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PREVIEW: Redbird volleyball battles UNLV Rebels in first round of NCAA tournament

Written by on April 14, 2021

Photo Courtesy of Illinois State Athletics

NORMAL,Ill.- “You’re best is enough,” said Illinois State volleyball head coach Leah Johnson as she congratulated her team in the bleachers a day after winning the Missouri Valley Conference title. The inspiring words lead the Redbirds to Omaha, Neb. in hopes to accomplish something that has alluded the team in the last two tries. An NCAA tournament victory. 

With two matches of experience against Cincinnati in 2018 and Wisconsin in 2019, the missing achievement from the loaded lists of feats throughout the team has many on high alert. One being senior outside hitter Kaylee Martin, who immediately after the MVC championship victory discussed the 0-2 record on the grand stage. 

“In our minds, making the tournament is just the expectation now,” Martin said. “We’ve upped our goal to winning in the first round. It’s great that we made it, but we want more.” 

Standing in the way of that goal is the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. The Rebels finished 12-0 on the spring season and post a 28-2 record dating back to the 2019 season.  

Although this is the first meeting between the two programs, Rebels head coach and the Mountain West Coach of the Year Dawn Sullivan has ties to ISU. Sullivan had her first coaching gig as part of the Redbird coaching staff from 2002-2004. Current head coach Johnson showed excitement to play a team that exhibits a winning culture such as the Redbirds do. 

“The thing I do know is they’ve had a lot of success this year,” Johnson said. “They know how to win, they expect to win, and I think we share that quality. Our team is always looking to play someone who challenges us, who makes us better.” 

Entering the first-round contest on a winning streak of their own, ISU has a nine-match winning streak dating back to March 14. Since then, the Redbirds have played to their strengths, and seemingly have grown into a more complete team compared to their 7-5 start.  

Senior MVC Setter of the Year Stef Jankiewicz noted the growth by several teammates as the season progressed. 

“There’s been huge strides from everyone on our team,” Jankiewicz said. “Our connection is so much stronger than it was before. Nicole Lund hits amazing, Kaylee Martin has a starting role and Kaitlyn Prondzinski steps up her game every time and has such a high standard for herself.” 

The Redbirds certainly pack a punch with the likes of Jankiewicz and Martin converting on pass to kill attempts. The star-power does not end there though, as senior libero Kendal Meier and sophomore outside hitter Sarah Kushner add to the already stellar depth for Illinois State. Would be foolish to not include Sydney Holt in the threat assessment, as she pounded more than a few balls into the opposing court during the MVC tournament, at a .486 hitting percent as well. 

The Rebels bring their fair share talent to Nebraska, for one being the Mountain West Player of the Year Mariena Hayden. Hayden not only led the MW in aces per set (0.95), but also tallied first place in the NCAA. Hayden was accompanied by middle blockers Kate Brennan and Macy Smith, who were also All-Conference First Team selections 

Adversity will once again test this Redbird group like it has all season. With momentum on their side, a past that has featured heartbreak, and eyes that have never left the prize, this may be the best chance the Redbirds have had to dawn their Cinderella run during Johnson’s tenure.  

“I’m excited for them [the Redbirds]. They’re driven, and when they hit another gear and decide they’re going to do something, very seldomly have they missed. That motivates me to make sure I do my job to have them as prepared as possible, so they can go chase that goal.” 

The Redbirds and Rebels meet Wednesday evening at 6 p.m. at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Neb. The match can be viewed on ESPN3, or fans can follow along with WZND’s volleyball reporter Jake Fogal (@jfogal5) on Twitter for match updates. The winner advances to take on No. 2 seeded Kentucky later this week.