Since its inception in 1998, the Tiger Invitational has been dominated by Missouri Volleyball, which sits at 35-3 with six tournament wins in the past seven years. Last season, the Tigers hardly stumbled in the 2013 invitational, dropping just one set over the four games they played to start the season. Four new teams make the journey to Columbia for the Tiger Invitational this September: Lipscomb, Xavier, Illinois State, and Oakland. Here's a look at each team:
September 5th vs. Lipscomb
Players to keep an eye on
Jewell Dobson (Senior Middle Blocker)
After a solid first two years at Lipscomb (470 kills/2.89 Kills/Set combined), Dobson had a career year for the Bisons in 2013, racking up a career-high 507 kills on .378 hitting percentage, good for top three in the Atlantic Sun. The All-America returns for her senior year with hopes to capture her second A-Sun title after losing in the championship game the past two years.
Lauren Ford (Senior Outside Hitter)
Like Dobson, Ford has been a consistent offensive threat since she arrived at Lipscomb in 2011. She and Dobson have already left their marks on the volleyball program, as they are two of seven players in program history to eclipse 1,000 career kills. If Ford can improve her accuracy this year, she and Dobson could be the best 1-2 punch in the conference in 2014.
Bri McCombs (Senior Libero/Defensive Specialist)
On the defensive side of the court, Bri McCombs led the Bison in 2013 with 469 digs (4.23/per set), leading the Atlantic Sun as well. She was also the team's most dominant server last year, with 28 service aces. If the 2013 A-Sun Libero of the Year can improve upon her 2013 numbers, she'll garner some national attention and guide the Bison back to the NCAA tournament.
Lipscomb is definitely a step up from the competition the Tigers will have faced at the North Texas Tournament the week before. The bison return three of the four all-conference members from the year before, and have made six of the past seven Atlantic Sun tournament championships (winning four of them). They haven't had much success against SEC opponents either, losing nine in a row to the conference, including a sweep by the Tigers in 2012. This should be win number ten for the SEC with the Tigers at home. Missouri 3, Lipscomb 0
September 5 vs. Illinois State
Players to keep an eye on
Kaitlyn Early (Senior Setter)
After sitting behind Kristin Stauter her first year at ISU, Early paced the Redbirds offense her Sophomore/Junior years with back-to-back 1,000-plus assist seasons. She also made an impact as a server, leading ISU with 34 service aces, .29 per set. One more big season could help push the Redbirds further up the Missouri Valley Ladder.
Ashley Rosch (Junior Outside Hitter)
Not many freshman made the impact like Ashley Rosch did her first year in Normal: She led the team in Kills, Points, and Kills/Set, was named MVC Freshman of the Year, and landed on the All-MVC First-Team at the end of the 2012 season. Rosch followed that up by improving on all of her numbers her Sophomore year, once again leading the team in the same three categories and was again named All-MVC First team. Accuracy is the one thing she needs to improve on for 2014, and if she can, she'll be a constant threat for all five sets.
Emily Orrick (Senior Defensive Specialist)
Orrick was a nice surprise defensively for the Redbird in 2013, the transfer from Lincoln Land Community College lead ISU with 572 digs and 4.85 digs/set, including four matches where she would eclipse 30 digs. The returning 2013 MVC Libero of the Year was the key in the Rebirds defense that held opponents to .153 hitting percentage last fall, best mark in the conference.
Defensively, this is one of the better teams Missouri will face over the weekend. Emily Orrick was a big part in keeping ISU in several sets last year with last-second digs to keep the play alive. The outside players for Missouri will be the key to success for the Tigers attack, if Emily Wilson and Carly Kan can force Orrick back on her heels in the middle, Missouri should be able to handle the Redbirds. Missouri 3, Illinois State 1
September 6 vs. Oakland
Players to keep an eye on
Cassie Pelloni (Junior Outside Hitter)
Pelloni was the leading attacker for the Grizzlies in 2013, leading the team with 339 kills and 3.05 K/S. She was one of the more consistent offense players for Oakland, tallying 19 of 30 matches with double digit kills, three of those with 20-plus kills. The All-Horizon league outside hitter should be one of the better attackers in the conference in 2014.
Ciara Schultz (Junior Setter)
At Setter last season, Schultz was a solid performer for the offense, dishing out a team-leading 564 assists for an average of 5.17 A/S. She also tallied seven double-doubles last year, including her career-best performance against Youngstown State, where she dished out 32 assists along with 16 digs in the Grizzlies win over the Penguins last year. The offense should flow better with Schultz's two years of experience starting at Setter for Oakland.
Taylor Humm (Senior Outside Hitter)
While she missed a chunk of 2013 due to an ankle injury, Humm still made a very solid contribution on both offense and defense for the Grizzlies, racking up 178 kills on offense and 355 digs (3.74 D/S) on defense. She's also one of five players in Oakland Volleyball history to surpass the 1,000 dig mark in their careers.
Probably the weakest team on the slate this weekend, while Oakland boasts solid players like Pelloni and Humm, it won't be enough to keep up with the Tigers at the Hearnes Center. Missouri 3, Oakland 0
September 6 vs. Xavier
Players to keep an eye on
Abbey Bessler (Sophomore Outside Hitter)
if you were to compare her to a Missouri player, it would be Carly Kan.
Bessler burst onto the scene as a freshman at Xavier, leading the Musketeers offense with 454 kills (3.75 K/S) off of 1,376 total attacks, the second most ever for a freshman at Xavier. She would rack up plenty postseason accolades as well, landing on the All-Big East First Team, AVCA All-America Honorable Mention, and was named the AVCA East Region Freshman of the Year.
It's going to be really fun to watch her and Carly match up this fall.
Aubree Smith (Senior Setter)
Like her sister, and former teammate at XU, Alex, Aubree Smith is leaving a lasting legacy in the Xavier record books. She's currently 5th in career assists with 3,665 in her three seasons with the Musketeers. Now coming off a career year in 2013, where she pulled in career-highs in Digs, Kills, Assists, and Hitting Percentage, Smtih could finish as one of the best setters in Xavier history.
Alex Blair (Senior Middle Blocker)
Blair and Alex Smith made a dynamic duo at the Middle Blocker spot that was a threat to opposing teams both on offense and defense, but now with Smith graduated, the pressure to replace that spot is high coming into this season. Defensively, Alex Blair is probably one of the best players for the Musketeers up front at the net. She racked up 157 total blocks last season, good for third overall in the Big East. If Blair can replicate the success Smith had on offense at the Middle Blocker position, Xavier could be the odds-on favorite to win the Big East.
In contrast to the earlier game on the schedule this day, Xavier will be the strongest opponent the Tigers will take on this weekend. The Musketeers finished in the top three in opponent hitting percentage and digs, thanks in part to a great closing season from both Alex Smith and Sarah Brown. Now with both gone, the question will be in XU's defense will hold up against the strong Missouri attack. Carly Kan and Emily Wilson will be relentless on offense if given a chance. The biggest matchup is in the middle between Whitney Little and Alex Blair. A single block from either side could change the course of a set, or even an entire match. I'll take Missouri here due to their consistency on offense last year, and although they lost their biggest weapon in all-american Lisa Henning, the Tigers attack should be able to push Mizzou to a sweep of the Tiger Invitational. Missouri 3, Xavier, 1