Playing basketball came naturally to Illinois State freshman Lexy Koudelka.

The first time the 6-foot-1-inch student-athlete picked up a basketball was in the fifth grade during a tryout for an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) girls’ basketball team. Up to that point, she had preferred soccer. But one of her soccer teammates persuaded her to go to the AAU tryout. The rest is history.

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Koudelka went on to become a top power forward/center for Nevada High School in Iowa. ESPN HoopGurlz ranked her No. 75 in the 2018 class, and she was designated the 14th best center and No. 72 overall recruit by the Dan Olson Collegiate Girls Basketball Report.

Based on that hype, Koudelka could have gone to almost any college in the country. Koudelka chose Illinois State due to its strong campus community.

“The coaches and staff here—I can’t say enough about the impact they’ve had on me during and after the recruiting process,” Koudelka said. “If I had any problems, they were my first call. They could always help me out.”

Koudelka appreciated the honesty of Redbird women’s basketball head coach Kristen Gillespie during the recruitment process. Koudelka respected and revered Gillespie’s vision for the team, how she wanted to build the program, and the culture of support the Redbird women’s basketball coaching staff was creating.

Gillespie said this support network was the foundation upon which she planned to rebuild the women’s team when she landed the head coaching position in 2017.

“We want our student-athletes to feel safe here at Illinois State, so we really make efforts to instill confidence in them, whether it be in the classroom, on the court, or in their social lives,” Gillespie said. “On good or bad days, they know they can count on our staff.”

Koudelka and her teammates have benefited from that support. “The girls and I are so close off the court,” Koudelka said. “We all hang out when we’re not playing, and I think it shows on the court. When we’re playing well, it’s because we have those close-knit relationships.”

Redbird women’s basketball head coach Kristen Gillespie

The experiences Koudelka has had with her teammates and coaches has inspired her to have a similar impact on those she will work with one day as a physical education instructor and high school basketball coach. Her ultimate goal is to teach children lessons not only in basketball, but also in life, just as the coaches and players at Illinois State have done for her.

“I want to be able to teach them things they can apply to life and basketball, like work ethic, mental toughness, and teamwork,” Koudelka said. “Just like life, the sport of basketball isn’t a solo venture. You need everyone to work together to succeed.”

Until then, Koudelka will focus on playing her best basketball. This season Koudelka has played in every one of the Redbirds’ games. Her shooting percentage is the fourth highest on the team at 42 percent, and she is tied with the second most blocks.

Koudelka has continued to put up numbers as the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Hoops in the Heartland tournament looms on the horizon. Gillespie is thrilled with Koudelka’s potential for the rest of the season and beyond, expecting Koudelka to make big contributions to a Redbird team that enters the MVC tournament as the No. 4 seed.

“Lexy’s a great player. I just can’t speak highly enough about her character and who she is as a teammate,” Gillespie said. “We’re lucky to have her.”

TV/radio coverage

The No. 4 seeded Redbirds (18-11) will face No. 5 seeded Bradley (20-9) at 2:30 p.m. Friday, March 15, at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline.

The MVC tournament games will be streamed live on ESPN+. All game audio broadcasts will be available on WJBC 1230 AM,, the Tune In app, and the Illinois State Athletics mobile app.

Timothy Wyland can be reached at