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Over the Net: A Mizzou Volleyball Interview Series - Maya Sands

I sat down with the SEC Libero of the Year to talk about Mizzou Volleyball, the NCAA Tournament, and the Dutch fishsticks song (again).

Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

Welcome back to Over the Net, the weekly interview series with players and coaches from Mizzou Volleyball that’s been taking place over the last few months (with a few more installments hopefully on the way).

Week One, I talked with Cullen Irons, assistant volleyball coach

Week Two, I talked with outside hitter Janet deMarrais

Week Three, I talked with libero Lauren Forbes

Week Four, I talked with freshman setter Sierra Dudley

Week Five, I talked with middle blocker Morgan Isenberg

Week Six, I talked with assistant coach Wendel Camargo

Week Seven, I talked with right-side hitter Jordan Iliff

Week Eight, I talked to middle blocker Colleen Finney

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Let’s start by talking about your winning SEC Libero of the Year. How did you find out?

Maya Sands: Dawn Sullivan randomly texted like “Hey, congrats, I’m really excited for you and I love coaching you.” And I was like, Oh my gosh, what are you talking about, because they didn’t post about it yet. Then I did see it on Twitter, and that’s where I first found out. I was so excited and I screenshotted it, sent it to my parents, and they eventually posted it on Instagram.

Tell me your first reactions and thoughts when you heard the news.

MS: When I heard, I was kind of in shock. I was like, really, me? Because last year I thought I might get Freshman of the Year and it was kind of a letdown that I didn’t win. I was not expecting it to happen. I feel like I’ve had to work really hard for everything, but you know not everything goes your way. When I first heard, I was shocked and just really proud of myself for where I’ve come and how hard I’ve worked to get to the spot where I am right now.

What do you think led to you being chosen?

MS: Statistics-wise, my numbers are significantly increased dig-wise from last year. I think I was leading the conference with digs per set or digs kind of the entire year, so I think that played a major role in it. I’m not really sure what else, but I know a lot of the broadcasting people said a lot of nice things about me during the broadcast, so I think a lot of people like watching me. I think I inspire a lot of people, so maybe that played a role in it as well.

The last three matches of the year didn’t quite go the way the team was hoping. What were the main factors in those outcomes, and what does the team have to work on before the tournament?

MS: The main thing that we’ve been trying to focus on, and we just didn’t necessarily get there, is starting off fast. I think that’s sometimes our downfall, we kind of start off slow and then we start to work our way back up through the match, but sometimes it gets way too late. Once we get to that point, it gets hard to build back up to come back and win.

So we’ve been really trying to talk about starting off fast and coming in and getting it done right away. And then also, I think all year we’ve just tried to implement serve and pass. That’s the key factor in winning games. You have to get a good pass to be able to get in system so our hitters can get kills, so I think that’s a big piece moving forward and what we kind of struggled on the past couple of games.

How did you feel when you heard Mizzou’s name announced on the selection show?

MS: I think before we were a little nervous, just because we didn’t know where our RPI rankings would be after the past couple of losses. When we heard our name called, we almost felt relieved. I want to play in this tournament, we have something to prove. And I think we were just all so excited that we’re able to keep playing, and not a lot of programs can keep doing that. We were all cheering coming together; it was super fun.

What should Mizzou fans know heading into the match against Delaware?

MS: We just need to go into it not downplaying them. They’re not in a Power Five conference, but everybody in the tournament is going to be good, and everybody’s going to want to come play their best game. I think that they’re really good team, and we have to come in playing our best game and not expect that we’re gonna win.

If you advance, you’ll most likely play Nebraska, the number one overall seed. What do you think about potentially playing a team of that caliber in such a big volleyball environment?

MS: I think it can be really intimidating to kind of go into that, just because I know Nebraska has been getting a lot of attention this season with their record-breaking attendance records, and they only have one loss on the season. But I think that just puts us at more of an advantage, we’re kind of going in as the underdog.

