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Illinois State's Kaity Weimerskirch (3) hugs Paige Hilliard (11) after she earned the Redbirds a point against Bradley on Friday Nov. 19, in Redbird Arena.

It’s that time of year again for the Illinois State University volleyball team- Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship season.

This weekend in Normal, the Redbirds will be going for the three-peat, a third-straight tournament title after wins in November 2019, and the rescheduled 2020 season in April 2021.

The two-seeded Redbirds could be two wins away from the three-peat and their second ring in six months, but the team could not be more different— in fact, the ISU team that will take the court Friday versus the winner of Bradley/Indiana State has only six players that played on the 2019 team.

Ahead of the start of the tournament on Thursday and ISU’s first match on Friday, here’s a preview of some Redbird regular-season highlights and opponents to look out for.

Eight Straight Wins

It wasn’t the smoothest start for the Redbirds as they made it through their non-conference schedule going just 4-9. The beginning of their conference schedule started off slow as well, going 3-3 through their first six conference games.

However, on Oct. 15, the Redbirds would turn things around, defeating the then-unbeaten in conference Loyola Ramblers, sparking an unbelievable run. The Redbirds would take down Valparaiso followed by a match against their I-74 rival, the Bradley Braves.

In the match against the Braves, the Redbirds came back down 2-1 to win in five sets and begin a set streak. In the following five matches the Redbirds would sweep their competition en route to winning 17 straight sets before losing the streak in a five-set loss to Indiana State.

This win streak essentially catapulted the Redbirds to the top of the conference and helped secure them a round one bye in the MVC tournament. Doing all this while getting healthy.

The losses of sophomore Kaitlyn Prondzinski, sophomore Nicole Lund and freshman Katelyn Lefler early in the season were felt at the beginning of the season. But these players got healthy at the beginning of the stretch and the Redbirds were off and running.


Star Players

The Redbirds were led by depth, but a few players stepped up to help lead the charge.

Sophomore outside hitter Tamara Otene has been a force to be dealt with in the Missouri Valley, recording the most kills in the MVC and ranks 17th in all of NCAA with her 457 kills.

Team captain Kaity Weimerskirch dominated on the defensive end, racking up an MVC leading 551 digs this season. The junior libero was ranked 16th nationally and recorded her 1000th career kill earlier this season.

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Illinois State's Nora Janka (18) dives for the ball against Bradley on Friday Nov. 19, in Redbird Arena.

Lefler and sophomore setter Nora Janka led the way for the Redbirds in assists, becoming a lethal duo for the Redbirds. Lefler, who was injured early on, is only a freshman but quickly earned her way into the starting lineup.

She recorded 682 assists on the season while Janka earned her playing time in the absence of Lefler, recording 475 assists in 85 sets played.


NCAA Heights

The Redbirds are a high-power offense, ranking in the top 15 in all the NCAA in three different categories.

Nationally, the Redbirds ranked 12th in assists with 1444, led mainly by Janka and Lefler, but had help from other teammates. The ability to play defense and set up each other in a good position helped lead them to the two seed in the tournament.

The Redbirds were 12th in blocks with 282 in total and 14th in kills with 1552. Freshman Aliyah Moore and Sophomore Cassie Jordan helped big time on both defense and offense, providing a spark for the Redbirds. Sarah Kushner, Otene, Prondzinski and Lund led the offense in kills, showing the depth that the Redbirds had throughout the season.

Look for this offense to continue to shine as the Redbirds look to make another deep run in the MVC tournament.


Top ranked Loyola

After their four-set win over UNI last Saturday, Loyola clinched their first Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title and first conference title since 2002, when they were in the Horizon League. This will also be their first and last, as LUC announced last week that they will be leaving the MVC for the 2022-23 school year to join the Atlantic 10.

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Loyola's Esma Ajanovic (6) leans over her knees while watching the match against Illinois State Friday night at Redbird Arena.

After losing to the Redbirds in April’s last conference tournament to take runner-up, the then-young Ramblers’ team reached new levels this Fall. They started the conference season 6-0, and after losing to Illinois State on October 15 they bounced right back and continued to dominate the conference.

On their way to 13 wins, the Ramblers’ got back at the Redbirds in early November when they defeated them in four sets, despite ISU’s Tamara Otene having her most kills of the season and most for anyone in the MVC for a four-set match.

Loyola led the conference in kills and assists this season. Leading the way for the one-seeded Ramblers were multiple conference leaders, including Taylor Venuto with the highest hitting percentage and Addie Barnes with the sixth most kills. They’ll play the winner of Valpo and Evansville on Friday.


I-74 Rival Bradley

The Braves finished with the three-seed going into the tournament following their sweep loss to Illinois State last Friday. Despite the Redbirds’ season sweep, the Braves had a nice season with an experienced team and will look to go on a three-day run this weekend.

Despite some injury issues, many of the Braves’ stars from years past had top-of-the-conference performances this season. Kerrigan Coggin ranked third in hitting percentage and joined Hannah Thompson in the top ten in kills.

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Bradley's Carlee Camlin (8) celebrates after earning the Braves a point against Illinois State on Friday Nov. 19, in Redbird Arena.

They’ll open the tournament Thursday against six-seed Indiana State. This season, Bradley won both matchups against the Sycamores including a sweep at home on Nov 5.


Watch out for Valpo

Valparaiso earned the four seed, going 12-6 in conference play and 21-8 overall. The Beacons ended the season on a good note, winning their final three games, and five of their final six.

The Beacons are a patient team that plays good defense, allowing the lowest hitting percentage (.170), the least service aces per set (1.03) and led with the MVC with 1881 digs. Peyton McCarthy and Haley Hart are a dynamic duo on the attack with McCarthy recording 288 kills and Hart finishing with ``` 275.

VU will play the five-seed Evansville at 3:30 Thursday. The Beacons defeated the Purple Aces in both matches this season, each in four sets.

ERIC SCHWEIZER is a Sports Reporter for The Vidette. He can be contacted at ewschwe@ilstu.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @EricSchweizer2   


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