The ups, downs, achievements and misfires in Mizzou’s teams
Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
Today I take a look at the fall sports teams. Check out yesterday’s column for a look at the spring sports.
There’s too much talent on this club to be 8-9-3, but once again the team struggled late in the year after showing real potential.
An early season match that nearly pulled off an upset at powerhouse Portland and two wins over top-10 Southeastern Conference opponents showed how good this team could be. But four losses and three ties in the final nine games killed whatever good things the Tiger season had in store.
MVPs: (ties) Kaysie Clark and Mackenzie Sauerwein. Maybe this is cheating, but hey, it’s my column. Midfielder Clark was first team All-SEC leading the Tigers in points and goals, and managed to be part of the aggressive BlitzBall Tiger style while still making significant defensive contributions in Mizzou’s own half. Sauerwein was between the pipes for all but 16 minutes of the season, and was a rock in goal. Both return for the 2014 Tigers, who’ll hope to finally solve the late season woes of the last couple of seasons and have a record befitting this talented club.
Play of the Year: This one’s easy. A beaut of a goal from senior Alyssa Diggs off an assist from Clark in the 79th minute against the notoriously stingy South Carolina defense gave the Tigers a 2-1 victory over the No. 7 Gamecocks at Walton Stadium.
Gutdrop of the Year: Also an easy choice. Until late it looked like the Tigers might salvage a decent season, but a late slide meant another losing record. After a rough OT loss in Fayetteville in the finale, the Tigers laid an egg against the Razorbacks in the SEC tourney, with an embarrassing 4-0 loss. It was only the third clean sheet a team put up on Missouri, and the most goals they surrendered all year. Not the way this team wanted a frustrating season to end.
Speaking of frustrating endings, the greatest season in MU volleyball history and one of the greatest performances we’ve seen from any sport will, sadly, be remembered for the shocking (at the time) upset to Purdue in the second round of the NCAA tournament. A team some national observers thought wasn’t as good as its undefeated record was unjustly maligned, but when the Boilermakers swept Illinois and became one of four Big Ten teams to make the regional finals in the NCAA tourney, people realized that maybe it wasn’t quite the upset it had seemed. Coach Wayne Kreklow wisely allowed a young team to season with a less than brutal non-conference schedule, but in the end a team from volleyball’s best conference was more prepared on one night and Mizzou’s Final Four dreams ended, as did the careers of future Hall of Famers Molly Kreklow and Lisa Henning.
MVP: Hard to go against All-American Lisa Henning, but Molly Kreklow came back from an injury-riddled 2012 season to be named SEC Player of the Year. The great setter continued her unbeatable mojo with Henning and Emily Wilson, but more impressively developed great chemistry with newbies like Carly Kan and helped pave the way for the next great Tiger setter, Loxley Keala. Honorable mentions to unsung heroes Wilson, Whitney Little, and Sarah Meister. It’s easy to attribute a 34-0 season to the two All-Americans, but this team really had contributions coming from every corner, and in spite of the graduation of both Henning and Molly Kreklow, there’s a lot of reason for optimism going into 2014.
Play of the Year: The win at Tennessee in October seemed massive at the time, but we learned as the year went along how troubled the Lady Vols would be in 2013. The point at which those of us who watch MU volleyball closely realized how special this team was came in Hearnes Center with a win over Florida, also in October. But it was the second win over the Gators in Gainesville two weeks later that showed the world that the Tigers were for real. Emily Wilson gets Play of the Year for her kill to end a long rally that won a tight second set and break the Gators back. MU would take the third as well, the first time in history the Gators were swept in the O’Connell Center.
Gutdrop of the Year: Obviously the only loss of the year against Purdue in the Hearnes Center. It was easy afterwards for fingers to be pointed…the Tigers were overconfident, the Tigers weren’t battle-tested because of a soft schedule, and so on and so on. But give the credit where it’s due. Coach Dave Shondell had his team perfectly prepared for Mizzou, the Boilermakers weren’t the slightest bit shaken by the Hearnes crowd, and they played a style the Tigers saw very little of and just couldn’t get past. Purdue had great athletes, and a great plan, and they executed it, and the Tigers greatest season came crashing down.
I made a point of being critical of those who would claim Gary Pinkel was on the proverbial hot seat after the 5-7 2012 season. People ignored the insane rash of injuries and said the Tigers weren’t ready for life in the SEC. I said, wait and see what happens in 2013. I picked the Tigers third in the SEC East, wildly optimistic in many peoples’ eyes.
I was wrong.
