Courtney Eckenrode has a thankless job on the Missouri volleyball team.
Unlike the hitters who deliver the flashy plays, casual observers often don’t appreciate volleyball’s offensive engine – the setter – like they do in other sports. The setter is singled out when the offense is underperforming but rarely receives credit when things run smoothly.
“Everybody always pays attention to the hitters,” Coach Wayne Kreklow said. “As a setter, you only start to get some recognition if the team wins. They get the bulk of the criticism. In many respects, it’s like the quarterback in football or the point guard in basketball.”
Since Eckenrode took over as the primary setter Sept. 16 against Duquesne, Missouri has been a different team. With Eckenrode running the show, Missouri has won 21 of 23 matches.
Now, the 15th-seeded Tigers (27-5), who include Blue Springs South graduate Julia Towler and Lee’s Summit North grad Alexa Ethridge, are in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. They’ll face No. 2 Minnesota (27-4) and Truman High School graduate Lexi Hart at 7:15 p.m. Friday in Minneapolis.
Kreklow has said that MU’s switch from a 6-2 to a 5-1 formation was more about improving his team’s back-row play. But Missouri has been a better offensive team with Eckenrode manning the controls.
When the Tigers deployed a two-setter rotation that featured Ali Kreklow and Eckenrode, they hit better than .300 only once in nine matches, hitting .247 overall. In its final 23 matches, with Eckenrode as the exclusive setter, MU has posted 10 matches of .300 or better. During that stretch, Missouri has registered a .291 hitting mark.
“She’s honestly been one of the most steady players on the court,” Carly Kan said.
Melanie Crow, who has benefited the most from Eckenrode’s emergence, said the setter’s best attribute is that she doesn’t try to be the “star of the show.”
While it’s taken some time for Eckenrode to develop chemistry with Crow, who transferred into the program in the offseason, the connection has flourished during the second half of the season.
As the Tigers attempted to close out a victory over Purdue on Friday, Eckenrode kept finding Crow, who put away 10 kills in the span of 20 points in the fourth set. Crow’s masterful performance led Missouri to a 3-1 victory over the Boilermakers. Eckenrode registered 51 assists at a clip of 12.8 per set.
On any given night, the Tigers feel that they have at least four players not named Crow who can reach double figures in kills. Kira Larson, Alyssa Munlyn, Emily Thater and Kan have all amassed at least 200 kills this season. Crow paces MU with 433.
“It’s fun to be on a team that has so many weapons,” Eckenrode said. “We don’t have that one star player who is the only person that I set the ball to. I can set anybody, and they can put the ball away.”
Kan’s numbers are down from her sophomore and junior seasons – the senior is averaging 3.09 kills per set compared to 3.84 in 2015 and 3.27 in 2014 – but that’s because of a lighter workload to accommodate Crow.
Eckenrode said it’s about “feeding the hot hand” during each particular match. Beginning with that Sept. 16 match against the Dukes, the junior’s 11.31 assists per set would rank her in the top 15 nationally.
The advantage to a 5-1 is that hitters don’t have to adjust to a different setter every three rotations. In the case of Eckenrode, she had to learn what type of pass best fits Missouri’s hitters, especially with variations in their heights. Kan is 5-foot-9, while Crow, Larson, Munlyn and Thater are 6-1 or taller.
Kan and Crow are the Tigers’ main attackers. Kreklow likens Kan to an on-base hitter while Crow is a slugger. Crow’s longer arms demand a higher set from Eckenrode. Kan requires a set on a flatter trajectory.
This is Kan’s second full season working with Eckenrode. After three years with the same setter at Mississippi, Crow had to develop chemistry with Eckenrode starting in the summer when the outside hitter arrived on campus. In MU’s fast-paced offense, Crow said the pair settled into a rhythm by the start of conference play.
Conventional wisdom suggests that teams would favor taller setters, particularly in 5-1 offenses where those players have to play in the front row for half of the six rotations. That assessment might be changing. Of the Sweet 16 participants that run a 5-1, Eckenrode, who is 5-9, isn’t the shortest setter. Arizona’s Penina Snuka and Texas’ Chloe Collins are 5-6 and 5-7, respectively.
The Golden Gophers are led by 5-11 sophomore setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson. North Carolina and UCLA, which are also in the Minneapolis Regional but operate in a 6-2, have setters who are all under 6-foot. The Bruins are guided by 5-9 Ryann Chandler and 5-11 Kylie Miller, and the Tar Heels divide their rotations between 5-10 setters Mariah Evans and Abigail Curry.
Throughout most of her career, Eckenrode’s teams used a 5-1. As a freshman at San Diego State in 2014, she tallied 9.72 assists per set in that configuration.
With the departure of All-American Molly Kreklow after the 2013 season, MU had decided that a 6-2 fit its personnel, as Loxley Keala and Ali Kreklow joined forces in 2014. Keala transferred to Iowa in 2015. MU landed Eckenrode later that year, and she and Ali Kreklow split setting duties for a little more than one season.
In the first nine matches of 2016, Missouri didn’t change, but Wayne Kreklow – sensing that his team wasn’t clicking – pulled the trigger on a new look. He chose Eckenrode over his daughter.
Eckenrode has even reminded some of the Molly Kreklow days. The Texas product doesn’t have the same wide-ranging skill set of Molly Kreklow, whom her uncle called “the most athletic setter we’ve ever had,” but Eckenrode has surprised opponents with a dipping roll shot.
Even so, Eckenrode has elected to be more of a facilitator this season.
“In the past, I’ve tried to be more offensive,” Eckenrode said. “This year, I’ve tried to hold back and let my hitters take the spotlight, because they’re the ones who are really doing the work.