From the band energizing fans in the student section to children high-fiving Illinois State University players before game time, the atmosphere at the newly renovated Redbird Arena this weekend was simply electric.
Everyone in attendance was ready for a showdown as defending Missouri Valley Conference champions ISU kicked off the Redbird Classic against in-state foe No. 14 Illinois.
The ’Birds got off to a hot start, opening up with a 9-2 lead in the first set and were able to capitalize off errors by Illinois’ front line on many of their attack attempts.
Maintaining its composure, ISU continued to build its lead, having both Sarah Kushner and Sydney Holt deliver kills before Illinois called a timeout, chasing a 16-8 lead.
Illinois was starting to create momentum before Monica Miller and Kaylee Martin were able to halt the Illini’s momentum with a big block and a kill, respectively, to win the first set 25-16.
Team captain and junior setter Stef Jankiewicz was blown away with the crowd’s energy in the team’s home opener.
“I was in awe honestly, it was one of the best experiences. To know all those fans came out to watch us and support us, and it wasn’t just sitting there in the crowd, they were cheering for us. That’s how you know our community is a support system. That’s beyond what we could ask for,” Jankiewicz said.
Views from the perch. Great opening crowd here at #RedbirdArena as the new lower bowl looks completely filled — @RedbirdVB leads early against the #Illini in the first set, 18-10. #BackTheBirds🏐 pic.twitter.com/eDy0ukrkLs— The Vidette (@The_Vidette) September 14, 2019
Illinois sought retribution in the second set, as it was tightly contested until mid-way through the set. Illinois once again started building momentum to the point that I-L-L-I-N-I chants started raining down from the seats.
Multiple attack errors by Kushner and Miller put the 'Birds down by too many points and the Illini took set two 25-21.
ISU’s third-year head coach Leah Johnson was able to get in the heads of her squad, as the ’Birds came right out of the gates and took a 12-4 lead early.
Three consecutive kills by Emmy Ogogor propelled ISU’s lead out of reach for the Illini, eventually winning the third set 25-21.
Neither team missing a beat, the fourth set started back and forth. After coming out of a media timeout, the score was locked at 10-10, but multiple kills by Miller and freshman Kendee Hilliard and several mishaps on the Illinois side of the ball sent the ’Birds on a 7-0 run before the Illini called a timeout.
A key challenge by Johnson that reversed a call on a touch ruling sent the crowd into a roar that U of I had no match for, falling 25-21.
“We should be playing with great confidence right now, we’ve ironed out a few of our soft spots and we are turning them into strengths, that’s what we work on every week. We have two tough opponents ahead of us. They are full strength, playing good volleyball. The speed of UCF tomorrow is going to be dangerous. We are not gonna rest on this, one of the things we always say is that it is never enough, on to the next,” Johnson said.
To begin the season 6-1 and with a crucial upset over nationally ranked Illinois, the Redbirds are making their case for another run atop the Missouri Valley Conference, and maybe another shot at the NCAA tournament.