Spring Preview: A glimpse into Missouri volleyball’s upcoming season

After it finished its fall season with a 6-2 record, Missouri volleyball is set to hit the court tonight against LSU.

No. 17 Missouri volleyball will hit the court tonight for its spring season opener against LSU.

Here’s a complete whip-around of everything you need to know, including players to watch, a glimpse into Missouri’s spring schedule and how the Tigers have adjusted to adversity following their fall season.

Schedule

The Southeastern Conference instituted eight conference-only matches versus four opponents over a six-week period this fall in response to COVID-19 safety measures. However, with a successful season outcome, they extended more opportunities for conference play until the end of March and the first week of April as a makeup week.

The Tigers finished their fall season with a 6-2 record, dropping only two games against No. 4 Kentucky.

In their top-10 matchup with Kentucky, the Tigers lost middle blocker Tyanna Omazic to a torn ACL. An agonizing scene took place at the center of the court as Omazic cried out in pain filling an otherwise silent Hearnes Center.

Head coach Joshua Taylor carried Omazic to the training room as her teammates grouped together in the center of the court.

Missouri could not settle down after the injury and would ultimately go on to drop three consecutive matches in both games against the Wildcats.

The Tigers began to adapt without one of their top scorers, capping off the fall season with four consecutive wins against Arkansas and Ole Miss.

Missouri will begin the spring season ranked No. 17 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. It will face off against No. 10 Florida and both Georgia and South Carolina, who also received votes in the AVCA poll. First, however, the Tigers will take on LSU tonight.

The Tigers will no longer face Auburn due to the loss of players from injuries and opt-outs. This will result as a bye for Mizzou, per coach Taylor.

Players to Watch

Kylie Deberg

The Missouri offense runs through the hands of Kylie Deberg, who was named to the Preseason All-SEC team along with Omazic.

Deberg was forced to adapt quickly to being Missouri’s go-to offensive force following Omazic’s torn ACL. This was not completely unknown for her, as Deberg was a second-team All-American in the 2019-20 season.

In Omazic’s absence, Deberg was quickly made a target for opponent’s blockers. She occasionally received triple blocks and double blocks from the middle — where traditionally a single block is warranted — as other Missouri hitters made the same adaptations.

Still, Deberg is one of the highest-ranked hitters in the nation, sitting at fourth for 5.50 points per set, ninth for 4.59 kills per set and tenth for 0.59 aces per set.

This season looks even more unusual for Deberg. The senior outside hitter graduated in December 2020 thinking that the fall would be her last time on the court.

“It’s really weird to still be here and still be playing for Mizzou because I wasn’t supposed to,” Deberg said. “I knew that I would still get two years to play beach after this, so I just figured why would I not finish out my senior year here.”

Due to the change of schedule, she is still eligible to finish out the rest of the season while continuing to command the Missouri offense.

Anna Dixon

Just three games into the season, Missouri volleyball was forced to search for a second offensive weapon following the loss of Omazic.

Anna Dixon would be Missouri’s answer.

The Kansas State transfer made an immediate impact. In her new role as an offensive power, she thrived. She came off the first half of the season ranked sixth for 113 kills, ninth for 118.5 points and tenth for 3.53 kills per set in the SEC.

Dixon took her offensive role seriously, providing a mature approach to blocking that the Tigers desperately needed in the fall.

“I have to keep in mind that she’s a sophomore. I think of her as a four-year starter just with how mature of a game she plays,” Taylor said of Dixon following game one against Kentucky. “She’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

Night after night, Missouri blockers struggled at the pins. With holes in the blocks, late blocks and early blocks, the Tigers’ blockers put additional stress on their back row defense.

Dixon became a much-needed anchor at the pins. She guided her teammates to the net and in the final two games of the fall season, the Tigers demonstrated more focused and controlled blocks. This is a skill the Tigers hope to bring with them into the spring season.

Andrea Fuentes

In volleyball, the setter is generally the backbone of the team. Setter Andrea Fuentes is exactly that for Missouri.

Fuentes kept the defenders off-balance, in part due to her setter-dumps, where she would drop a ball perfectly over the net and catch the opponents defense on its heels.

Fuentes has taken lessons from assistant coach Molly Kreklow, a former Missouri setter. Kreklow earned First Team All-American honors and SEC Player of the Year during her time as a Tiger. Kreklow was known for her setter dumps and ability to guide her hitters at the net, a skill that Fuentes exhibits as the commander of the Missouri offense.

Fuentes provides each hitter with sets that lead them to the net and away from potential defenders. Her excellence in guiding her offense has given her the ability to slow down Missouri’s play and set her own pace.

Fuentes is a discernible pacesetter for the Tigers’ offense, who finished the fall season with a .290 hitting percentage, ranking fifth in the NCAA and second in the SEC.

Fuentes “consistently put our offense in great positions to succeed,” Taylor said following her second SEC Setter of the Week award. “Overall this fall, she routinely pushed the right buttons and ran our offense extremely well.”

Her leadership and ability to lead her hitters gained attention around the SEC. Fuentes earned SEC Setter of the Week in both weeks two and six, making that seven career SEC Setter of the Week awards on her resume.

Fuentes begins the spring season ranking fourth in the SEC with an average of 10.19 assists per set.

In order for Missouri’s offense to maintain the domination they had in the fall, Fuentes must hold onto the control of the offense she established in November.

Responding to Adversity

Taylor knew that this season amidst COVID and every other scenario that could arise on a team would make it unlike any other. The Tigers begin the second half of the season with only 11 players due to injuries and some athletes choosing to opt-out.

“It’s a really low number to what we’re even used to,” Taylor said. “But, the pieces we do have are really good and I’m looking forward to watching.”

Even though a shortage of players may be a disadvantage, the Tigers are seeing it as an opportunity to address any of their missing keys to a successful game.

“We can get really quiet at times, but this spring we’ve really put an emphasis on communicating well toward each other,” Deberg said. “Having a smaller number [of players] is just easier to do with each other.”

Considering the circumstances that Missouri volleyball has faced this season, Dixon agrees that this hurdle has only made it stronger.

“This team is very competitive, so having another semester to go out and compete with each other helps us go through adversity together and also work on our connection with each other,” Dixon said.

On top of that, Missouri has 17 teams competing at once this season which makes it difficult for teams to secure full gym time. The team splits home court at Hearnes Center with gymnastics and wrestling, and sometimes heads over to Mizzou Arena to share with basketball.

However, he sees the glass half-full when looking at his team. When other programs around the country such as Auburn and Hawaii canceled their seasons indefinitely, Taylor couldn’t help but extend his gratitude to the university for the opportunity to play.

“Just to even be in our gym is a privilege,” Taylor said. “Being able to compete is something we got to look at each day like we get to do this, and we’re fortunate enough to come in here and work hard.”

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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