Missouri aims to extend season

Missouri made history last weekend when the Tigers knocked off fifth-seeded Northern Iowa in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

Never before had a team seeded in the top five been eliminated in the first round, but it's highly unlikely that a team seeded that high had faced an opponent as well-prepared as Mizzou.

"Everybody had confidence we could win it," said senior outside hitter Julianna Klein, whose kill in the fifth set clinched the victory. "We knew that it was going to be a tough match. Northern Iowa is a great team. They are the kind of team that you need to have three or four days to prepare for, and luckily that's what we had."

Actually, the Tigers had been preparing for that match for the past 11 months, ever since they were passed over for an at-large berth in the 2009 tournament. Once the disappointment wore off, the returning players united in an effort to make sure the 2010 season had a different ending.

"After we found out we didn't get into the tournament, we got together and said 'We're going to do whatever it takes to get into the tournament this year,'" Klein said. "Since January, we've been working our butts off -- in the weight room, conditioning, on the court -- and it's obviously paying off. Anything you can think of, we probably did it."

Not only did Missouri have nine highly motivated players returning, it made an important roster addition in January when Molly Kreklow, the niece of head coach Wayne Kreklow, enrolled early to give the Tigers the kind of dynamic on-court leader necessary to compete with the traditional powers.

The most important aspect of Molly's early arrival was the opportunity to develop chemistry and relationships with her new teammates and prove to everyone, herself included, that it was her ability that put her on the court and not her last name.

"I just wanted to prove myself," said Molly, who was named the AVCA Central Region Freshman of the Year on Tuesday. "Being the niece of the coach, I knew it wasn't going to be easy for the other players to accept me. But everyone handled it really well, and I was able to establish a relationship with everyone on the team."

The experience of being in the gym during the spring season proved to be especially important after Molly dislocated her pinkie finger on the second day of fall practice and missed the following two weeks after having surgery.

"It was huge to have her here working and getting comfortable with the players," Wayne Kreklow said. "It would have been really hard for her to jump in and have two and a half weeks, and then have to play."

Despite serving underhand and blocking with only one hand, Molly helped the Tigers start the 2010 season with a 9-2 record during the nonconference portion of its schedule. But just as Missouri started its Big 12 matches, Molly developed a stress reaction in some of the sesamoid bones in her right foot.

After defeating Texas Tech in its Big 12 opener, Mizzou lost five of its next seven matches and its goal of reaching the NCAA tournament seemed to be crumbling. But after a four-set loss at Oklahoma on Oct. 9, the Tigers won nine of their final 12 regular-season matches to claw their way up to fifth place in the conference standings. It's no coincidence that the victories returned when Molly's injury became more manageable.

"We kind of got it under control, but halfway through the season it was really bothering her and we weren't sure whether or not she was going to make it," Wayne said. "Ever since the second half of our conference season, I feel like we've been gaining momentum and playing better."

The momentum from the second half of the conference schedule and the experience of playing teams like Nebraska, Texas, Iowa State and Oklahoma had Missouri more than ready for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

"The Big 12 prepared us very well, because every match is a fight," Molly said. "Every match you have to be prepared to play your best. It really helped us when it came down to the end."

Now Missouri has an opportunity to become the first unseeded team to reach the national semifinals since Santa Clara in 2005. The Tigers made tournament appearances in each of the following seasons, but did not make it past the second round.

Missouri faces No. 12 seed Duke on Friday night at Penn State's Rec Hall, the site of Missouri's only appearance in a regional final. The winner plays either unseeded Oklahoma or No. 4 Penn State on Saturday.

The Tigers started the postseason with only four players who had previous NCAA tournament experience. Even though the rest of their teammates now have two matches under their belts, it's up to Missouri's seniors to keep the team from getting caught up in the distractions that increase at the regional level.

"We're going to focus on what we need to do and not let all those other things distract us," Klein said. "We're going to focus on taking it step by step … our pass, our set, our swing, our covering, and all the little things.

"A lot of times in the tournament, it comes down to emotion and energy and who wants it more; it's not necessarily about the matchups and who can hit harder. It's the team who wants it more."

Klein and the Tigers are prepared to do whatever it takes to keep their tournament dream alive.

Regional roundup

Austin Regional
Gregory Gym, University of Texas
This is the only regional in which all four of the seeded teams are still alive. Florida (29-1), the tournament's top overall seed, is riding a 24-match winning streak and is 15-1 this season against NCAA tournament teams. The Gators won the SEC title with a 20-0 record. Purdue (23-10) won five of its final six conference matches to tie for fourth in the Big Ten. The Gators lead the overall series 3-2, but have not played the Boilermakers since 1995. Illinois (24-8) is visiting Texas (25-5) for the second time this season, but a lot has changed since the Illini swept the Longhorns on Sept. 3. Illinois lost senior outside hitter Laura DeBruler to a knee injury Oct. 9 and dropped five of its final seven Big Ten matches to fall into a tie for second place. Texas, meanwhile, has won 17 consecutive matches and 51 of 59 sets. UT finished second in the Big 12, one win behind Nebraska. If the Gators and Longhorns both advance, it would be a rematch of the Sept. 11 contest won by Florida in five sets in Gainesville.

Dayton Regional
University of Dayton Arena, University of Dayton
It's the Big 10 vs. the Pac-10 in the semifinals, but it will likely be two Pac-10 teams battling Saturday afternoon for the right to go to Kansas City. Both Indiana (23-11) and Ohio State (24-11) had stellar seasons, but neither has reached the level of the Cardinal and Trojans. The Hoosiers (23-11) needed five sets to defeat both Miami (Fla.) and No. 11 Tennessee en route to their first-ever regional appearance. The Buckeyes (24-11), who finished sixth in the Big Ten, upset No. 14 seed Dayton in five sets in the second round. Stanford (26-3) won a share of its fifth consecutive Pac-10 title and is 4-0 lifetime against OSU, including two wins in the NCAA tournament. USC (27-4) has won 13 of its past 14 matches, but two of its losses this season were against the Cardinal. Stanford owns a 10-2 postseason record against the Women of Troy.

Seattle Regional
Hec Edmundson Pavilion, University of Washington
This appears to be the strongest and most evenly matched of the four regionals, with all four teams advancing without losing a set. California (27-3) won a share of its first Pac-10 title, while Minnesota (26-8) finished tied for second in the Big Ten. The Golden Gophers own a 3-2 lead in the all-time series with the Bears, but the teams have never met in the NCAA tournament. Nebraska (29-2) and Washington (23-8) are playing for the first time since the 2008 regional final when the Huskers overcame a two-set deficit and a 9-3 hole in the fifth set to defeat the Huskies. UW ignited the three-match rivalry in 2005 when the Huskies swept Nebraska in the national championship match. Nebraska won the Big 12 title with a 19-1 record, while Washington finished fifth in the Pac-10 at 10-8.

University Park Regional
Rec Hall, Penn State University
Penn State has won an NCAA-record 92 consecutive matches at Rec Hall. Its most recent home loss was to Tennessee in a regional semifinal match during the 2005 NCAA tournament. The Nittany Lions (28-5) won their eighth consecutive Big Ten title with a 16-4 record. The three-time defending NCAA champion has won 15 of its past 16 matches. Oklahoma (23-10) tied for third in the Big 12 with a 13-7 mark. The Sooners earned their third trip to the Sweet 16 with victories over Wichita State and Tulsa. Duke (26-6) advanced to the regional semifinals for the first time since 1994 with a 3-2 victory over Ohio. The Blue Devils captured their 10th ACC title with 16-4 record.

Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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