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Redbirds Comeback to Defeat Loyola in Lieu to Their Third MVC Title

Written by on November 27, 2021

Photo courtesy of goredbirds.com

NORMAL, Ill.- For the third time in four years, the Illinois State Volleyball team captured the Missouri Valley Conference title as they defeated Loyola three sets to two.

The Redbirds got off to a slow start in the first set as they trailed early committing six errors to go along with a low hitting percentage of .130 to allow the Ramblers to take away the first set 25 to 17.

Both teams would trade scoring runs in the second set as there were twenty-one tie scores and seven lead changes as it headed into extra points. The Ramblers would call a timeout following a kill by Redbird freshman Aliyah Moore that would propel them to get ahead taking the second set 30 to 28.

Redbirds Head Coach Leah Johnson expands on what she told her team heading into the third set.

“We talked about the mountain we’ve been climbing all year,” said Johnson. “You know I said, hey, we’ve been climbing all year. This is no different. Just keep climbing. Keep climbing. We need to become the predator we’re getting pushed and we’re letting them back us up over and over again. Start pushing back. Step back to it, you know, do what you do best. Serve your best serve, take your swing. Make them stop you. Don’t try to do anything outside of yourself and they responded and we also flipped the lineup but you know, that’s just something else.”

A lineup change would occur to begin the third set which would make the difference for the Redbirds. Illinois State got off to a hot start leading seven to two off a block from middle blocker Nicole Lund. The defense would then go on to record 10 blocks while holding the Ramblers to a .000 hitting percentage and to only 10 points which is the lowest amount of points Loyola has scored in a set all season long. 

The fourth set would be a mirror image of set two as both teams traded lead changes and tie scores that went into extra points. It wasn’t until an attack error by Loyola’s Emily Banitt that allowed the Redbirds to take the set 26 to 24 to tie the match at two sets a piece.

A miraculous comeback from being down two sets to none, Illinois State would get off to a slow start in the fifth set as the Ramblers capitalized off of the Redbird’s mistakes early to get ahead eight to five. The Redbirds behind the play of outside hitter Kaitlyn Prondzinski would then go on a scoring run which forced a timeout by Loyola.

Prondzinski, who recorded a career high 20 kills, would record the final kill to put Illinois State over 15 to 13. 

“I was just so excited, every time I got out there, I just smiled and looked at everyone like I was just so excited to be there. And like being in this game and just being with this team and these girls because we worked so hard to be here. Like Coach said we’re all resilient so we’ve had to go through ups and downs and everything. So, I mean it was just awesome. I didn’t even realize I had 20 kills, I was just out there.”

With this win, Illinois State captured its third Missouri Valley Conference Volleyball championship in four years and gave themselves an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. Johnson expanded on why this title feels different compared to previous years.

“I feel like this season I’ve been holding my breath all year because I knew this was our potential and we set it, we’re going to chase our potential,” said Johnson. “You know, the strength of the wolf is the pack and the strength of the pack is the wolf and we needed to be the wolves and be on the attack and constantly be grazing and changing and adjusting and hunting and we did that. I’m sorry for such a cliche analogy, but that’s been our motto all year. I do feel like we’ve had so many setbacks and challenges that I’ve been holding my breath because I wasn’t sure we’d realize this. I knew we had that potential and I never questioned it when we could get to full strength. So, yeah, it feels different. I wouldn’t say better or worse, just different. I mean, we had the youngest starting lineup in the league and we started with a 33%-win percentage out of non-conference. Got into conference and hit .500 right and then we went on a big run. Skid a little bit at the end to just get rechecked again to come back up so a lot of tug of war for us this year.”