This year’s selection for the NCAA Tournament was filled with less uncertainty for the Illinois State University volleyball team.
After entering the tournament last season as an at-large bid, ISU earned an automatic bid after becoming the first No. 3 seed to win the Missouri Valley Tournament.
The Redbirds will face a tough opening challenge taking on No. 4 Wisconsin Dec. 6.
“Being able to play a No. 4 team in Wisconsin is awesome. They are playing really great volleyball right now,” ISU head coach Leah Johnson said. “This is why you play.”
As one of the top four teams in the tournament, the Badgers will be a steep test for the 'Birds.
“Obviously there are some nerves. We know we are going to come in as the underdog and we are excited to be in that environment and have the chance to play on their home court,” junior Stef Jankiewicz said. “It will be a great experience for our freshmen”
The Redbirds caught fire in the MVC Tournament only dropping one set throughout the weekend. Loyola Chicago was the only team to earn a set against the red hot ’Birds, as they swept Evansville and the University of Northern Iowa.
Johnson sees her team playing the best since early in the season.
“I think this tournament mirrored our home tournament. We upset Illinois, UCF and took No. 7 Marquette to the brink,” Johnson said. “I think our team looks like that team.”
The ’Birds sputtered mid-season after some key players went down with injuries. But with a fully healthy team, the ’Birds are rolling.
“The first thing that is going right is our whole team is healthy. Everyone who has been playing has been fabulous,” Johnson said. “I think the difference is when you go to the practice gym and have everyone healthy it is more competitive and easier to make improvements faster.”
With the full squad, ISU has started to improve its game.
“I think the other thing we are doing really well is serving and passing better than I have seen all year. We are being aggressive, hitting our location, changing depth and passing at an elite level,” Johnson said. “The serve and pass game is huge because you can neutralize any opponent.”
MVC foe UNI also made the tournament as an at-large bid. Other ISU opponents from the season, University of Illinois and Marquette, also made the tournament.