Reclaiming her role: How Andrea Fuentes and Missouri volleyball saved their season from elimination

After Fuentes earned back her starting spot, the redshirt junior goes into the NCAA tournament with something to prove.

When redshirt junior setter Andrea Fuentes found Missouri volleyball’s starting lineup for its Jan. 29 matchup against LSU, she didn’t see her name. This surprised Fuentes, who previously announced her decision to make 2020 her final season.

The unexpected absence led the setter to reflect on her time on the Missouri volleyball team rife with highs and lows.

Between a hurricane devastating her home of Puerto Rico her freshman season, three straight losses in the NCAA tournament and devastating injuries to her friends and teammates in the midst of an extended pandemic season, Fuentes has seen it all.

Her way out has always been the same — to do the work.

“I made a plan, and earning my spot back was part of that plan,” Fuentes said. “To me, there wasn’t a scenario where I was going to finish off the season not playing.”

While Fuentes trained behind the scenes, the team suffered a series of setbacks to open the second half of its season.

After unranked LSU took Missouri to five sets on consecutive nights, a depleted Missouri squad needed a comeback series against Tennessee. Once again, Fuentes remained on the bench.

Her replacement?

Redshirt junior Jaden Newsome, who Fuentes compliments for running an efficient offense in both series. In her four matches as a starter, Newsome averaged 40 assists and 11 digs per game.

“She’s one of those players that makes me better,” Fuentes said. “We’re really best friends off the court, and it’s a competition I will take with me wherever I go next and that I hold near and dear to my heart.”

Despite Newsome’s leadership, things did not go the Tigers’ way in Knoxville. The first match ended in a tragic five-set loss; the second a 3-0 Lady Volunteer rout.

Missouri dropped to No. 25 in the AVCA poll and fell to 8-4 after the two losses. With a tough series against Georgia up next, both Fuentes and the Tigers found themselves at turning points.

The NCAA’s decision to reduce its tournament from 64 to 48 teams due to the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardized Missouri’s shot at an elusive at-large bid. The senior-reliant side, led by Fuentes and All-American senior outside hitter Kylie Deberg, were desperate for a quality win.

In a sense, both Fuentes and the team came into the series with a place to reclaim.

For Fuentes, it was a spot in the starting lineup; for the program, it was a birth in the Big Dance.

Both parties earned their salt in the long days of training before Friday night’s match.

“The way my teammates and I were training, making that 360 turn-around as a team, that was a highlight of the season,” Fuentes said. “People playing against Tennessee were like different people playing against Georgia.”

Players and coaches alike commented that Fuentes displayed influential leadership during the week.

“It reminds us who we are as a team and how high of a level we can play at,” sophomore hitter Claudia Dillon said. “In practice, we have to keep building to make the tournament and have a tournament run.”

At long last, Fuentes’ dedication was finally enough for her to earn back a starting spot.

“When I found myself in the starting lineup against Georgia, [I knew] this [was] going according to plan,” Fuentes said.

When Fuentes took the floor at the Hearnes Center, she played with something to prove. Thanks to her efficient offense, Missouri cruised to two three-set wins over the Bulldogs, injecting life into a season that seemed dead in the water weeks earlier.

Fuentes averaged 30 assists and 5 digs per match. She even racked up 4 kills in the first match. Coach Joshua Taylor didn’t hold back his pride postgame when discussing Fuentes’ strong return.

“I’m really proud of her,” Taylor said. “She comes back, and two nights in a row, hitting over .300. She’s doing some really nice things for the team,”

Fuentes continued to fill the statbook as the season came to a close. In the first match against Florida a few weeks later, Fuentes posted a season-high 54 assists in a close five-set loss against the No. 7 team in the country.

The impressive effort against the Gators, followed by a four-game winning streak, earned Missouri one of the elusive last-four-in slots. Just like Fuentes, Taylor said training and dedication were the keys to reclaiming their spot and remain important in the tournament.

“In tough moments, you’re not going to rise to the occasion; you’re going to sink to the level of your training,” Taylor said. “You’ve gotta bring everything you got.”

Fuentes says even though they are underdogs, the team has their sights set for a deep run.

“Even though we feel accomplished, we know that it’s not done,” Fuentes said. “It’s a sense of satisfaction but continual hunger.”

Fuentes has packed her bag with three week’s worth of clothes — enough to last the entire tournament. After everything this season has brought, there’s only one thing left for her to do.

“If the business is three weeks, we’re here to take care of business,” Fuentes said.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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