Having won six of its past seven matches, the Illinois State volleyball team enters this week's Missouri Valley Conference Tournament at Redbird Arena on a roll.
The No. 3-seeded Redbirds (20-11) open against No. 6 seed Valparaiso (17-15) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. ISU owns five- and three-set wins over the Crusaders.
"I love the way we are playing right now," said first-year coach Leah Johnson, who has guided the Redbirds to their third 20-win campaign since 2007. "I think we are playing some of our best volleyball of the season.
"That's been the goal all year, just to get better and peak at the end of the year. I feel we're in a good position to make a run deep into the tournament."
If the Redbirds win Thursday, they'll face No. 2 seed Northern Iowa (25-7) in a 7:30 p.m. semifinal Friday. ISU split with the No. 25-nationally ranked Panthers, losing a four-setter at Cedar Falls, Iowa, and winning a five-setter in Normal.
Top-seeded Missouri State (26-5) opens at 5 p.m. Friday against the winner of Thursday's 5 p.m. tilt between No. 4 seed Drake (23-9) and No. 5 Indiana State (10-20). The Redbirds lost twice to Missouri State, but one was a five-setter.
"Missouri State doesn't make any errors," Johnson said. "You literally can't count on a point from them. You have to earn everything."
All five matches can be viewed via live streaming on The Valley on ESPN3 (espn3.com). Johnson believes the league could put three squads in the 64-team NCAA Tournament. (There also will be a 32-team National Invitational Volleyball Championship.)
"RPI wise Missouri State (at No. 44) and UNI (at No. 48) are major bubble contenders," Johnson said. "If we could be the spoiler, I think we would have the opportunity for three."
With an RPI of 95, the Redbirds' only NCAA chance is to win Saturday's 4 p.m. final. ISU has gotten better at spreading its attack.
"We're setting both of our outsides and setting our right side and our middles at a pretty even rate," Johnson said. "That's making us very hard to defend."
Valparaiso is led by Taylor Graboski and Katherine Carlson, who average 2.88 and 2.65 kills per set, respectively. Freshman Brittany Anderson provides 10.58 assists while Rylee Cookerly chips in 5.84 digs.
Johnson has yet to see Valparaiso's highest level of play, and that's a concern.
"We have to be prepared for a best we've never seen," she said.
The Redbirds are led by junior libero Courtney Pence, who ranks second nationally in digs with 6.22 per set.
"She makes plays where I'm like 'this is phenomenal. I wish I could have done that,' but I think what I've learned over the course of the season is how she's amazed me as a leader," Johnson said.
ISU's kill leaders are Jaelyn Keene (3.95), Juma Armando (2.48), Ella Francis (2.04), Ali Line (1.82) and Lexi Wallen (1.78). Freshman Stef Jankiewicz averages 10.91 assists.
A Friday rematch with Northern Iowa, which has won a record 16 MVC Tourneys, would force the Redbirds to trust every hitter.
"We'll have to dig a little deeper," added Johnson. "They are going to have fresh legs, but we're going to have the advantage of feeling good in our own gym. It is a hard gym to serve and pass in. That can win a lot of volleyball games alone."
UNI is led by Piper Thomas, who leads the Valley in hitting percentage at .355. Teammate Heather Hook averages a league best 11.68 assists.
ISU trio honored: Keene, Line and Pence have been named to the MVC Scholar-Athlete First Team. Only Missouri State has as many honorees. The three Redbirds are repeat selections.
Keene owns a 3.97 grade-point average in accounting. Line has a perfect 4.0 GPA as a nursing major. Pence has a 3.72 GPA as an entrepreneurship and small business management major.
This article is written by Randy Sharer from The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Ill. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.