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Young teams need someone to follow, to idolize. For Missouri volleyball, standout six-rotation player Anna Dixon is the glue that holds the team together.

The junior outside hitter transferred to Missouri (3-14) from Kansas State in 2020 and hasn’t looked back. She earned All-SEC honors in 2020 and All-Big 12 Rookie Team honors in 2019. She also competed for the USA Volleyball Women’s Junior National Team in 2019. This season, Dixon leads the Tigers in kills and aces. She was nominated as a captain and is learning to balance leadership and consistent performances.

“Last year I was very lucky with the upperclassmen that I had, especially like Kylie (Deberg) in my position,” Dixon said. “She was a really good example of a leader, so that’s made it easy for me to transition to this year.”

Dixon’s leadership style is a mix of leading by example and effective communication. In practices and matches, she is constantly praising her teammates’ successes and providing instruction when necessary. She comes in every day with a positive attitude, despite her team’s disappointing season. Dixon said her team is special and responds to adversity well, which allows progress to occur more easily. All the players are good teammates, she said, who work hard regardless of team record.

“I try to connect with all the girls across the board, try to get to know them outside the court, like where they come from, how they like to be talked to and communicated with,” Dixon said. “I feel like I do a pretty good job altering my communication with each person on the court.”

Missouri coach Joshua Taylor commended Dixon’s development as a leader. She has only played one full season for Missouri, yet she is the person rallying the team together after a tough loss and reassuring the freshmen if they make a mistake. Dixon does this all while leading Missouri in kills, match after match.

“She’s taking a lot of ownership of everything she does,” Taylor said. “In addition to that, she’s holding her teammates to a really high standard in a really good way. You can do that the wrong way and be a drill sergeant, or you can help your teammates get better, and that’s what she has been doing.”

Dixon is not focused on wins and losses. She cares deeply for the game of volleyball and the teammates who look up to her. Volleyball is a collaborative effort among six players, and one cannot succeed without the others. The team aspect is what Dixon enjoys most. She said she played basketball and swam, but the connections formed through volleyball mean more. Transferring to Missouri, Dixon found the perfect fit, and she continues to learn from Taylor and his wife, assistant coach Molly Taylor.

“For me coming in, I fell in love with the coaches my first time on campus; fell in love with the campus and the girls, and I think Josh and Molly know so much about the game,” Dixon said. “Like, I haven’t learned this much about volleyball before, and even last year the progress that I’ve made from them showed tremendously.”

Since the 2020 season, Dixon has stepped into being a captain and team leader as well as a major offensive weapon. Taylor said Dixon is carrying a heavy offensive load for Missouri and he is proud of her development. Dixon currently has a .200 hitting percentage and averages 3.58 kills per set.

“Everyone is following her,” Taylor said. “It’s not hard to when she’s doing everything right. She’s leading in a really great way right now.”

Under pressure

It is no secret the Tigers are struggling. They have not won a match since Sept. 17 and are winless in SEC play. In its last match against LSU, Missouri led for most of the first set but blew its lead and ended up being shut out. The Tigers have had almost a week to fix the errors they made against LSU. Dixon said they’ve been focusing on handling pressure situations and keeping consistent mental focus. Oftentimes young teams make unforced errors as pressure is applied, so Missouri is stressing getting to 20 points and closing the final five.

“We just need to be good, and our ‘good enough’ is enough to be successful,” Taylor said. “A lot of those moments, we need to be better serving. I think our serving has dipped down a bit, so we’ve been working on that a lot as well.”

Taylor said Missouri has used the week off to its advantage. The inexperience of youth comes out in high-pressure moments, and bad habits emerge inadvertently when players try to overcompensate and be perfect. To combat this problem, Taylor and his staff created stressful and chaotic situations in practice that required players to trust their training and apply their skills.

“We have to win the serve-pass battle and serve a little bit better to get our opponent out of system,” Taylor said. “In those tight moments, being calm and keeping our minds clear and applying our training will be the biggest things for us. If we do those things, we’ll see some success, but they’ve got to take some ownership. We can’t do it for them.”

Missouri will get a chance to put its training to the test against Alabama (8-9) at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Hearnes Center in Columbia. Alabama sits at second-to-last in SEC standings, while Missouri is at the bottom. There could not be a better matchup or time for Missouri to get back on track.

“Everybody loves each other so much, so even with the outcome, we still, we talk about ‘pouring into each other’ all the time,” Dixon said. “Forget the score, forget whatever it is, just work on connecting with each other and ignoring your own personal play and focus on the person next to you.”

This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.

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