Missouri volleyball was undefeated heading into its final two nonconference matches, possibly even feeling untouchable.
Even though the Tigers knew their trip to Waco, Texas, last weekend was going to be tough, they were confident their momentum could carry them through unblemished into Southeastern Conference play.
But the Baylor Classic proved to be a road block.
The Tigers fell in straight sets to the now-No. 2 Bears and were defeated in a five-set thriller to now-No. 11 Hawaii.
“They shine a light on the things that you need to be working on to improve and reach your potential as a team,” Missouri interim head coach Joshua Taylor said of Baylor and Hawaii. “We’re grateful for that weekend even though it came with two losses.”
The trip resulted in a slight drop in the rankings for Missouri, which now sits 19th. There’s no time to fret, however, as the Tigers open SEC action with a home match against No. 16 Kentucky at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Hearnes Center.
The Wildcats will come to Columbia with at least four losses, as they open their conference slate Friday night at home against Mississippi State. The Tigers enter Sunday’s contest at 8-2.
“It’s awesome to be able to play at home with a ranked opponent,” Tigers freshman outside hitter Leandra Mangual-Duran said. “The opportunity is huge. Good volleyball, you see that in a lot of places. But Mizzou vs. Kentucky is definitely going to be really great volleyball."
Missouri is looking ahead to its matchup against preseason conference favorite Kentucky while heavily diagnosing what transpired last weekend.
Each of the three sets against Baylor were competitive, with the Tigers reaching at least 22 points in two of them. Yet it was Baylor that closed out the match on its home floor.
Even with Kylie Deberg attaining a match-best 21 kills, MU lost its first match of the year.
The match against Hawaii was even closer, with Missouri nearly pulling off the upset. The Tigers won the first and third sets each by at least eight points. The Warriors took the second set 28-26 and then the fourth by a wider margin. In the fifth and deciding set, the Tigers nearly got a resume-building win over then-undefeated Hawaii, but they fell 16-14.
Despite the loss, Deberg and Leketor Member-Meneh became the first Tigers pair to each have 20 or more kills in the same match in three years.
“I think we learned a lot about ourselves emotionally and I think that we can use that to practice how we handle our emotions in tough situations and carry that into our game on Sunday,” Member-Meneh said. “I don’t think our performance was bad at all. I think our serving was a little off, but I think those are really easy fixes for us to do work on Sunday.”
Those losses didn’t derail the Tigers’ confidence, but they may have given them the gut check needed before the two-month SEC gauntlet begins.
“We definitely had a couple tough losses, but I think that they really taught us a lot and really helped us to shine light on taking care on our side of the net and really cutting down on those unforced errors that we might have had,” MU defensive specialist Riley Sents said. “They were both really tough teams, so I feel like we still played really well at times.”
Back at the Hearnes Center, Missouri hasn’t been wearing itself out in practice, but Taylor said the psychological component of preparation is key this week, meaning that his team has to be consistent on every play.
That’s what the Tigers expect out of the Wildcats, and they’ll have to match that to beat their SEC rivals for the first time since the 2016 season — also the last time MU won the conference.
“It kind of sets the tone for what we need to be bringing right away and it really requires us to be tough from the start,” Taylor said. “We can’t really come in slow and find our rhythm over time. It’s we've got to be good now. I think that will allow us to build that psychological toughness that we need to be reaching our potential as a team.”
Missouri has faced its fair share of adversity since the middle of July with the retirement of longtime coaches Wayne and Susan Kreklow and the almost-immediate appointment of Taylor to the helm with his wife, Molly Taylor, formerly MU standout Molly Kreklow, as his top assistant.
The Tigers came together quickly under new leadership and put together an impressive nonconference slate.
Sunday is when the real work begins.