COLUMBIA, Mo. - While Kira Larson knows each volleyball match she plays now could be her last, the Missouri Tigers senior right-side hitter isn't stressed.
The Fargo North High School graduate has experienced pressure situations before.
"You have a sense of urgency with every single (match) in realizing this (match) could be the last of your career, but I also have a calming feeling," Larson said. "Sometimes when you're younger, you're a lot more nervous and anxious."
The 6-foot-2 Larson leads Missouri in kills with 311, averaging 2.43 per set, in helping the Tigers advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division I women's volleyball tournament. Missouri plays No. 1-seeded Penn State at 1 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8, in the Sweet 16 at University Park, Pa. The match is set to be televised on ESPNU.
"They're going to be very tough," Larson said. "They're very, very disciplined. Any time you play a team that doesn't make a lot of errors, it comes with a lot of challenges. ... We have not played a team that is as disciplined as Penn State."
Earlier this week, Larson was named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-Southeast Region team, garnering honorable mention honors. She has had more than 250 kills in each of her three seasons with the Tigers. She started her college career at the University of Nebraska before transferring to Missouri.
"For me, I always take every season pretty similar," Larson said. "I don't want to leave this season, this practice with any regrets. I try to leave it out there every time I play."
Missouri (22-11) earned a five-set victory against No. 19 Kansas and followed that with a 3-1 victory against No. 16 Wichita State to reach the Sweet 16 for a second consecutive season.
Penn State (31-1) has only lost once this season.
Larson has developed into a six-rotation player this year, after playing primarily only front row in her previous seasons. She has 295 digs to rank second on the team.
"We really needed someone to step up and play that six-rotation spot," said Larson, who is a fifth-year senior. "In the offseason, I knew I had the potential."
Desiree Larson, Kira's mom, has been to all 33 of her daughter's matches this season along with husband, Don Larson, who is the North Dakota State men's track coach. Don has only only missed a few of Kira's matches this year.
Desiree said they will both be at University Park on Friday to support Kira and the Tigers.
"I have not spent a lot of time in Fargo," Desiree said with a laugh. "We've racked up a lot of frequent-flyer mileage and hours upon hours of driving. ... but it's all worth it. This year we made it a priority to go to all of her games."
Kira was a multiple-sport athlete at Fargo North, excelling in volleyball, basketball and track and field. Desiree said Kira started soccer in first grade, playing summer club soccer up until eighth grade.
"We kind of laugh at that now," Desiree said. "If I would have had to guess years ago what sport she would play in college, I would have said soccer."
In her final season with the Tigers, Kira said she's taken on a leadership role that she hasn't experienced since high school. She's a team captain for a team that started with a 4-6 record before coming on strong late in the year.
"We had a really rough preseason," Kira said. "We went from a team being unranked. ... That comes with the amount of work and dedication everyone on this team has put in the past couple months."
Desiree is proud that Kira has been able to succeed at a high level throughout her Division I volleyball career. In addition, she's a nursing major with a 3.9 grade-point average.
"When you come from Fargo, N.D., I think you're always underestimated," Desiree said. "You're always kind of underestimated because you don't play the greatest competition or different reasons like that."
After she completes her college career, Kira wants to try to play professional volleyball overseas. However, she wants to relish what remains of her career with the Tigers.
"It comes to an end and it doesn't always come to an end in the way you want it, but it will end," Kira said. "I have to embrace every moment of it. I don't have a lot of time left."