Mizzou in the '00s: Best Moments of the Decade, #9

9. Volleyball: Mizzou Makes Elite Eight Run (2005)


Really?  A volleyball moment in the top ten?  Yep.  It's hard to explain the amount of pure entertainment the Kreklows and company put together in the middle of the decade, when other programs were struggling and Mizzou needed a team behind which to rally.  The Mizzou volleyball program ended the 1990s as one of the worst major conference teams in the country before Wayne and Susan Kreklow moved down College Avenue from Columbia College after the 1999 season and almost instantaneously turned things around.  After going 10-21 in 1999, Mizzou was in the Top 25 by mid-October 2000 and finished the season in the NCAA Tournament.  They made the tourney for eight straight seasons at the start of the Kreklows' tenure, but they got perhaps the most fortuitous break of their time at Mizzou when Kansas State coach Jim McLaughlin left KSU for Washington shortly before the 2001 season.  Why was that great for Mizzou?  Not only was McLaughlin building a budding major power in Manhattan, but he was also poised to sign setter Lindsey Hunter, who decided instead to sign with Mizzou a couple of months later.

If Mizzou was solid without Hunter, they turned a major corner with her.  In 2002, with Hunter setting the table as a true freshman (and fellow freshman Shen Danru both playing at a high level and representing a stellar recruiting strategy for the Kreklows -- using their China connections to bring a series of solid players to Columbia through the years), the Tigers won 26 games and came within five points in the fifth set of going to the Sweet Sixteen.  In 2003, with a super-young roster, Mizzou fell into a slump down the stretch but still advanced to the NCAAs and fell in five sets in the first round.  The 2004 season, however, saw a real move forward.  Mizzou went 20-9 with a tough schedule, and the growing fan enthusiasm and attendance led to Mizzou hosting an NCAA regional for the first time.  They were upset by a streaking Louisville team in the second round, but Mizzou's momentum, both on the court and in the stands, were unmistakable.

In 2005, it all came together.  With Hunter and Danru providing both strong play and senior leadership, Mizzou started the season ranked No. 21 and went up almost all year.  The pinnacle of the season was actually a loss -- against No. 1 Nebraska, No. 7 Mizzou drew an amazing 7,298 at Hearnes for a tight, exciting four-set loss.  I mean ... 7,300 is infinitely more than what Mizzou draws for any sports beyond football and men's basketball, and it's more than the attendance for even some basketball games!  The environment was electric -- Sections A-C at Hearnes were full -- and Mizzou was quickly earning the reputation of having one of the best homecourt advantages in the country.

Mizzou finished the season 22-4 and ranked 8th in the country, and it was an absolute no-brainer that they would once again host a regional.  The first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament were an absolute massacre.  In front of 6,294 at Hearnes, Mizzou swept SMS Missouri State, winning 30-27, 30-18, 30-26 (one highlight: the Bears fans in attendance trying to start an "MSU! MSU" chant during a break and getting swiftly drowned out by an "SMS! SMS!" chant from the Mizzou crowd).  Hunter had 44 assists.  Then came one of Mizzou's best overall performances ever: against an Arkansas team supposedly capable of challenging them, Mizzou took the first set 30-25, then absolutely blew the Lady Hogs out of the water, 30-16, 30-11.  Arkansas was cowed by the Hearnes crowed, and Mizzou made only eight hitting errors all night.  They had advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time, but they had by far the toughest draw for such a highly-ranked team.  The Tigers would have to face a perennial major power, No. 6 Hawaii, in State College.

 

What followed was almost (almost) as jarring to the world of volleyball as Mizzou's 2007 run was to the world of football.  Instead of being overwhelmed by new heights, Mizzou took their game up a notch.  They split the first two games with the Rainbow Wahine, and then, down 24-23 in Game 3, they made their move.  A couple of Hawaii errors gave Mizzou a 25-24 lead, then sophomore Na Yang (one of the most enjoyable-to-watch Mizzou plays in any sport, ever) threw down three kills in four points.  On game point #2, a Danru kill (via Hunter assist) gave Mizzou a two games to one lead.  Game four was all Mizzou.  Hunter knocked three aces in the game's first four points, and Mizzou leaped out to a 15-6 lead.  From there, it was academic.  Hawaii came within 25-20, but the match was over.  A kill by middle blocker Lisa Boyd, her 12th of the match, ended it.  Mizzou, a team sitting in the dregs of the volleyball world just six years earlier, was in the Elite Eight.  And not only that, but #17 Tennessee had knocked out host #2 Penn State the same day, and Mizzou would actually be favored in the regional finals.

 

Of course, they didn't make the Final Four, taking Game 1 from Tennessee then faltering, but that hardly mattered.  (Okay, it mattered -- it was a crushing disappointment at the time, and an anti-climactic letdown.)  At a time when Mizzou fans needed something to cheer about, Mizzou Volleyball had filled the void.  A month later, Mizzou would come from behind to win the Independence Bowl, and the football program would begin its ascent to a higher status.  Plus, MU Volleyball has yet to reach the same heights again without Hunter (here's to hoping that Molly Kreklow, an incoming setter ranked every bit as high as Hunter was in high school, gives Mizzou the boost they need).  Because of that, this moment seems less significant now than it did four years ago.  Mizzou's NCAA run in 2005 became one of the ultimate "You had to be there" moments of the decade.  If you were there, you know exactly why it makes this list despite being a far lesser revenue sport than football or basketball.  If you weren't ... well, you missed out.  It was fantastic.

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