU and Ole Miss, but faltering in both matches against Mississippi State and Arkansas.

2021 has been a wild ride for the Aggies, playing only two matches against South Carolina after matchups against Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky were canceled or postponed. With so much time to rest, and matchups against Alabama and Georgia on the docket before they reach Columbia, the Aggies seem poised to cause Missouri some trouble.

To wrap up SEC play, Missouri will travel to Starkville to face 4-10 Mississippi State. While the Tigers certainly match up well against the Bulldogs, they have had trouble staying consistent against struggling teams.

Mississippi State junior Gabby Waden has been on a tear in her last five matches, averaging 15.5 kills per match this season. If the Bulldogs want to upset the Tigers, they need more top-notch performances from her to force Missouri’s defense out-of-system.

The Tigers will then have to wait until Selection Sunday on April 4 to know the fate of their season. Despite the NCAA tournament shrinking from 64 to 48 teams this year, Missouri’s chance of claiming one of the 16 at-large spots is good if they can finish the year strong.

Due to COVID-19, the entire tournament will be held at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska, beginning on April 13 and ending with the championship match on April 24.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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