MSU Volleyball picked to repeat as Valley Champions

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Missouri State is the overwhelming choice to win the Missouri Valley Conference volleyball title for a second consecutive season, while senior outside hitter Lily Johnson and sophomore setter Daniele Messa represent the Bears on the seven-player all-conference team released by the league Wednesday (Aug. 16) after a vote of the league’s coaches.

The Bears received nine of a possible 10 first-place votes and 99 points in the poll, followed by UNI in second place with 89 points and the remaining No. 1 vote. Illinois State (76), Loyola (67) and Southern Illinois (64) make up a tightly-bunched group in the third through fifth spots, and Drake picked up 48 points to round out the six teams expected to make the league tournament held in Normal, Ill., from Nov. 23-25. League newcomer Valparaiso (33), Bradley (32), Indiana State (26) and Evansville (16) complete the poll.

The two-time reigning MVC Player of the Year and three-time All-American, Johnson became the fourth player in league history to lead the conference in kills three times last season after averaging 4.54 kills, 5.12 points, 3.07 digs, 0.35 aces and 0.36 blocks per set with a .228 hitting percentage last year.

The Wildwood, Mo., native was a four-time MVC Player of the Week while exceeding 600 kills for the second consecutive season as a junior, finishing with 604 for the third-best MSU total and fifth-highest mark in league history. She ended the season ranked second at MSU and eighth in MVC history with 1,719 career kills, and 16th in school history with 1,118 digs as the sixth member of Missouri State’s 1,000-kill, 1,000-dig club. She tallied 23 double-doubles on the year, and reached at least 10 kills for a school-record 45 consecutive matches before the streak ended in the NCAA Tournament.

Messa earned MVC Freshman of the Year honors and was a first-team all-MVC selection in 2016 while setting a league record with seven MVC Freshman of the Week accolades. The Bartlett, Ill., native dished out 1,333 assists this season to rank second all-time among MSU freshmen and 10th overall, and led the conference in league matches with 774 total assists and an 11.22 average. Messa also averaged 2.64 digs and 0.17 aces per set while helping MSU to a .237 team hitting percentage.

The Bears went 26-9 overall and 16-2 in MVC play last season, advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the ninth time in 14 seasons. Missouri State carries a school-record 16-match MVC regular-season winning streak into the 2017 campaign. In addition to Johnson and Messa, returning starters include seniors Lauren Boone, Brianne Dixon and Lynsey Wright, and junior libero Emily Butters. Wright was a second-team all-MVC pick last year and enters her senior season with 940 career kills, while Butters already ranks 14th in MSU history with more than 1,100 career digs in her first two years on campus. Butters, Johnson and Wright also spent time over the summer competing for the U.S. Collegiate National Team.

The 2017 season will be the 22nd under head coach and 2017 Missouri Sports Hall of Fame inductee Melissa Stokes. Stokes has guided the Bears to a 464-222 mark since taking over in 1996, and the team has won at least 20 matches in 17 of the last 18 seasons.

The Bears make their 2017 debut this weekend at Hammons Student Center, playing the annual Maroon and White Scrimmage at 7 p.m. Friday and taking on a team of former Bears in the Alumni Match at 7 p.m. Saturday. Both matches are free and open to the public. The regular season begins Aug. 25 at Appalachian State, and the home opener is Sept. 14 against Chattanooga.