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MVC Volleyball Tournament preview: No. 1 Redbirds surge into postseason play

Written by on March 31, 2021

Photo courtesy of Illinois State Athletics

NORMAL Ill.- A fourth postseason berth in as many seasons proves that Illinois State volleyball coach Leah Johnson was the right woman for the job. Since joining the program, Johnson boasts an 82-and-38 record, and has taken the team to new heights. 

Flashing back to December of 2019, the No. 3 seeded Illinois State volleyball team had a tough road ahead of them in Cedar Rapids, Iowa during the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. Three consecutive matchups against Evansville, Loyola-Chicago and Northern Iowa seemed daunting, but the Redbirds flew past its competition to become the first three seed to win the conference tournament. 

Fast forwarding since that momentous time, so many things have changed. The 2020 season’s postponement, scheduling format adjustments, and gameday protocols just to list a few. Everything for the volleyball team has changed or has been altered, all except the winning culture. 

The Redbirds enter the MVC tournament as the No. 1 seed after an 11-3 (13-5 overall) season. In what would be an ordinary season, a one or two seed guarantees teams a first round bye. Due to Covid-19, expansion revisions were made to allow eight teams into the postseason tourney, fore-going the bye that ISU would have been rewarded. 

“I personally voted against expanding because I think our league is very competitive. It is a strange year. I am a supporter of people getting to play as many volleyball games, so I conceded. I felt like six was plenty when I look around the country and most teams decreased their tournaments, so I thought we were in a good place. We are going to play the hand we are dealt,” Johnson said. 

Indiana State is the first challenge for ISU, as the two teams split their season series in early February. The first match was a five-set thriller, while the second favored the Sycamores in four sets. Johnson praised Indiana State’s ability to adjust mid-match, calling the Sycamores a much-improved team. 

“Our double-header was at their place and this time it is at ours. We are playing our best volleyball. That time of the year we were going through a lot of adversity. I don’t know if that affected our win/loss, but I think that our affected our ability to train and push in practice. I like where we are at right now,” Johnson said. 

The main difference this time around is that Sydney Holt, who did not play against the Sycamores earlier this season, will be active. The Redbirds were also without newly named MVC Setter of the Year Stef Jankiewicz for the first match. Jankiewicz did compete in the second match but did not make an appearance until the second set. Clearly less than 100% at the time, Illinois State has zero injuries heading into the tournament as of Tuesday morning. 

Leading the attack for the Redbirds is anyone’s best guess. Senior Kaylee Martin led the team with 244 kills, and was added to the All-MVC First Team Wednesday afternoon. Right behind Martin is the reigning MVC Player of the Week, Sarah Kushner.  

Kushner has taken leaps to the next level this season for ISU, finishing with 204 kills. She also made the All-MVC Second Team, and ranked third on the team in digs and assisted the Redbird’s barricade at the net with 30 blocks. Heading the block party reserved at Redbird Arena is second-year middle blocker Nicole Lund. Lund led the conference averaging 1.15 blocks, and found her way on the All-MVC Freshman Team.

Getting past the front row of blocks does not mean opposing teams are in the clear just yet. Sitting back row is libero Kendal Meier, who was awarded this season onto the All-MVC Second. Meier posted a team-high 330 digs and assists alongside Jankiewicz when needed.  

Just in time for a home-court advantage, Illinois State Athletics announced last week that 25% capacity would be made available for the MVC tournament at Redbird Arena. With 2,400 seats now open, Johnson and the team could not be more excited to perform in front of the Redbird fanbase. 

“People don’t realize how easy it is to criticize first, and how hard it is to support someone openly. We have some of that in our fanbase. They understand and take the time to acknowledge something that is deeper than surface level. Winning is not something that happens easily because you have a bigger budget. I think our team and our fan base see that there is another layer, and that it doesn’t just come easy. I certainly appreciate it,” said Johnson. 

Other first round matches confirmed for Thursday are No. 4 Bradley vs. No. 5 Valparaiso, No. 3 Missouri State vs. No. 6 Loyola-Chicago, and No. 2 Drake vs. No. 7 Northern Iowa. All of these matches will follow the Redbirds face-off with Indiana State at 11 a.m. on Thursday. The winner of that match will take on the victor between Bradley and Valparaiso.