We don’t really have anything to lose, so let’s just go out there and leave it on the floor. We have something to prove that we can play to that caliber that they can, and even though we’re a new team we’re still really good and we can compete with them.

At the beginning of the year we played Louisville and they were like a top-five team, so we kind of got a little dip in the water to see how it is playing that high-level of a team. I think we’re good, we can go in and compete with them as long as we play our best volleyball.

You specifically have prior tournament experience from last season at UNLV. How do you think that will help you this weekend?

MS: I think it’ll help me just confidence-wise and composure-wise. Last year, I know I was really nervous going into it, I didn’t know what to expect. But now I think going into it this year, I kind of know how it all works. So going into it confidently, and then helping my teammates as well who may not have gone to the tournament either to know what to expect, and just making sure we all go in with confidence.

Throughout the season, where you have seen the biggest growth from this team?

MS: I think the biggest growth we’ve had is playing together. At the beginning of the season we were all new, so I feel like we kind of were all playing separately. We’ve been trying to build a sisterhood and being a unit of one team, and I think we started to figure that out.

Especially early in the season we had a few losses, but we recovered really well and we started to know how to play and gel together, which I think has helped tremendously throughout the season. And then also just that confidence, knowing that last year we didn’t have a great record, but that doesn’t mean that has to carry into this year, and we can compete at this level.

Where do you think you’ve personally seen the biggest improvement in your game?

MS: Personally, I think just stepping up as a leader. Using my voice has completely changed from last year to this year, knowing that a lot of people look up to me and I lead by example. And then I know I can project, a lot of people listen to me. So that’s what Dawn’s been really trying to help me with is just talking to my teammates, leading on the court, because I can be a leader.

You’ve received plenty of accolades for your defensive abilities, but you were also one of the better servers in the SEC this season. What makes your serve so effective?

MS: I think what makes my serve good is just being consistent. I may not have the hardest serve, but I at least try to get the team out of system the most I can or hit the targets that I need to hit. That’s the biggest piece. A lot of people may get a lot of aces from having a really hard serve, but that kind has to level out with errors compared to aces.

Moving from the Mountain West to the SEC, what was the biggest adjustment for you?

MS: I think the biggest change was the pace of the game. The pace of the game here is much, much faster. We’re playing high-ranked teams every single game, and we have to go into every single game ready to play. You can’t have an off game, and you can’t come in thinking it’s gonna be an easy game.

Looking at the offseason, what’s one thing that you’re really going to focus on in development for next year?

MS: In the offseason, I think I’m gonna spend a lot of time in the film room because that’s something that me and Dawn have been trying to talk through. I play a lot with my athletic ability, but I think I can move it to the next level if I can understand how the game of volleyball works, statistically and seeing things on the court. That’ll put me in a better position to maybe get more digs, or maybe get a better pass.

What’s your relationship with Coach Sullivan like, and what led you to follow her from UNLV to Mizzou?

MS: I think last year we built a really great connection. I feel like we really trust each other and she puts a lot of trust in me, and she has really built my confidence even from my senior year going into freshman year. And I think that’s where I have built so much respect and trust in her is because she believes in me. I have had coaches in the past not really believe in me. I’ve had to work for everything and she’s really helped me build that confidence, and she knows that I can do great things, and so I felt really comfortable when she was leaving and then she asked me to come. I knew right away that I wanted to be coached by her. I had some other options, but I knew I just wanted to play for her because I think she brings out the best player in me.

During your initial recruitment in high school, how did you make your connection with Dawn, and why did you choose to go to UNLV?

MS: High school was a really interesting recruiting process because I was actually an outside hitter my entire volleyball career leading up to maybe junior year. When I made the decision I wanted to play at the Division One level, I thought, I’m going to change positions. In club, I started to train that position, and it was kind of hard because a lot of people recruit when you’re freshman or sophomore-age.