The Tigers finished first in the East and came one game from playing for a national championship as Mizzou finished the year 12-2 and no longer hearing about how they’d run up successes against a supposedly weak Big 12 schedule over the years. While a return to a healthy (relatively speaking) James Franklin, the development of Maty Mauk and offensive linemen not dropping like flies were contributors, the lion’s share of credit should go to the Mizzou defense, including co-Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC Michael Sam and All-American Kony Ealy. The brilliant season end with a win over Oklahoma State in a Cotton Bowl shootout and another finish in the top 10 nationally.
MVP: Has to be James Franklin. After having not just his ability but his toughness questioned the previous year, Franklin showed plenty of both in leading this team in every sense of the word to a remarkable season. Never given the recognition he deserved in a league full of elite quarterbacks, Franklin just did his job with dignity and maturity and carried the team on his back. To boot, he demonstrated real toughness in coming back from another injury against Georgia.
Play of the Year: The most improbable passing combination you could imagine lit the fire for this season when Franklin went down against the Dawgs in Athens. We saw in that game flashes of what Mauk could be, but it was a short lateral to Bud Sasser, who then turned and completed a 40-yard pass to L’Damian Washington that sealed the deal after Georgia came back from a large deficit to make it a two-point game. Randy Ponder’s interception prevented Aaron Murray’s Bulldogs from any hope of climbing back into it, and when Henry Josey dove into the end zone late to make it 41-26 Missouri, the word was sent to all the land—the Mizzou Tigers belong in the Southeastern Conference.
Gutdrop of the Year: Could be the defensive performance against Auburn in the SEC Championship game, but I pick the final few moments against South Carolina. Not just the final second, although Andrew Baggett’s kick clanging off the left upright in the north end zone (not the north end zone AGAIN!!) but allowing the Gamecocks back into a game the Tigers had locked down. The Tigers led 17-0 into the 4th quarter when Connor Shaw, the most underrated QB in the league, came off the bench like Kirk Gibson in the ’88 National League playoffs and engineered a remarkable comeback. You have to give Shaw and the Gamecocks credit, but you also have to shake your head when you realize the Tigers had this game won and let a team with a gimpy quarterback come back and win it.
Coaches, athletes and pretty much everyone else hates hearing “Wait till next year,” but the story of Mizzou wrestling may well be that the 2013-14 team was very good, but wait till next year. With the bulk of the team that finished 14th at the NCAA Nationals in Oklahoma City returning, a lot more home meets and a strong recruiting class coming in, it could be a very exciting season for Tiger Style. While there’ll be lots to watch, the focus will obviously be on J’den Cox, the first ever Tiger to win an individual national championship as a true freshman. The Columbia native (Hickman H.S.) isn’t just a great wrestler, but with his tremendous attitude and aggressive style, he’s a kid you just want to root for.
MVP: Cox, obviously. He was never taken down in the NCAA’s, he’s already showing himself to be a team leader. Won’t be outworked, and will continue to improve, which should scare every 197-pounder in the nation. He’s going to be great for the program, not just as one of the best wrestlers ever at the school but as a handsome guy who gets great grades and sings like an angel. If people get concerned about athletes who get into trouble, this is the guy you point at as a demonstration about what’s right about college athletics.
Play of the Year: Again, obviously, Cox and his 2-1 victory over Nick Heflin of Ohio State for the Tigers’ fifth ever individual national championship. Cox was tremendous throughout the tourney in Oklahoma City and with four of the top 10 at his weight graduating (including Heflin) Cox absolutely has the chance to repeat the championship again…and again…and again.
Gutdrop of the Year: Mikey England being upset by Cody Caldwell in December as Northern Iowa dominated the Tigers in Cedar Falls tops the list, but the Tigers being dominated by former league rival and the sport’s traditional powerhouse Oklahoma State left a bad taste in coach Brian Smith’s mouth. Only Drake Houdashelt and Cox escaped Stillwater with individual wins, just two nights after the Tigers had beaten Oklahoma.
OTHER NOTEWORTHY TIGERS
Max Storms (Cross Country): Finished his career as the school record holder in the 10 kilometer.
Tiger Gymnastics: In spite of a somewhat disappointing season, the Tigers finished in the top 20 in the nation in attendance, and have a lot of strong performers returning as coach Shannon Welker prepares for his second season in Columbia.
Jamie Sweeney (Diving Coach): Named the co-SEC Men’s Diving Coach of the Year. Helped lead one of the overlooked programs on campus to a higher level of success, including All-American honors for David Bonuchi and Clark Thomas. It’s the third time in 10 years at Mizzou Sweeney’s won a conference Coach of the Year award in the SEC or Big 12.
Darren Hellwege is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association and Football Writers Association of America