Day two of the Redbird Classic saw the Illinois State University volleyball team improve its record to 7-1 after a thrilling five set victory over UCF (6-2).
ISU made its much-anticipated home debut Friday with a 3-1 set win against in-state rival No. 14 Illinois.
Also coming off an impressive victory earlier in the day against the Fighting Illini, the Knights were still hot coming into their match against ISU and exploited some early Redbird mistakes.
“We didn’t start great, it’s like our heads weren’t in it yet,” head coach Leah Johnson said. “We had to learn how to be in that moment and be dialed in. This was our growth opportunity and I think the team responded really well.”
In a back and forth start which saw 14 ties and seven lead changes, it was UCF who pulled away with a 25-20 win in the opening set.
A combination of miscommunication and unforced errors put the ’Birds in a 7-2 deficit to begin the second set.
Following a timeout by Johnson, ISU rallied with a 19-13 run to take its first lead in set two.
Freshman Kendee Hilliard put the finishing touches on the Redbird rally to give ISU the 25-21 come from behind win.
The story of set three was the same as the previous, with UCF jumping out to an early 7-2 lead.
This time however, the ’Birds couldn’t come back, and the Knights pulled away for the 25-15 win.
In a thrilling fourth set which saw Illinois State trailing for the majority, the turning point came on a net-violation challenge by Johnson which reversed the original call to tie the game at 19 points apiece.
“If it doesn’t work, we’re still all in. At least we took that risk,” Johnson said. “I think it changes mentality when we’re taking the risk together, win or lose.”
The Redbirds would answer with another score to gain their first lead of the set, 20-19.
The final minutes of set four saw the Redbirds pushed to the brink, but they wouldn’t fold. A kill by junior Kaylee Martin was followed by a block by freshman Emmy Ogogor to seal a 26-24 win.
The momentum was carried over into the fifth and final set of the match.
Martin, who led the team with 21 kills in the match, delivered the final blow to give the ’Birds the win in the rubber match, 15-10.
It was far from pretty, or easy, but the ’Birds showed why they’re a force to be reckoned with — especially in front of a home crowd.
“Coach always tells us we don’t need to win perfect, we can win ugly,” junior Kendall Meier said. “Our voices are what matters, and I think it’s a growing opportunity and we showed it. We can handle that no matter how play.”
Illinois State finished the Redbird Classic Tournament Sunday with another tough test in No. 7 Marquette, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned so far this season about the ISU volleyball team: they’re battle tested and they’ll be ready.
“It’s another opportunity,” Johnson said. “I’m curious to see how we respond from this win into the next match because we had to learn during the match. Now we need to start with a better mindset playing elite teams. This is what the NCAA Tournament feels like if you advance and that’s what want to learn to do.”
To close out the tournament, Marquette took home a 3-2 win in the five-set match against the ’Birds.
The Redbirds play again at the Buckeye Invitational starting at 9 a.m. on Friday.