One away from three straight.
A Missouri Valley Championship berth has become an annual tradition for Illinois State University volleyball under head coach Leah Johnson, whose 3-0 victory over Indiana State Friday night gave way to its fourth MVC championship appearance in a row, winning the last two.
The No. 2 Redbirds came into their home court fired up and made quick work of the No. 6 Sycamores, maintaining control throughout to sweep the semifinal on Friday at Redbird Arena.
Taking the court with a lineup led by all three of the Redbirds’ All-MVC First-Teamers, Illinois State jumped out to a quick 10-4 win on home court against the Sycamores.
Three of the Redbirds' first ten were kills by MVC Player of the Year Tamara Otene.
Indiana State came out of its timeout and put together a run of its own to bring it within four at 15-11. Johnson called her first timeout of the match, looking to keep control of the first set.
Otene mashed another kill out of the timeout to build the lead and spark a 5-1 run.
ISU kept control as it grabbed a 25-18 opening set one win, led by five kills each from Kaitlyn Prondzinski and Otene. Johnson attributed the Redbirds' offensive dominance to a strong week in practice when it mattered most before the tournament.
“The team prepared just how we played tonight,” Johnson said. “Every single day that’s the team I saw in practice. Honestly, it was the most consistent week we had all year long in training. We prepared that way and executed that way.”
Opening the second set, the Redbirds kept up their offensive pressure with a 4-1 start including a kill from Aliyah Moore and a block from Nicole Lund.
Moore, who was selected to the All-MVC Freshman team, continued to show her strengths by adding another kill and a block as the Redbirds got out to a 10-5 lead.
Illinois State took its first timeout of the second set with a 17-13 lead, again looking for a mid-set regroup after the Sycamores built a four-point unanswered run. ISU came out inspired, getting three of their own to get to 20-13.
The Redbirds never looked back as they dominated the remainder of the set with big blocks at the net, winning 25-15 and taking a 2-0 lead.
“It’s super important,” Lund said on blocking. “Everyone in this tournament has a balanced offense. It’s really important to get a good eye on their setters and line up against their attackers.”
The Redbirds' blocking bested the Sycamores again to open the third set, with Lund meeting the Sycamore attack at the net.
They continued to do exactly as they did in their first two sets, with a well-rounded offense aggressively attacking the Indiana State defense to create another 9-4 lead.
Lund continued her big night in the semifinal, leading the way as the Redbirds kept their foot on the gas in the third set. Lund tied her career-high tonight with ten blocks and had seven crucial kills.
“Nicole [Lund] had an exceptional night, which allowed everyone else to be good,” Johnson said on the junior middle blocker.
“I loved how we played that off. Nicole is now emerging since coming back from injury, and that changes the offense completely.”
The Sycamores, who upset No. 3 Bradley Thursday, didn’t give up too quickly even when down far. They went on a 3-0 run mid-set to get to 15 points, but it was Lund yet again with a kill to kill their comeback hopes.
The Redbirds took the third set 25-20, much in part to a strong offensive night from multiple players; Otene led with 14 kills, Prondzinski had eight, Lund had seven, Sarah Kushner and Moore had six each.
The Sycamores defense was not only any match for Otene, but a host of other players made their mark on the Redbirds’ 42 total kills. Johnson has seen this shared offense as a recipe for success all season long.
“That’s what we needed,” Johnson said. “She [Otene] set the tone early, but we were able to spread the wealth and not have to depend on her. Tam’s going to do Tam, but we needed everyone else to step up.”
With this win, the Redbirds advance to their fourth-straight MVC tournament championship and a rematch of the most recent against Loyola, a 3-1 win in April’s championship.
After the #1 Ramblers’ 3-2 win over the #4 Valparaiso Beacons in Friday’s first semifinal, they earned a chance to go up against the back-to-back champion Redbirds in the most important game of the season— but 4 p.m. Saturday at Redbird Arena will be far from their first meeting since April.
The Redbirds and Ramblers split their season series, each team winning in four sets at home.
They battled at the top of the conference standings the entire second half of the season, following Illinois State’s eight-game win streak that began with a win over Loyola.
Last season into this one and even before then has been nothing short of a rivalry for the two top teams, and Johnson is the first to admit it.
“It’s been a battle all year,” Johnson said. “We had multiple opportunities to tie with them, and to move ahead of them. We’ve come up on the short end. I like that this is opportunity number three, and that it’s head-to-head. It’s in our control.”
With an automatic NCAA tournament bid on the line, the Redbirds' entire season comes down to one final match against their rival, the last of its kind during Loyola’s final season in the MVC.
They know what’s at stake, they know their opponent, and they know how to put themselves in a position to win.
“It’s going to be an elite Missouri Valley Conference Championship match,” Johnson said. “And that's what it should be.”