Whatever you like from your sports story lines, Mizzou Volleyball has had it in recent seasons -- ups, downs, family ties, disappointment, redemption, character/class.
Among other things, there have two different redemption tales in the last four years. First, in 2010, a young, fearless Tiger squad with a balanced attack and a freshman setter brought the Tigers back from the Big 12 depths, upset No. 5 Northern Iowa in the NCAA Tournament, and reached the Sweet 16.
Then, in 2013, after a couple of decent but ultimately disappointing seasons, a pair of seniors and an incredibly young lineup not only bounced back, but went 18-0 in SEC play and 34-0 in the regular season, and won Mizzou's first SEC title.
At the heart of both of those teams was perhaps Mizzou's best ever set-and-spike combination: Molly Kreklow to Lisa Henning. The former had more than 5,000 assists, the latter had nearly 1,800 kills. The former was the SEC's player of the year and a 2013 All-American, the latter was a three-time All-American.
The coaching of Wayne and Susan Kreklow has been forever steady, but Mizzou's talent level has waxed and waned through the years. After going 25-5 in 2005 and reaching the Elite Eight, Mizzou struggled through four mediocre seasons, going 66-57 in that span. The Tigers were still fun and competitive, and in both the 2006 and 2007 NCAA Tournaments, they had given volleyball heavyweights hell, losing to Stanford and Washington in five-set battles. In 208, however, they fell to 13-17, and they had only rebounded to 18-14 in 2009 when Henning and Kreklow signed. Both were top-50 national recruits with impressive offer lists. But family ties brought Kreklow from Minnesota, and local ties brought Henning from Blue Springs. And they turned Mizzou around.
The effect was immediate, Kreklow instantly became Mizzou's starting setter while Henning joined a strong trio of veteran hitters -- Paola Ampudia, Julianna Klein, and Brittney Brimmage. The Tigers hit a September rough patch, losing seven of 12 games from September 10 to October 9. But with their backs against the postseason wall, they responded, winning eight of nine before a five-set loss to Oklahoma to finish the regular season. At 20-10, they reached the postseason again after a two-year absence. That was impressive enough, but the Tigers didn't stop there. No top-5 seed had ever lost in the first round since seeding had begun in 2000, but Mizzou stuned Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls; they took two of the first three sets and nearly closed the match out in the fourth before falling, 28-26.
The fifth set was nip-and-tuck; Kreklow set up Henning for a kill to give Mizzou an 11-8 lead, then set up Brimmage to make it 12-9. At 12-10, Mizzou won the final three points of the match with kills from the seniors -- Brimmage, then Ampudia, then Klein.
The Tigers followed that incredible win with a four-set decision over Northwestern, then fell to Duke in the Sweet 16.
The next two years were again mixed. With rather drastic roster turnover, Kreklow and Henning were nearly the only constants. Mizzou went 21-13 in 2011 but lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Florida. And in their first season in the SEC, the Tigers went 10-9 in conference and 19-11 overall and missed the tourney despite Henning receiving All-American honors for the second straight year.
With both senior leadership and a deeper supporting cast, Mizzou expected to make the NCAA Tournament in 2013. That wasn't too much to ask. But nobody saw a 35-game win streak coming. After averaging between 10.4 and 11.7 assists per set for three years, Kreklow averaged 12.7. After generating an attack rate of between 22.7 and 26.4 percent for three years, Henning averaged an incredible 33.0 percent (4.3 kills per set). And the supporting cast thrived -- freshman Carly Kan, and junior Emily Wilson and Whitney Little had 919 kills (383 from Kan) and 217 blocks (139 from Little). Junior Sarah Meister and freshman Loxley Keala had 673 digs for a dramatically improved defense.
The cast was strong, but Kreklow and Henning were the stars. They saw it all in their four years, and they left with a championship ring. (And no, this isn't the last time you'll hear from the 2013 squad on this countdown.)