It'd been years since I made my way inside the Hearnes Center. I kind of forgot what it looked like.
I'd never been to a Missouri Volleyball game, which is a shame: Missouri lets its students into all non-football and men's basketball sporting events for free. And volleyball has been one of the better programs on campus for a few years.
After a 20-12 debut in the SEC, Missouri announced its presence with some gusto, going 35-1 and landing the No. 4 overall seed in that year's NCAA Tournament. And after a down year in 2014, Missouri Volleyball is making noise again.
The Tigers' record sits at 18-3; they're undefeated on home and neutral courts and boast wins over Florida - No. 1 in the NCAA Volleyball Ratings Power Index - and Arkansas State, No. 16. They stand at No. 13 in the RPI and are currently second overall (6-1) in the SEC Volleyball standings.
My experience with volleyball is limited, but I've played and watched enough of it to hold my own. So here are my thoughts as they were during Missouri's match against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
For a well-attended Friday night home match, both teams came out a little sloppy making for a tight first set. Missouri had three early service errors and an inferior Mississippi State team took advantage by rushing to a 15-9 lead. Missouri, led by freshman Alyssa Munlyn's 5 blocks, came back to tie the match multiple times even going up on a 26-25 set point. But the Bulldogs eventually took the set 30-28. It was a disappointing start for my first Missouri volleyball match. But do you hear that? It's the winds of change...
The second set belonged to redshirt sophomore Kira Larson. And let me tell you folks: there are few things more terrifying than a Kira Larson kill.
She flies through the air, eyes ablaze and arm swinging. A primal scream and smile signifies her victory over the hapless Bulldogs. Were I to be on the receiving end of one of those kills, I would crumble to the fetal position and cry like a little baby person. At one point, I felt sorry for the poor volleyballs that they kept sending out for continued punishment until I realized, "It's an inanimate object; kill away, Kira." Larson finished the set with 6 of her team-high 15 kills and hit .857 (!!!).
Courtney Eckenrode also chipped in heavily, serving on 12 of the 25 points while also recording 7 assists. The Tigers used a nine-point streak to cruise to a second set victory of 25-12.
Larson continued her reign of terror (5 more kills) into the third set, and Alyssa Munlyn joined her this time around. The freshman was fantastic on the offensive and defensive ends totaling 4 kills and 2 of her team-high 9 blocks. I half expected to see her give a Mutumbo-like finger wave after blocking yet another foolish kill attempt.
I'm also thinking Kim Anderson should have her on speed dial for when the basketball team inevitably needs a rim protector halfway through the season.
I digress. Missouri won the third set handily, 25-16
At one point during the fourth set, I was tossing around potential headline ideas for this piece, spawning this tweet:
Rough headline for my upcoming @rockmnation piece on @MizzouVB: Carly Kan is the GOAT *fire emoji* *airhorn*— Josh Matejka (@joshmajika) October 24, 2015
I get the feeling most Missouri students have heard Carly Kan's name. And for good reason: she was SEC Freshman of the Year and All-SEC during the 2013 campaign that swept Columbia and has been a Pre-season All-SEC choice for the past two years.
The Flyin' Hawaiian, who currently sits at second in the SEC in Kills and Points, is betrayed by her happy demeanor. As an opponent, you see her and think, "Oh, she looks nice. We'd get along nicely." And you'd probably be right!
But Carly Kan takes no prisoners on the court: she is a relentless ball of energy, digging everything in her path and smashing balls into faces of fools who would dare block her on the path to victory. And then she smiles at you as you lay in defeat, and you feel that there's nothing you can do but accept your fate with what pride you have left.*
Kan was all over the place in the final set, recording 7 kills, one block and one ace to clinch Missouri's match victory in a 25-12 set victory. She finished with a double-double (14 kills and digs) while Kira Larson led the team with 15 kills and a .637 hitting percentage.
The Tigers would travel to Gainesville and get swept by a very good Florida team later in the weekend. It's hard to beat the best team in the country twice.
However, this season is shaping up to be a special one for the volleyball program. It won't be easy: the Tigers still have 5 road games against some very good SEC opponents. But barring a late-season collapse, Missouri should finish in the top-tier of the SEC and earn themselves a trip to the NCAA Tournament. And from there, anything can happen.
I'm sorry I didn't pay attention earlier, ladies. I'm buying in for the rest of the way.
*: Creative reimagining of what actually happened. I'm sure Carly Kan doesn't actually revel in the defeat of her opponents, at least not in the gloating way that I would if I were her. Girl slays.