“We’re talking about practice!”
— Allen Iverson, former NBA player
Darren Hellwege, sports commentator
Game nights are fun. Practice is a drag. More than two thousand fans at the Hearnes Center yelling your name is fun. Practice in a big, empty Hearnes Center stinks. Diving on the floor for a big play as the crowd erupts is a rush. Diving on the floor at practice just means you have to get up and dive on the floor again. And again. And again.
But, athletes—probably even Allen Iverson—know practice is important. “You play the way you practice” is a cliché about as old as “you gotta take them one at a time.” But it’s absolutely true, as the Missouri Tigers volleyball team found out the hard way Wednesday night. After two days of practice that players and coach Wayne Kreklow agreed were very poor, the Tigers lost a match they had every opportunity to win, falling in five sets to Kansas State, 33-31, 20-25, 21-25, 25-19, and 12-15.
Afterwards, a visibly angry Wayne Kreklow marched his players into the locker room for something exceptionally rare for the laid-back coach, a chewing out. “I’m really disappointed,” Kreklow said afterwards. “We were not prepared at all. We were slow, we just weren’t ready.”
“I can handle being beat. But this was mental errors,” Kreklow said. And when asked if the Tigers youth was an excuse, Kreklow said, “the veterans were just as bad.”
That the practices prior to this match were sub-par was understood by everyone. Lisa Henning said, “Our practices weren’t what they should have been. We just didn’t have a feeling for the ball. We gotta get our mind into it.”
Henning added that she understood her coach’s anger after the match. “Wayne needed to do that.”
But she also added, “I’ve never seen him like that.”
Early in the evening it looked as if the Tigers might overcome the errors and beat the Wildcats. They fought back from an early deficit to take the first set in thrilling fashion.
Kansas State controlled things early and when they led 21-16 things looked grim for the Tigers. But then a KSU service error and block by Henning put the Tigers within three. They eventually battled back to 22-22, and from there the teams remarkably traded the next 18 points. The Tigers would score to go ahead one and then, usually facing set point, the Wildcats would score to tie it up again, building the tension and excitement each time.
But, much as it seemed like that might go on forever, victory came. Brittney Brimmage scored a kill off a Molly Kreklow set, then Brimmage and Sarah Meister got a successful block to gave the Tigers a hard-earned win. The 33-31 victory was the longest MU had played this season.
The excitement could have built momentum, meant a lift in focus and play. Instead, the ‘Cats scored wins in sets two and three. The maddening inconsistency showed best in Henning’s stats. She scored 10 kills in the first set, just one in the second. The Tigers’ .381 hitting percentage in the first set was the only one over .300 on the night. The mark of .176 in the second would be the Tigers’ worst…until the final set, when they needed most to play their best.
Instead, the fifth set included five service errors, saw balls that should have been played hit the ground as players watched, seemingly confused as to what they should do. The teams played evenly to a 3-3 tie, but KSU then ran off four straight points and the Tigers never got much closer, losing the finale 15-12.
After the match, and the bawling out from Wayne Kreklow, it was a grim-faced set of Tigers who left the locker room. This usually exuberant bunch of young women had not a smile among them. Wayne Kreklow told them they hadn’t only let down this team, but a lot of other Tigers.
There’s a wall leading to the Tigers’ locker room full of photos of the greats of Tiger teams past. You walk past All-Americans like Jessica Vander Kooi and Lindsey Hunter and the others who made MU one of the top teams in college volleyball.
“Those players built a great program,” said sophomore Molly Kreklow. “We just cannot think that we don’t owe it to anyone to play better.”
“We all knew it would be difficult with so many young players, getting them all to focus,” she added, “but you can’t practice for others. We just have to try to keep everyone’s head in the game. We don’t want to look back at the end of the season and say ‘if only’. Every team in this league is good, we gotta win at home.”
She also knew what has to happen next. “Tomorrow’s practice is crucial. Oklahoma (the next team on the Tigers’ schedule) is a great team. To beat them would be awesome.” The Sooners are 15-3 on the year after beating Texas Wednesday in Norman and are ranked No. 25 in the volleyball coaches’ poll.
The Tigers will have some time now to cure whatever ails them. They’ll have a bye this weekend before the game against Oklahoma next Wednesday. But, having no games doesn’t mean they’ll be taking it easy. With this loss, with play coach Kreklow said looked like his players had “mush for brains,” the Tigers fall to 14-5 overall and 1-2 in Big 12 conference play. The team will have to improve its play if it wants to be in the NCAA tournament this season.
But they won’t have to change things and pick up their effort and focus next Wednesday against Oklahoma. By then, it’ll be too late.
It has to start tomorrow. In practice.