The 2019 season started off on a positive note for the Illinois State University volleyball squad as the Redbirds traveled to the Lone Star State this weekend to play three matches as part of the North Texas Invitational.
After winning their first two matches Friday, the Redbirds suffered a 3-1 setback to Pepperdine on Saturday morning. The two wins Friday were enough to crown the Redbirds as champions of the tournament, however.
Game three vs. Pepperdine
Coming off a 2-0 day Friday, the Redbirds looked to continue their hot streak into Saturday's matchup with Pepperdine.
The 'Birds got off to a slow start, losing a hard fought first set to the Waves. Losing both of the first sets in Friday's matches, the 'Birds were able to make up the deficit by coming back and winning the match 3-1.
“We didn’t win set one, but we played a lot better than we did in set one than in the previous games, so we’ve already grown. That’s what we want to do every week — we want to get a little better and continue to evolve our lineup,” head coach Leah Johnson said.
Seemingly comfortable being down after the first set, the ’Birds showed flashes that they were going to pull off the same feat as they did just 24 hours prior. At the end of the second set, the 'Birds clawed their way back to winning a close match 25-23, evening up the overall score to 1-1.
Looking to repeat history though, was not meant to be as the Waves cut short the Redbirds' run by winning the next two sets 25-20 and 25-17.
“Today’s match was a close one and it was two good volleyball teams playing hard. It was fun and I’d like to see that team again later in the season,” Johnson said. “I think we didn’t see their true colors yesterday during our scout. They have suffered injuries, lineup changes and we knew today that we’d see a different team — a team that was receiving votes in the top 25.”
Team captains Stef Jankiewicz and Kaylee Martin both had good all-around performances against the Waves. Jankiewicz led the team with 38 assists and two service aces, while Martin led the way in kills with 14.
Even with a loss to Pepperdine, Johnson was happy with the improvements her team showed in today’s game.
“I’m excited about the direction we’re headed," Johnson said.
Game one vs. North Texas
ISU opened its season in a Friday doubleheader with the first match of the day coming against the host team, North Texas.
After a back and forth start, the Mean Green held off the Redbirds to take a 25-16 opening set win.
The ’Birds would quickly make adjustments and find their groove, winning the next three sets to conclude a 3-1 match win.
Johnson was happy to see her team begin its season in the win column.
“It’s exciting to start with a win,” Johnson said. “Being a team that wasn’t quite known — and I’m talking about our side of the net, we just weren’t sure who we were as a team yet — it was good for us to get this under our belt to start the year for us.”
Freshman Sarah Kushner finished her first collegiate game with a team leading 16 kills.
“As a freshman coming in and playing six rotations, she was one of the best passers that whole match. And then also found a way to get points,” Johnson said of Kushner’s performance. “I mean she hit over .300 on the outside. That’s huge.”
Reigning Missouri Valley Conference All-First Team selection Kaylee Martin also added 16 kills, and Sydney Holt right behind her with 13 kills in the match.
Jankiewicz had 47 assists and four blocks in the match as well.
Overall, it was a team effort that helped seal the first win of the season.
“There’s a lot of balance on our team right now and I think we’re only going to get better,” Johnson said.
Game two vs. Tulsa
Illinois State looked to carry its momentum from the first match of the day, into its second against Tulsa.
Much like game one, the first set was back and forth before the Golden Hurricanes held off a Redbird rally to take the opening set 25-19.
Once again, it didn’t take long for the ’Birds to hit their stride, taking the next three sets to seal a 3-1 match win.
The adjustments made during the match were key to ISU starting off its season with a pair of wins.
“We came back and made some serving adjustments and got our offense moving to the right side, instead of the left, and that changed the course of the match,” Johnson said. “That was the in-game adjustment that we really owned and took to, executing at a high level.”
No strangers to playing at a high level are Stef Jankiewicz and Monica Miller. Jankiewicz led the team with 44 assists while Miller led with 14 kills in the match.
“The combination of Stef and Monica was pretty impressive,” Johnson said. “Monica was in a great rhythm, Stef was continuing to find her — that combination was pretty impressive.”
With the expectations set high this season, two wins in two games is exactly the kind of start the Redbirds were looking for.
“To come in and have to play two matches on the first day with just one scout, because there’s no video on the first weekend — I’m really proud of how the team made adjustments all match long,” Johnson said. “They executed the scout report so quickly and made in-game adjustments. I’m proud of their effort and mentality for the match.”