Mizzou volleyball confident heading into sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune
Missouri players huddle during a match against Mississippi State on March 24 at the Newell-Grissom Building in Starkville, Miss.

This was the goal.

No matter what the NCAA Tournament looked like, Missouri volleyball had to be part of the elite group selected.

The Tigers accomplished that goal on Sunday afternoon, being selected to the 48-team field, down from the usual 64 squads because of coronavirus limitations. 

MU is the lone Southeastern Conference team not given a first-round bye to play in the tournament. Kentucky is No. 2 overall and Florida is No. 8.

The Tigers enter the playoffs after a fall and spring split regular season, in which they garnered a 15-7 record. Their four-match win streak to end the regular season essentially clinched their place in the national tournament. 

"They're pretty tough, I think," Missouri head coach Joshua Taylor said of his roster. "A lot of things have been thrown at them. We have 20 hours a week to be training and lifting and when you think about that, it's a part-time job on top of being fully enrolled in school as well. And having friends, a social life, boyfriends, all that stuff. So they're doing a really nice job of balancing life while finding ways to constantly improve over a long period of time.

"I think the biggest thing that this group has done really well is acknowledge the situation that we're in and then decide how we feel about it. And decide where our thoughts are going to be going and the direction we're going to be moving in as a unit. And they're doing a really nice job of being disciplined and tough through these hard times. So, I've been very impressed with this group."

Missouri is in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth consecutive season and is scheduled to face South Dakota, the Summit League champion, in the first round of the tournament at 11 a.m. April 14 on ESPN3.

Should the Tigers defeat the Coyotes, they would face No. 9 Ohio State in the second round at 11 a.m. on April 15, also on ESPN3.

The entire NCAA Tournament will take place in Omaha, Nebraska, over 10 days. Missouri has won at least one match in the NCAA Tournament in each of the past five seasons, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2016 and 2017.

"We don't want to, at any point in time, underestimate any opponent," Missouri's Andrea Fuentes said. "Everybody's good at this point. Whenever we found out yesterday that we were going to the NCAA Tournament, and that our opponent was going to be South Dakota, the first thing I did was I got home, got on the computer, checked their last few matches and they're a really good team.

"Their sides are really good. And we know that we can't underestimate them because first, we got to take care of South Dakota before we can move on to Ohio State."

The NCAA Tournament starts nearly six months after Missouri's first match of the 2020-21 season, and there will be less time to recuperate with a regularly scheduled fall and early winter season on deck next school year. 

Yet, there's a sense that this group can capitalize on a shortened NCAA Tournament with a hot streak because of its previous experience. 

MU senior Kylie Deberg said Monday that this is the final event for a few players on Missouri's roster.

"This is our last week to practice together as a team in Hearnes," Deberg said. "So, I'm using that as motivation and just knowing that we have one week to get better here. And then that we have one more tournament left to play with each other and just giving it our all no matter what. 

"We definitely got a really good seed this year. And being able to play South Dakota first and then play Ohio State, I think they're definitely both beatable teams. If we practice hard and we play like how we practice, I think we can definitely get the sweet 16."

Missouri coach Joshua Taylor watches during a match against Mississippi State on March 24 at the Newell-Grissom Building in Starkville, Miss.

With 16 usual bids taken away in this year's NCAA Tournament, Missouri was technically one of the last four teams to be given an at-large bid to the event, despite ending the season ranked No. 25. 

"I think this season, it's been a lot of ups and downs," Missouri's Anna Dixon said. "I think consistency has been an issue for our team and I think that now that we're in the tournament, we have an opportunity to show everybody what we really can do and just live up to that potential."