Redbird Volleyball: Season Preview
Written by Leo Staudacher on January 21, 2021
Photo courtesy of goredbirds.com
Story by Jake Fogal
NORML, Ill.- On the heels of winning a Missouri Valley Conference title, the Illinois State Redbird volleyball team has its eyes locked on repeating. Feeling more confident than ever, head coach Leah Johnson enters her fourth season in an audibled spring season. Johnson holds a 65-and-33 record and has the utmost confidence that this team could do some special things in 2021.
“This is a team that is pretty special and has a lot of potential. When you have five seniors that have all been in starting roles and significant roles for their entire career. It’s a pretty special senior class, but everyone underneath them is competitive,” said Johnson.
“I think we’re definitely hungry, and I also think we’re a little jittery, even though we’re a veteran-seasoned team. It’s that expectation, I mean we’re coming off a championship and there’s probably a bigger target on our back,” said Johnson.
Led by team captain Stef Jankiewicz, who recently was named as an MVC-All-First Team member alongside seniors Kaylee Martin and Sydney Holt, has hopes of adding another piece of jewelry come early April.
“I’m hoping for another (championship) ring for senior season,” Jankiewicz said. “I’ve found that comfort zone of being a captain and being really excited to lead my team and work with my coaches for success.”
Joining Jankiewicz are four fellow seniors, Martin, Holt, Kendal Meier and Alyssa Kronberg. The quintet has nothing guaranteed entering their final season, as Johnson reports that every member of the team has been treated like a starter up to this point.
The senior class has been together since their sophomore seasons, as Kronberg and Martin transferred from Memphis and Northern Illinois. Finding success with one another over the years has Meier, co-captain of the Redbirds, eyeing legacies for the impressive group.
“Our group of seniors is really solid. We really want to leave a legacy,” Meier said. “We’ve waited a long time. We have a very competitive class with a very high standard.”
Five seniors with several successful years dawning red and white, are paralleled by seven new-faces that are expected to contribute immediately. Jankiewicz says that she has no worry of who stands beside her, counting on each member in an Illinois State jersey to come through when out on the floor.
Not a new face on the team but on the court, redshirt freshman Nicole Lund is assumed to break out in her second year at ISU, dealing with injuries last season. Johnson says Lund was on the brink of emerging last season before suffering an injury.
“She is going to be a tremendous point scorer, strong blocker, and runs every play in our offense,” said Johnson.
Joining Lund in possibly emerging is a sophomore tandem featuring Sarah Kushner and Kaity Weimerskirch. Performing above and beyond last season as freshmen, Kushner was thrust into a starter role from the start while Weimerskirch impressed after libero Meier was sidelined with an injury.
Anticipating both to evolve, Johnson’s primary hope is that each find confidence in their roles on the team this season.
“Their roles might evolve, but the biggest thing for me is that they find confidence in their roles. They are good high-skill players, but now it’s owning that role differently versus questioning what their responsibility was,” said Johnson.
“I expect them to play like veterans and that’s the evolution I want to see come out on their side.”
While the spring start is weird enough to adjust to, during Illinois State’s intra-squad scrimmage on Monday, all players were equipped with masks while performing, in coherence with COVID-19 guidelines. Meier mentioned that the team didn’t train with masks in the fall, but Johnson made the call to have them on during the spring season. The team appears to be embracing the idea, adjusting to whatever is thrown their way.
Just like an intimidating non-conference schedule that features the likes of No. 20 Marquette and Cincinnati, who both made the NCAA tournament alongside the Redbirds a season ago. Between those series, ISU has a matchup against Bradley on Monday at Redbird Arena.
As a team, the Redbirds ranked nationally in many categories under the leadership of coach Johnson. ISU finished fifth in team kills (1,809), sixth in team assists (1,705) and seventh in team digs (2,192) in all of NCAA Division I. This goes to show that the Redbirds can and hope to compete with the best that the NCAA has to offer.
Coach Johnson made it known that she was looking for tougher competition when putting together her team’s schedule.
“We’re packing in as many games as we can,” Johnson said. “If we’re going to be tired, it’s because we’re playing matches. We had plenty of time to practice. This is a team that wants to play.”
And play they will as their match with the Golden Eagles begins at 5:30 on Friday and 1:00 on Saturday. Both games will be played in Milwaukee, Wis.