Coming off an impressive final stretch of the season en route to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, the Illinois State University volleyball team (22-12, 12-6 MVC) was looking to continue building on its experiences with offseason preparations.
The Redbirds won eight straight matches to end the year, including a three-set sweep of Northern Iowa (24-11, 17-1 MVC) to win the 2019 Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Having received an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the ’Birds bowed out to the eventual runner-up Wisconsin Badgers (27-7, 18-2 Big Ten) in the opening round to end their season.
This experience for a relatively young team with returning key players is one that is surely bound to make Illinois State volleyball a national force to be reckoned with the next time it take the court.
Whenever, that may be.
The Redbirds began offseason preparations with standouts Stef Jankiewicz and Kaylee Martin attending the U.S. Women’s National Team Tryouts.
Illinois State also kicked off the first of its spring scrimmages against Northwestern and was looking forward to a team trip to China (later changed to Italy) in May before the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to all college athletics in the country.
Although the sports world has been put on hold for the time being, the opportunity to improve will continue for head coach Leah Johnson and the team.
The third-year head coach explained the motto for the upcoming 2020 season is “Dare to Lead,” so the Redbirds have begun implementing that mindset now, regardless of these unusual circumstances.
“I challenged the team to see how we can still meet our goals,” Johnson said. “This is an excuse for a lot of people if they want it to be, but we’re gonna stay prepared by challenging ourselves in a way that we don’t get on the courts that will transfer to when we’re able to play and into our life skills as well.”
Having tracked COVID-19 prior to the official NCAA cancellations, Johnson and her coaching staff began preparing a plan to keep the competitive mindset of the team sharp.
“We’ve had team meetings, doing topical conversations about things like leadership and habit building to use this opportunity as a different type of learning experience.” Johnson said.
As shown throughout her tenure at Illinois State, the team has bought into expectations set by Johnson, even during this period of adjustment.
“The team has been fabulous,” Johnson said. “I think it’s because they know what their goals are and how hard it is to reach them. They wrote them down and we told them to hang it on their wall so they can see it every day to remind yourself why you’re getting up working.”
Two straight trips to the NCAA Tournament has proven the hard work in and outside of the gym during Johnson’s tenure has been beneficial for the Redbirds.
Adversity is nothing new to this team who was bitten by the injury bug for a majority of this past season before rallying for a dominant final run down the stretch.
The same kind of adversity during this period of unknowns is one the team will continue to embrace.
“We know we can’t control the ultimate outcome, but we can control the preparation, mindset, and the things that will allow us the opportunity to earn that end result,” Johnson said. “The minute you take a break from the work, the opportunity is no longer deserved. The guarantee will never be there, but the opportunity will always be.”
While we are unsure when college athletics, and even everyday life will get back to normal, one thing is certain:
Redbird volleyball will continue the hard work and preparation that has made it one of the best programs at Illinois State in recent years, and when that time comes to take the court once again, the team will be ready.