Coming off a sweep over Evansville Nov. 28, the No. 3 ranked Illinois State University volleyball team (21-11, 12-6 MVC) notched its seventh straight victory over the No. 2 ranked Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (21-11, 14-4 MVC), winning 3-1 in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Tournament.
Getting an extra day of rest is viewed as an advantage as the Ramblers secured a buy for the MVC tournament, awaiting the winner of the Evansville and Illinois State match to decide their opponent. More than likely hopeful for a Purple Aces victory were the Ramblers, as during the regular season did Loyola Chicago no favors against the ’Birds, getting swept for the season series. Looking to change the narrative, the Ramblers got off to a fast start in the first set.
Addie Barner and Delilah Wolf looked to make a statement right out of the gates, as the lead was built to four points. A few errors by the Ramblers allowed for the Redbirds to deplete the deficit for a split second, before the Ramblers went roughshod on the ’Birds. Heather Kocken sparked a 5-1 point run for Loyola, forcing ISU head coach Leah Johnson into a timeout.
Back-to-back kills by Kaylee Martin looked to have wiped the Ramblers momentum, but the ’Birds continued to be dominated for the remainder of the first set, losing 25-18. The Ramblers held the lead for the entire first set, putting the Redbirds in a tough position having very little momentum on their side heading into the second set.
The Redbirds put all the doubts to the side starting on an 8-2 run in the early second set, resulting in a timeout by Loyola-Chicago's head coach Mark Hulse. The only consistent piece that seemed to be causing a problem for the Redbirds was Wolf, who out of the timeout knotted two kills to cut in the lead.
Just as it seemed as if the Ramblers were marching back into the set, they began to struggle. Wolf was subbed off the floor for rest and the Redbirds took advantage. The ’Birds pushed on with a five-point run behind Martin’s two kills, giving ISU an 11-point lead. Shockingly, the Ramblers went on a four-point run of their own that sent ISU into a timeout. Hoping to finish this set quickly was on the mind of the Redbirds, but right out of the timeout two more points went on the board as Sydney Holt recorded two errors.
The continued struggles forced Johnson to call her second timeout of the set. Stepping up were both team captains, Stef Jankiewicz and Martin, who led their team to finishing the second set. Both accounting for a kill that pushed the Redbirds to match-point, and Taylor Lynch was able to finish the second set with a kill, 25-17.
The struggles continued for the Ramblers in the third set, as they fell behind by five points and each of the points was an error committed. Hulse called a timeout, but that was not able to help his team fend off yet another six-point run by the Redbirds. Continuing their momentum, the Redbirds’ lead reached 10 points after a tremendous block by Jankiewicz looked to have put the finishing touches on the Ramblers. Before it was all said and done though, Loyola went on a 6-0 run keeping their comeback hopes alive. Jankiewicz was able to silence the Ramblers with a dump over the net, winning the set 17-15.
The two teams fought back-and-forth as they waged war throughout the majority of the fourth set, but as the set came down to the wire, the Ramblers could not help but make mistakes. With the Redbirds still flourishing, Holt had two kills to push the ’Birds up 15-10.
With their season in jeopardy, the Ramblers did everything in their power to fight back into the set, but as the Ramblers began to find their footing, the ’Birds rattled off five consecutive points to virtually put this match out of reach. Johnson called a timeout with the Redbirds at match point to draw up a play to finish the Ramblers off, and they did just that as Sarah Kushner connected on a kill that awarded her the set win, 25-20, and the team the upset victory.
The Redbirds now move on to the championship match against the reigning MVC regular season champions, the Northern Iowa Panthers (24-9, 17-1 MVC). The Redbirds and Panthers split their season series, each winning on the road. The ’Birds were the only team during conference play to defeat the Panthers. The match will be 4 p.m. Nov. 30 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.