NCAA Tournament is next challenge for undefeated Missouri volleyball team

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri women's volleyball team hopes a 34-match winning streak and an undefeated regular season produce an early home-court advantage in the upcoming NCAA tournament.

The fourth-ranked Tigers won the school's first Southeastern Conference championship in any sport by sweeping all 18 SEC games this fall, a conference first. That includes a three-match sweep of Arkansas on Wednesday night and two consecutive Hearnes Center crowds of more than 7,000 fans. Mizzou won 102 of 110 sets it played and was not once pushed to a fifth set.

NCAA bids will be announced Sunday night. The team is hosting a 7:30 p.m. watch party at the Clinton Club inside Mizzou Arena. Missouri should receive a top-16 seed and could host the tournament's first and second rounds, which begin on Thursday.

The program's success can be traced to 2000, when Missouri looked across town and nabbed Susan and Wayne Kreklow from Columbia College, home of the country's best NAIA women's volleyball program. The school's investment paid off instantly when the Tigers reached the NCAA tournament in the Kreklows' debut season.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (bit.ly/18sNYVc ) reported that the couple has since built one of the school's most accomplished athletic programs, with NCAA appearances in 11 of their 14 years. Wayne Kreklow took over solo head-coaching duties in 2005, while his wife serves as director of volleyball.

"It's a statement for the (athletic) department as a whole and what our expectations are and what we think our abilities are," said Missouri's executive associate athletic director Sarah Reesman, who oversees volleyball. "We felt very strongly that the SEC would be a great home for us, and that meant a home where we could be successful. We may not have been able to guess exactly who it was going to be (to win the first championship) or when it was going to be, but this is absolutely what we had in mind when we became members of the SEC."

In 17 seasons in the Big 12 Conference, the Tigers won just three regular-season conference championships: women's soccer in 2009 and softball in 1997 and 2011.

The Kreklows led the volleyball team to the NCAA Tournament in 10 of their first 12 seasons on campus. But the Tigers' first-year in the SEC produced a 19-12 record, and just 10-10 in league play.

This year's squad has been boosted by the arrival of freshman starters Carly Kan and Emily Thater, the leadership of seniors Molly Kreklow — the coach's niece — and Lisa Henning and steady play of Emily Wilson, Whitney Little and Sarah Meister.

"At the beginning of the year I felt like we had a chance to be pretty good," Wayne Kreklow told the newspaper. "I felt good about everyone returning. I felt good about the freshmen coming in. But you just never know until you get everyone together what you're going to be able to do."

The Tigers' winning streak includes defeats of 20-time league champion Florida in both Columbia and Gainesville. Missouri became the first team to sweep Florida at home since 1991.

"For our fans that have been begging for the SEC to get better," Florida coach Mary Wise said after the match, "you've got to be careful what you wish for."

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