Volleyball team earns first-ever NCAA tournament bid

In his third season at the helm of the volleyball program, head coach Chris Willis has led the Lions to their first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament.

“I think that it’s an honor to be a part of the first (Missouri Southern) program to do that,” he said. “We have players who came here because they wanted to be the first ones to put up a divisional banner in the gym.

“They had opportunities to go to other programs and be a part of programs that have been there and done that.”

Finishing the regular season 23-11, the Lions fell to the University of Central Missouri in the first round of the MIAA tournament.

“I don’t think that we performed our best during the match,” Willis said. “I thought that we had plenty of opportunities to be successful in the match, but we just didn’t take advantage of those opportunities.”

The Lions now have the chance to avenge the loss when they face the Jennies (27-6) in NCAA first-round action in Kirksville.

“It’s nothing personal when it comes to Central,” Willis said. “I think that it’s the matter of the girls wanting to play on a higher level. It’s a good match-up for us player for player.”

“Any day is anybody’s game,” said junior outside hitter Sarah Hoffmeister. “We have the talent to beat them.

“We have to show up to play.”

“They have a strong right side and middle attack,” said sophomore libero Teyoni Wilson. “They are really good at all positions.”

Willis believes for the Lions to get past the Jennies, they must succeed in a few more areas.

“Our net play has to improve, as well as defensive blocking,” he said. “Also, terminating balls as attackers, because when we get one on one opportunities, as far as one attacker and one blocker, we need to be able to terminate on a 90% rate.”

Five teams from the MIAA made this year’s NCAA tournament, which Willis said demonstrates the quality of play in the conference.

“It speaks volumes that the MIAA has the toughest competition in the nation, and in the region,” Willis said. “I knew that we’d have the opportunity every year to go to the NCAA tournament. It’s not based on winning three matches in the conference championship; it’s based off the entire season.

“You finish in the top four or five, you’re going to the national tournament because our strength of schedule is built up so much in conference play.”

For the three seniors, this tournament will mark the end of their Southern careers.

“Our seniors have carried us all season long,” Willis said. “Megan Norman as been excellent at libero, breaking the school record for digs in a season (712). Tessa Woods, who has raised the level of this program in terms of her blocking and attacking, and Ashley Mehrer is setting in marks in the blocking category for the program.”

The seniors earned All-MIAA honors this week, with Woods earning a first-team nomination and Norman and Mehrer receiving honorable mention nominations.

“They kind of inspire us,” Hoffmeister said. “We want to make their careers continue and let them go out on the best note they can.”