Courtney Pence cannot help but stick out for Illinois State volleyball.
The casual fan watching a match at Redbird Arena can find the junior libero in her black jersey among a sea of her teammates’ whites. Yet, beyond uniform color, Pence’s tenacious play may stand out even more.
The Springfield native will be the first to tell you that her job on the court is anything but flashy. As ISU’s libero, one will not find Pence flying above the net for a big kill. Instead, she is absorbing those kills from the opposition point after point. There is arguably nobody in the Missouri Valley Conference that defends the kill better than Pence.
Last year, she was named the Valley’s Libero of the Year as a sophomore and is picking up right where she left off, already being named the Valley’s Defensive Player of the Week twice. Despite the recognition, Pence says it has always been about doing what the team needs of her.
“I always just play my game and my position no matter what, my job is not to score points, I set my teammates up to do so,” Pence said. “So I need to stay as consistent as I can to help my teammates be the best they can be.”
Pence’s continued success has been even more impressive as it comes at a time of transition for Redbird volleyball. Former ISU head coach Melissa Myers stepped down in the offseason and the team welcomed in Leah Johnson this past June. Change generally tends to be tough, but this time it has proved especially difficult as Pence professed to have a special relationship with Myers.
“It’s tough when there is change especially when you loved the old coach, [Myers] was great and she helped me grow so much as a player,” Pence said. “But I understood that she needed to do what was best for her and when I heard coach Johnson was coming in I was excited because I knew she was a great coach.”
Since coming in last June, Johnson has brought her a personal touch to the Redbirds, meaning new schemes and a change in routine. Throughout the transition, Johnson has asked her team — especially Pence, as one of the captains — to trust in her process. Through the early part of the season, it has looked like Pence surely bought in, but not without some hiccups.
“When [Johnson] came she made it her own and changed what she thought needed changing. At first, it was frustrating because everything’s new so it’s not going to be perfect,” Pence said. “But now getting all these awards, I’ve realized that she has changed me for the better and made me an even better player than I was.”
That special relationship Pence once shared with Myers seems to be quickly developing with coach Johnson as well. Early on, Johnson made it a point to take an interest in her team and Pence feels her new coach has been involved with her and the team well beyond the court.
“We do a lot of team events, we all went to Sugar Grove and had a bonfire with her whole family. We are around her kids all the time after practice and it makes it more like a family aspect,” Pence said. “So that connection isn’t just volleyball, it shows that she is there for you no matter what.”
On the court, Pence made her presence known in the opening weekend at the Baylor Invitational. Facing then-No. 15 Florida State, Pence tallied 41 digs, which was the third-highest single match total in Illinois State history. For the weekend, she totaled 85 digs and was named as the tournament’s best defender. Johnson knows the talent Pence brings on the floor, but this year she has asked even more of her libero.
“Courtney is an outstanding libero, but I’m asking her to do some things that are not easy, like pushing the team, holding them more accountable and really driving the work ethic in the gym,” Johnson said.
In the past two seasons, Pence has finished in both second and third for total digs on the Illinois State all-time list. This season she appears poised to top the record books as she currently ranks fourth nationally with 6.19 digs per set. Pence will need to keep her play at a high level as the Redbirds prepare for a rigorous conference season that ultimately ends with ISU hosting the MVC tournament at Redbird Arena. The ability to host the conference tournament is a definite advantage, but Pence knows it guarantees nothing.
“It’s always nice to be at home because you don’t have to travel and we can play in front of our families,” Pence said. “Just being home in your environment is always nice, but we know all the other teams will come out and be ready to play.”
Pence and the Redbirds will begin their MVC journey Friday as they welcome in preseason favorite Missouri State to Redbird Arena.