Something is in the air at the Hearnes Center, and it's not good for Mizzou Volleyball.
When All-Americans Molly Kreklow and Lisa Henning wrapped up their college careers, we expected that their departures would bring about a drop-off in how Missouri Volleyball performed in 2014. But while I wasn't thinking that VolleyZou would go coast-to-coast again for a 34-0 season, I expected that they would be able to compete in the SEC again with players like Carly Kan, Sarah Meister, and Whitney Little back for this season.
With what I've seen out of the Tigers eight games in, I'm not so sure.
Mizzou started this season with an expected sweep over an out-matched Mississippi Valley State team at the North Texas Tournament, cruising to the win behind a .468 hitting percentage while holding the Devilettes to sub-.100 hitting on the day. Since that dominant win, however, Mizzou has traded wins between teams that they should've beat easily, dropping matches to Northwestern State, Lipscomb, Oakland, and in-state rival Saint Louis. Now sitting at 5-4, and with much tougher opponents down the road, what is going on with Missouri Volleyball? Some numbers to guide you through the early struggles of the team so far:
The number of matches Mizzou has hit above .300 as a team.
After hitting above .300 as team 29 times last season, it was to be expected that the offensive production would dip with Henning and Kreklow gone, but the offense seems to have taken a complete 180 to start the year. The Tigers dominated an out-classed MVSU team but since then have fallen flat on the attack, hitting no higher than .275 in any of the eight matches since MVSU. (Highest was .275 in Thursday night's five-set win over Idaho.) Worth noting: MVSU currently sits at the very bottom of the Division 1 list with a -.067 hitting percentage this year, with only 57 kills this year.
Whitney Little's SEC ranking in hitting percentage
While the Tigers offense has struggled, Whitney Little has been thriving at Middle Blocker for Mizzou Volleyball. Little leads the team with a .469 hitting percentage with 78 kills, with six .300-plus performances under her belt so far this year. Obviously her attacking is going to be more accurate with her closer to the net, but she has been a consistent threat on offense to start the season.
The number of first sets Mizzou has won this year
Slow starts have killed the Tigers to start the year. With the exemption of MVSU, Missouri has hit sub-.200 in all but two first sets this season. In four of those first sets, they hit under .100, and in one set they posted a negative hitting percentage.
The number of matches that have gone the full five sets in 2014.
Missouri never saw the fifth set in 2013. Every match ended in a dominant 3-0 sweep in favor of the Tigers, or Mizzou would give up an early set, then look untouchable the rest of the way for a 3-1 win. This year, Missouri has already played in five matches that have gone the distance, the same number they played in the entire 2012 season.
Again, slows starts in the first set made it difficult for the Tigers to set the tone. Take the Saint Louis game from Monday. Mizzou's offense fluctuated between hitting under .150 to above .300, starting with a .086 first set and following it up with a .300-plus second set. The offensive has been inconsistent, and it shows in these longer matches.
Average attack errors per match this season
The biggest thing that has set back the Missouri attack has is constant mistakes made on offense, accumulating 183 errors over the first nine matches of 2014, on pace for a grand-spanking 680 errors this year. They only had 422 all of last season!
The first live look I got of the team was vs. Illinois State in the Tiger Invitational a week ago, and the offense didn't exactly look pretty to start off. Mizzou came out flat vs. the Redbirds with a .077 (11 kills to 9 attack errors) opening to the match. The Tigers came back with three straight sets with .300 hitting, but slow starts and constant errors have slowed the Missouri attack drastically this year.
Total attack errors committed by Carly Kan
What made Carly Kan so effective in 2013 was how accurate and precise she was on the attacking side of things, committing only 82 errors on 826 total attacks, good for .364 clip as a freshman. Coach Kreklow is trying to put her in the role Lisa Henning had last year, with the bulk of the attacks (338 so far) going to Kan to start the year. Kan hasn't been able to replicate the accuracy we saw all of last year, hitting just .215 through the first eight games. She's on pace to come close to Henning's numbers last year, but errors continue to be a problem for her. Receiving passes from two new setters -- sophomore Loxley Keala and freshman Ali Kreklow -- can't be helping in that regard.
Mistakes have kept Missouri from having offense success this year, with an SEC-leading 160 attack errors to start the year. We've seen glimpses of offensive success with Carly Kan and Whitney Little leading the way, but overall the Tigers attack seems to have taken a step back this year. For the time being, Mizzou is just keeping their head above water, but if their sloppy offensive play continues into conference play, it may be a long year ahead at the Hearnes Center.