I didn’t really have much exposure in the Libero position so I had to work super hard in the gym to get my skills there, but then also getting video out and going to a lot of camps to show my talents and stuff. I had to reach out to a lot of people. My junior year, Dawn actually saw me at a tournament and then reached out, but it was difficult because then COVID hit so I couldn’t go and visit places.

It was just really hard to get a feel of where I wanted to go. But Dawn, she was the best to talk to, she made me feel like UNLV would be a home and playing for her would bring out the best player in me, and I’m so happy that I made that decision.

Lauren Forbes also started as an outside hitter before moving to libero. Do you think having front row experience has been beneficial for you?

MS: Yes, for sure. I played six rotation so already played the back row, just not specifically left back, so I kind of had a feel for how to play defense and all that. But I think it just makes you more versatile.

Moving back to Coach Sullivan, why do you think she was named one of the SEC coaches of the year? What makes her a great coach?

MS: I think what makes her a great coach is that she has such a good drive and determination, and she cares so much about her players. I know she wants to be the best coach that she can be, and I think she just builds a really good culture. Every single team that she comes on to, she’s quickly turned around the program.

And I think it’s because she is willing to do whatever it takes to get there, and she does it in a great manner where she builds up confidence in the team and creates that really family- like culture.

In many of the interviews in this series, I’ve seen a lot of emphasis on family and culture. Being a part of this year’s group, what has this season meant to you?

MS: This season is actually really special to me, because it’s been a lot different than other teams I’ve had. As a team, it may be starters versus non-starters, you might think there may be drama or not be like a sisterhood because you know you’re competing against your own teammates.

But this year, we’re a whole family whatever we do. We are really like best friends off the court, and I think we come in here and push each other every day. We’re just always there for each other and we actually are like best friends and sisters.

Do you have a favorite memory from this season so far?

MS: I think my favorite memory is just our pregame song. We have one pregame song that we play every single time before our games (this is the Dutch song Visstick Gooi Die Kanker Kick), and I think it’s really special because Didi (Dilara Gedikoglu) is the one who introduced it to us. And that will stick with me forever. Every single time I hear that song I will think of her, and so I think that’s always been super special before the games.

Switching to academics for a moment, have you decided on a major or figured out a career path you are focusing on?

MS: I recently just switched my major to sports management with a minor in business. I really enjoy athletics, and I think I want to still be in the athletic realm. I’m not sure exactly what I want to do, but I know that I might do some shadowing of the Director of Ops or maybe I’ll want to work with the academic people in athletic programs, or just something like that. That’s really where I want to be is just something involving sports.

Why do you think you have such a strong connection with sports?

MS: I’ve grown up playing multiple different sports my entire life, and I think it’s just something that’s always interested me. I don’t really see myself working anywhere else. I have a lot of knowledge about sports, I played them, and I think that’s where I would thrive the most and enjoy what I do every single day.

As we wrap up, is there anything you want to say to Mizzou fans?

MS: I just wanna say the Mizzou fans have been so great this year. I know last year there wasn’t a ton of support, and this year they have really shown so much support for us. I think that’s really helped us win games this year. If we can have that environment, we can win games, and it’s really, really fun to play. So I just thank everybody for coming out and really believing in us and supporting us, and it’s always so fun to see the little girls come through the line to get autographs. I just really appreciate them.

Attendance this season seemed to steadily grow throughout the year, reaching its peak with almost 5,500 fans at the Florida match for Senior Night. Do you think that’s going to be something that will continue on, and maybe even keep growing through next season?

MS: I think it definitely will if we keep playing at a high level. I’ve heard a lot of people say that we’re a super fun team to watch, win or lose everybody really enjoys watching us play because of how passionate we are and just love watching how we played together. And so I think as long as we keep that culture and keep playing at a high level, people are going to come watch.

Is there anything else you want to say before we wrap up the interview?

MS: We’re all super excited to go into the tournament, and we’re gonna go show people what we can do.