How does a team begin a conference season 14 months in the making? How does a team even start a season where it has a chance to win an elusive third Missouri Valley Conference title in as many years?
Some would answer that beating a conference rival in a three-set sweep only two days after beating the No. 20-ranked team in the country always helps, and they’re right.
For the Illinois State University volleyball team, this spring presents a season unlike any other. After months of restless anticipation, the Redbirds made their home debut Monday night. The team sent the Bradley University Braves home after only an hour and a half and three huge set wins to take the match, only days after they split a weekend series against nationally ranked Marquette University.
Being the first opponent to many different teams could benefit the other team because of film, but head coach Leah Johnson says getting this early experience and success is great for the Redbirds.
“That’s our first six matches,” Johnson said. “It feels like everyone has an advantage because we’re returning a veteran team. We have to continue to make that our advantage because regardless of what they know, they still have to find a way to beat us.”
As soon as the Redbirds took home court for the first time since 2019, they went to work against the Braves. Despite winning two conference championships in 2018 and ‘19, ISU lost to Bradley in three matchups. They took set one 25-20, thanks in part to Sarah Kushner, Nicole Lund, Kaylee Martin and Sydney Holt, who each contributed two kills apiece. They took an even larger lead in set two, winning by a total of seven points partly due to defensive errors by the Braves in their first game of the season.
“Whenever another team makes an error, it does give us a little bit more momentum,” senior Holt said. “But I also think we did earn a lot of our own points, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
In the final set, the Redbird dominance continued. Huge blocking from Lund (10 in the match) and Kaitlyn Pronzinski (six in the match) were key to the 25-17 victory, the largest set margin of the match. While both Lund and Pronzinski were making their Redbird Arena debuts tonight, it is no coincidence that those two teammates work so well together at the net — they’ve been doing it together since long before they came to Normal.
“They played club ball together back in high school, in Minnesota,” Johnson said. “We actually identified Kaitlyn by watching Nicole. We saw that was definitely a tandem. Their relationship runs much deeper than the last six months.”
Although it was good for the team to be back in Redbird Arena after all those months, there still is a major piece that is missing — fans. However, ISU’s “bench” of socially distant players in the corner of the court has brought it upon themselves to bring the same energy fans would after every point, including choreographed dances and cheers.
“You can definitely feel the cheers and support from the bench while on the court, and it feels amazing,” Redshirt freshman Lund said. “We know they’re there to back us up, and it really helps when there are no fans in the gym. They keep the arena loud, and it’s a better environment to play in.”
The Redbirds will have a four-day break from matches before they host nonconference opponent Cincinnati University on Friday and Saturday.
“I’m excited about Cincinnati because I think they play a slightly different style of ball than the Valley,” Johnson said. “They’re more point scorers than defense, and I think that’ll challenge us uniquely.”
ISU now has three games under their belt in 2021, including big conference and nonconference wins. It’s a start to a season that they’re obviously happy with but know there’s still work to be done as the season gets into full swing.
However, for now, as they sit at 2-1 after three games in four days following hundreds of days with no games, the Redbirds have a lot to be proud of and a lot to be excited about.