After defeating their conference rival on their home floor earlier this season, Northern Iowa (19-9, 13-1 MVC) returned the favor Friday night by beating Illinois State (14-11, 7-6 MVC) at Redbird Arena.
A 2019 MVC preseason poll had the Panthers ranked as the number one team in the conference, and picked the Redbirds to finish in second place, we quickly learned why in the opening set.
Both teams would trade scores with one another, resulting in seven ties before the Redbirds would jump out to a 12-11 lead courtesy of a Kaylee Martin kill, one of her five kills in the first set.
The ‘Birds would use a 9-4 run to extend their lead to a comfortable score of 21-15.
Illinois State looked poised for an easy opening set win, but not before UNI would kill the momentum with a 5-1 run of their own to cut the Redbirds lead 22-20 and head coach Leah Johnson to call her final timeout.
The ‘Birds would keep their cool in the midst of the Panthers run, finishing off Northern Iowa on a kill by the most tenured member of the team, senior Monica Miller.
Northern Iowa would show why they’re sitting atop the Missouri Valley Conference, quickly shrugging their loss to open the match and jumping out to a 7-2 lead to open the second set.
Coming out of a timeout, ISU would use a 9-4 run to tie the set at 11 points all with eight of those nine points coming vial kills from six different Redbirds.
Both teams would continue the theme of the match in back and forth scoring, once again finding themselves tied at 18 points with neither side wanting to give in.
Illinois State would finally get their first lead of the set 19-18, after back-to-back kills from team captain Stef Jankiewicz.
The ‘Birds looked poised to take their second straight set of the match, but once again the Panthers would have an answer.
Northern Iowa would go on an 8-5 run to finish off the Redbirds in set two by a final score of 26-24, with the final two points coming off kills.
To no surprise, the start of the third set featured an exchange of scores from both sides leading to a 3-3 tie.
The Redbirds were able to distance themselves from UNI with a 6-0 scoring run to take a 9-3 lead.
Northern Iowa would quickly bring the ‘Birds back in their sights with a 5-0 run trailing only 9-8 halfway through the third set.
Once again Illinois State began to pull away extending their lead 18-13, but in this chess match of scoring runs, UNI was ready to answer with a 5-0 run to tie the match at 18 points all.
The Panthers would take a commanding 23-20 lead but it was the Redbirds who would respond with a rally, beginning with a diving save by junior Alyssa Kronberg and ending with a big-time block from junior Sydney Holt and freshman Monica Miller to tie the score at 23 points.
The end of the third set featured a sequence of three ties before Northern Iowa was able to pull away with a 28-26 win in the pivotal third set swing match.
Northern Iowa continued to ride their wave of momentum into the fourth set, forcing coach Johnson to burn two quick timeouts after jumping out to their largest lead of the match, 7-0.
The rough start was too much to overcome for ISU, as they had no answers for the scoring and defense of the Panthers who had a counter move waiting for the Redbirds each time they would try to fight their way back in the set.
This time around, Illinois State couldn’t make a run to get themselves back in the game, as Northern Iowa went on to win the set 24-12, and take the match in four sets.
On paper, it might look like Northern Iowa cruised to an easy 3-1 victory, but the reality was far from that.
Illinois State battled consistently throughout the match and could very well have come out on the other side had a few things gone differently in the second and third sets.
“We played really well for three sets,” coach Johnson said. “We’re a great volleyball team and I thought we were playing high-level volleyball against the top team in the conference right now so we don’t have any reason to have doubts. I think our best volleyball is still ahead of us.”
After finishing with a team-high 18 kills, Kaylee Martin believes the ’Birds will ultimately benefit from the experience gained in the match.
“I think we executed a lot of the things we worked on in practice,” Martin said. “Our mindset was there the whole time, we were aggressive, and I think there’s a lot of bright spots that we showed tonight.”
Another positive to build on was the return of one of the team's leaders, Kendal Meier.
“I thought she came in and brought her voice and her confidence,” coach Johnson said. “At this point, I believe we’ve got her full-go, so we’re excited to see her evolve in her role.”
Following the loss, the Redbirds now sit in fourth place in the Missouri Valley Conference with five games remaining in the regular season.
Up next for ISU is a quick turnaround for match-up tomorrow night against Drake (9-18, 3-11 MVC) who was swept by Illinois State earlier this season.
First serve between the ‘Birds and Bulldogs is set for 5 p.m. at Redbird Arena.