For the second time in as many games, Illinois State (12-7, 5-2 MVC) took down another undefeated conference opponent after defeating Loyola-Chicago (13-7, 6-1 MVC) in four sets.
Heading into the match, the Redbirds were once again without junior libero Kendal Meier who has been nursing a hand injury.
The ’Birds were also without team captain Stef Jankiewicz, who was unable to play due to an undisclosed injury.
The Ramblers quickly showed why they are sitting atop the Missouri Valley Conference standings, using three kills, two service aces, and two errors to jump out to a 7-1 and force Illinois State to burn an early timeout.
The sluggish start for ISU continued, as Loyola-Chicago tallied 11 of its next 12 points from kills to extend its lead, 20-11.
Illinois State would battle back but the Ramblers would hold on for the 25-19 opening set win.
“We had ourselves handcuffed,” ISU head coach Leah Johnson said. “I think they just relaxed and got those initial jitters out of the way and we played well at the end of set one and it helped with the rest of the match.”
The success the Redbirds displayed toward the end of the first set certainly carried over into set two, as ISU used a full team effort to take a 13-9 lead.
The ‘Birds would keep a comfortable lead throughout the set, answering with a score or stop each time Loyola-Chicago would attempt to make a run.
Senior Monica Miller would put the finishing touches on the second set en route to a 25-19 win to tie the overall match score 1-1.
By the time set three rolled around, it appeared both teams knew what to expect from one another.
A back-and-forth effort was the tale of the tape in the third set which featured three ties and three lead changes before ISU took a 10-8 lead.
The ’Birds would rattle off five straight points, part of a 9-0 scoring run used to extend their lead 15-8 and force Loyola-Chicago to burn its final timeout of the set.
The roof of Redbird Arena nearly caved in on the Ramblers who could not stop the offensive onslaught of ISU.
Illinois State finished set three with back-to-back service aces from freshman Allie Otten to put the cherry on top of a 25-13 win.
On the brink of defeat Loyola-Chicago would once again make things difficult for ISU to open up the fourth set which had seven ties and three lead changes before the ’Birds would hold a slim 15-13 lead.
Taking advantage of unforced errors this time around, the Ramblers would use an 9-5 scoring run to take a 22-20 lead, the first time they led since scoring the first point of the match.
Loyola Chicago would pull to within the set point with a 24-21 lead, but as many opponents who travel to Redbird Arena know, finishing Illinois State on its home floor is no easy task.
The Redbirds would show the Ramblers firsthand the difficulty, scoring five unanswered points to steal the set and match by a final score of 26-24.
For the second straight match the ’Birds took down an undefeated and top MVC opponent (Northern Iowa and Loyola-Chicago), showing the rest of the conference and league they are a force to be reckoned with.
“We believe we’re a top team in the conference regardless of our circumstances,” Johnson said. “You can be skilled, but you need to have a good mindset. There’s a lot of skilled teams in the league and I think we back it up with our mindset as well.”
Once again, the Redbird freshmen continued their strong play even in the absence of two of the team’s leaders in Meier and Jankiewicz.
Reigning MVC Freshman of the Week Emmy Ogogor picked up where she left off last match with a .400 hitting percentage against the Ramblers.
Johnson credits the success of the freshmen to not only their skills, but also to the leadership displayed by the older members of the team as well.
“The way the veterans have led them has prepared those freshmen to transition into dominant roles,” Johnson said. “They don’t have to own the show, they supported them to be excellent in their own right and now they can stand on their own. I’m very proud of them.”
Illinois State will look to extend its winning streak to four games when they take on Valparaiso (8-13, 3-4 MVC) in its next matchup. First serve between the Redbirds and Crusaders is set for 5 p.m. Saturday night at Redbird Arena.