Illinois State volleyball coach Leah Johnson met with the media Tuesday ahead of her team's first Missouri Valley Conference weekend road trip, which includes stops at Drake on Friday night and No. 22 Northern Iowa on Saturday night.
The Redbirds (9-7, 2-1 MVC) are coming off a Monday night three-set sweep at Evansville.
Prior to the match, the MVC named junior Courtney Pence and freshman Stef Jankiewicz MVC Defensive Player of the Week and MVC Freshman of the Week, respectively.
Over this past weekend, Illinois State split home matches versus Missouri State and Southern Illinois to open MVC play.
Johnson talked about all of this and more on Tuesday:
Johnson on the conference openers this past weekend:
"We had a good conference opening weekend. Missouri State obviously gave us a battle at home, we wish we could get that one back. Losing in five was tough, after winning every statistical category for the most part. But, responding beating Southern Illinois in straight-sets and playing pretty clean, solid volleyball was good. Then Evansville, I thought we raised the bar even more. To get that kind of win on the road was very pleasing. I like where the team is at, I like where we're going, I like how hard we're working. I like being a Redbird, it's been good."
Johnson on her team finding their identity:
"I think we're there. What I like, I think balance is one of our identities. We will use every single player to score. I think everyone expects us to use Jaelyn Keene, right? I think she's the person everyone has kind of keyed on, but at this point we're setting everyone with equal distribution. If you look at the stat sheet you're seeing 4 to 5 players getting 20 to 30 attempts every match. That's very hard to defend. And now that there is a trust between our setter and all of our attackers, we can have that true identity. I also believe we're a team that's hard to score against. We hold our opponents to the lowest hitting percentage in conference and I believe we're in the top-20 or so in the country, so we're doing that a very high level. It is very hard to score against us."
Johnson on the importance of Courtney Pence and Stef Jankiewicz after both were recognized by the MVC this week, for the third and second time respectively:
"Vital. I think what's really impressive is you know what you're going to get from both of them. I preach this, but the best way to build a lineup for a coach is to have players who are predictable. You come and you have a great practice and everyone wants to be the starter. It's like 'great, now do that four times in a row, then you're the starter'. And so that's what those two do. They're very consistent in the way they train, the way they approach their skill and their job and their position. Stef, as a freshman, I never would've guessed mentally that she's a freshman. She's very unbreakable. She has a consistent spirit about her. So, you can rely on that, I can predict what response I'm going to get out of her every day, which allows me to take the right risks from the sideline, to take the right risks in training. And so I get to be creative with my craft, just like they do do in theirs."
Johnson on how to come out on the right end of longer matches:
"That's the mystery piece. We come out of five-set matches and we win the statistical battles, but we lose set five. And that's what it really boils down to, if we can put all six rotations for points in a row. We're usually good for four and then we'll lose rotation two or rotation four, what have you, drop a couple of those rotational battles and in set five, you don't get one off. So, that's what we're working on, we're working on scoring points in a row, putting some runs together in tight situations. We play a game where it's just that last five points over and over and over again and we're going to start doing that a little more and to a higher degree where the first team to make an error automatically loses, so that we're not scared to take those big swings in tight moments, because I want our team to be fearless."
Johnson on this weekend's opponents (Drake and No. 22 UNI):
"Now going up to Drake, who I think they're playing the best volleyball they've played in 10 years, they look really good right now, very clean. Then UNI, who upset No. 10 and defending national champion Nebraska, so we've got two tough matches coming up. I think just knowing how good they are, we're going to step up to that, but I still find that the most important team on the court will be the Redbirds. We have to continue to trust what we're doing so that at the end of the year, that's concrete for us. It's not about who we're playing, it's about we are that wins matches."
Johnson on the MVC style of play now compared to her playing days at Missouri State:
"I think there's some known quantities that are very similar. UNI when I played, if you look -- it's the 25th anniversary of women's sports in the MVC, right? One of the premier volleyball athletes was Molly O'Brien from Northern Iowa, who I played against. And they were No. 10 in the country when we beat them, so I think about that. Well, that's Northern Iowa right now. Northern Iowa's No. 22 in the country right now, but honestly, they should be ranked higher. They beat four top-25 teams all through preseason. So, in that sense, yes. Missouri State, absolutely. I think they're as good as they've ever been. My competitive nature doesn't want to say they're better, but they probably are, right? I think in that sense, yeah there's -- I think Valpo's adding a new element that adds some depth to the league outside of Missouri State and UNI, that we lost with Wichita and we lost with Creighton a few years back. But, every team is getting better. I also think Drake is one of those teams that is surprising people. They came in with an exceptional record and they're playing a really high level of volleyball. So, it's very similar but your top-2 are still your top-2. And I'm excited to break into that mix."