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Eight Questions with Mizzou Volleyball Writer Matthew Gustafson

Get to know the Missouri volleyball team prior to their match with Nebraska volleyball tonight

Maddie Washburn

I talked with fellow SB Nation, Rock M Nation, volleyball writer Matthew Gustafson about Missouri volleyball. Get to know this Tiger team before Nebraska’s second round NCAA match against them.

What has Mizzou done to make the tournament, and as an 8 seed?
After a slow start to the year which included some harmful non-con losses (Buffalo and Eastern Illinois), the Tigers really picked up steam during conference play. This was a team that returned only five players with a first year head coach, so growing pains were to be expected.

Despite being placed second to last in the SEC preseason poll, Mizzou was able to place themselves in the middle tier of the conference and rack up quality wins against teams such as Auburn, Texas A&M, and Georgia. If not for the non-con losses I mentioned above and road losses to Ole Miss and LSU, Mizzou might find itself a 6 or 7 seed. They have struggled on the road this season, something that’s held them back.

But overall, they have a potent offense with a defense that has improved throughout the year under the leadership of a fantastic head coach in Dawn Sullivan, and this team has shown glimpses of the ability to compete with the best of the best.

What should you expect from this Mizzou offense?
Expect the unexpected. The offense has shifted responsibilities throughout the year, as each of the main trio of Janet deMarrais, Jordan Iliff, and Dilara Gedikoglu have played the leading role at one point. All three can be highly effective although slightly inconsistent at times.

When the Mizzou offense is working at its finest, all three are on their game and Sierra Dudley is able to set up each attacker effectively, leaving defenses guessing who to block. Also, watch out for Colleen Finney, who does not figure into the attack as strongly as the three listed above, but has a deadly slide attack and has become a stronger presence in the rotation throughout the year.

Who is the most dangerous member of the Mizzou attack?
Right now, Jordan Iliff is carrying the torch, recently earning an SEC Offensive Player of the Week award and punishing the ball with a strong swing. However, I’d say that Janet deMarrais is the most dangerous hitter to contend with when she’s on her game. She’s put up some truly impressive performances this season, and if deMarrais shows up and plays her Mizzou might just have a shot to pull off the upset.

How good is the Mizzou defense, and how does SEC Libero of the Year Maya Sands figure into the picture?
The defense has been a work in progress throughout the season, but they’ve been putting it together as of late. The front row has stepped up its blocking, as they often seemed a little slow to the spot earlier this year. They’ve taken some of the pressure off the back row, but Maya Sands has still shined and is the key to this defense. The award was absolutely warranted, she makes some mind-bending digs and is a huge factor in the team’s success.

Who is your favorite player to watch on this team, and why?
Maya Sands. She is such a versatile player, doing a little bit of everything on the court. She’s usually good for one to two “WHAT??” digs every single match, diving into the stands, jumping in the air or lunging to save the ball. In addition, she was one of the best servers in the conference this year. Her serve isn’t as fast as some other serving aces, but it remains highly effective and dangerous if you let your guard down.

Who is the most underrated player on the team?
Morgan Isenberg. The middle blocker, despite being one of the shortest middles in the SEC, was one of the leaders in blocks per set in the conference, and is one of the reasons the front row was much improved later in the year. She doesn’t get enough credit for her role on the team, especially as a walk-on who has had to prove herself time and again.

What does Mizzou need to do against Nebraska to have a chance at pulling off the upset? First, they have to eliminate some of the mistakes they’ve been making the last three matches. They can’t afford to make service errors or continue their struggles with serve receive. In addition, there have been some issues with overpassing, and the defense has taken some small steps back.

The front row has to consistently get blocks or tips at the net, and the back row can’t miss any easy digs. On offense, Iliff, deMarrais, Gedikoglu, and Finney all need to be at the top of their game, allowing SEC All-Freshman setter Sierra Dudley to vary her choice of attacker, keeping the Cornhuskers defense off guard.

Do you have a prediction for the match?
Mizzou has struggled in road environments throughout the year, and they haven’t played in an environment like this all season. However, they have nothing to lose, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they come out motivated enough to keep this respectably close, maybe even stealing a set.

In the end, I think they aren’t quite ready to keep pace with a team of Nebraska’s caliber for an entire match, and Big Red comes out with a 3-1 victory to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Thanks to Matthew for helping us to get to know Missouri. Check out my answers to his questions on Rock M Nation as I help Missouri fans get to know Nebraska Volleyball!