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Reflecting on year one of the Dawn Sullivan era

The Tigers exceeded all expectations this year, and they’re moving full steam ahead into 2024

Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

This was a transformative year for Mizzou athletics.

Tigers football is finishing up an unforgettable breakthrough season under Eli Drinkwitz with a trip to the Cotton Bowl against Ohio State. This season has been rough for Mizzou basketball, but last year’s team reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament and many believe the program has finally found its coach of the future in Dennis Gates.

Mizzou gymnastics has continued to live up to the standard of excellence set by coach Shannon Welker, and wrestling is ranked 2nd in the country as a legitimate national title contender.

Mizzou volleyball also experienced a year of change, one that was desperately needed. The program established itself as one of the best in the country under the leadership of coaches Wayne and Susan Kreklow, making 15 NCAA Tournament appearances and four trips to the Sweet Sixteen from 2000-2018. The Kreklows also built up one of the best fanbases in volleyball, with Mizzou finishing in the top eight in attendance nationally five times from 2005-2016.

Moving on from hall of fame coaches (both Kreklows are in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame) is often difficult. That was the case for football after Gary Pinkel, and the same held true for basketball following Norm Stewart.

Joshua Taylor tried to keep the momentum going, and initially succeeded with trips to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2019 and 2020. However, the team’s success came to a screeching halt in 2021 as the last vestiges of the Kreklow era fell away. From 2021-22, the Tigers combined for 14 total wins.

Rome had fallen. Mizzou entered the Dark Ages. After letting Taylor go, Desiree Reed Francois was tasked with finding a head coach who could spark a Renaissance for the volleyball program.

Enter Dawn Sullivan.

As the head coach at UNLV, where she was hired by Reed-Francois, Sullivan led the Rebels to the postseason in each of her five years at the helm. A native of Marshall, Minnesota, Sullivan is no stranger to the northern plains.

In college, she became the first All-American in Kansas State volleyball history, ending her career with over 1,000 kills and digs. After a brief stint playing professional volleyball, Sullivan began her climb up the coaching ranks as an assistant at Illinois State in 2002 before joining Christy Johnson-Lynch’s first staff at Iowa State in 2005.

She helped Johnson-Lynch reshape the Cyclones program into a Big 12 power, reaching the Sweet Sixteen five times in her thirteen years as an assistant in Ames. Coming home to her native Midwest, Sullivan hoped to return the Tigers to their former glory and match the success of her mentor Johnson-Lynch.

This year’s team was built around a few key returners and lots of newcomers. Jordan Iliff and Janet deMarrais stuck around and made large leaps in production to power the attack while Morgan Isenberg became one of the better middle blockers in the SEC as a walk-on who initially committed to Mizzou without considering volleyball.

Maya Sands, the SEC Libero of the Year, followed Sullivan from UNLV. Freshman Sierra Dudley developed into an SEC-caliber starting setter. Colleen Finney transferred in from Clemson, showing growth on offense and defense throughout the season. Sarah White and Naomi Franco bolstered the roster’s depth and provided the occasional spark off the bench as transfers while freshman Kaylen Rush earned playing time as a serving sub.

And then there was Lauren Forbes and Dilara Gedikoglu. Forbes was not only valuable as a defensive specialist and at the service line, she was beloved by her teammates and a huge part of the phenomenal culture the team created. Meanwhile, Dilara Gedikoglu was a reliable veteran presence on offense, stepping up at the beginning of the season and when Iliff and deMarrais were off their game while bringing intensity and passion to the floor.

The team consistently improved as the season progressed. In the nonconference schedule, the Tigers were down 2-0 to Central Arkansas before completing a reverse sweep, and suffered 3-0 losses to Buffalo and Eastern Illinois. The offense struggled with inconsistency and the defense was overpowered at times.

While the team experienced streakiness for most of the year and continued to be bogged down by issues with serving and serve receive, the defense and especially front row made great strides as the matches continued to pile up. The offense also started to pop as Iliff and deMarrais showcased their talents.

They had statement wins against Texas A&M and Auburn, sweeping both teams, and incredible five set victories over Ole Miss and Georgia in the Hearnes Center. This season, the roar returned to the Hearnes Center. After sparse showings at the beginning of the season, attendance grew alongside the team. Nearly 5,500 fans attended the final home match of the year against Florida, and there was a noticeable home court advantage which had disappeared in the last few seasons.

The Tigers’ hard work and dedication paid off when they were named an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament. After taking care of Delaware with a sweep to advance to the second round they ran into the buzzsaw named Nebraska, who eventually finished as the national runner-up.

For as good as the Tigers became by the end of the season, a common thread throughout the year was their struggles against top-tier opponents from Louisville to Kentucky to the Huskers. Struggling in the first two sets, they took a 20-19 lead in set three before two 3-0 runs from Big Red finished off the sweep.

This was a gritty, talented young team, and they played well enough to impress legendary Nebraska head coach John Cook. “They played really hard; they served great. I think Dawn’s building a great powerhouse program there, and it was a really tough match,” Cook said.

Family and sisterhood were words often heard when players and coaches discussed the team’s culture, and it was clear this team was extremely close and meaningful to each other. “That locker room right after Nebraska match was really special for me, and hard for sure. Your season just ended, but there was so much love and so much caring for people, and they didn’t want to take their jerseys off,” Sullivan said. “They just loved being a part of this family. I think you see that, how much confidence they grew and what they wanted to continue to be a part of.”

Building a great team culture is extremely important to this staff, and they were able to find the perfect mix of players. “We’ve had some moments where we’re very vulnerable with each other, and we shared some stuff that maybe it’s really hard to share. But then we were accepted by each other too, and not judged by that. And I think those moments also pushed us forward really, really fast,” said Sullivan.

That’s something they’ll be able to keep improving, as nearly the entire team returns for another season. The only departures are graduates Dilara Gedikoglu and Lauren Forbes, and transfers Madilyn Sell and Chapel Dobbs.

Sullivan already added defensive specialist Alayna Pearson from Texas A&M in the transfer portal and brought in a strong freshmen class featuring the #3 overall recruit in the country, outside hitter Claire Morrissey. The coaching staff now has an entire offseason to help these newcomers mesh and continue to develop the returning players.

At the beginning of the season, the team set a goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Very few outsiders thought they could do it, but they reached the second round. Now, they’ve set an even loftier goal. “One of the first things they said is Sweet 16. We’re in the locker room, like next year, we want to host and we want to be in the Sweet 16. And I was like, okay, let’s go. But that’s who they are, they’re on a mission,” Sullivan said.

This is a team on the rise. This is a program on the rise. After this season, I don’t think anyone’s going to be betting against the Tigers meeting their goal, as ambitious as it is. I certainly won’t be. No matter what happens, one thing is for sure: it’s going to be fun seeing what this team can do.