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Volleyball players huddle

The Illinois State volleyball team gets ready for its Missouri Valley Conference quarterfinal match against Evansville on November 28 in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

What to know about NCAA-bound Redbird volleyball team

Illinois State is back in the volleyball version of the Big Dance. The Redbirds (22-11) will  make their 15th appearance in the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Tournament Friday, December 6, in Madison, Wisconsin.

In the opening round, Illinois State will face No. 4 seed Wisconsin at 7 p.m. in what will be a home game for the Badgers at the Wisconsin (UW) Field House. Tickets can be purchased on the Illinois State Athletics website. The game will livestreamed over the Big Ten Network Plus.

Here’s a primer to get you ready for the big game.

Record versus Wisconsin

Illinois State leads the all-time series against Wisconsin 14-10. The Redbirds fell to the Badgers in the second round of the 2014 NCAA tournament, which was also played at the UW Field House.

The field

UCLA and Notre Dame will play in the first match on Friday night in Madison. The winner of that contest will take on the Illinois State/Wisconsin winner at 6 p.m. Saturday, also at the UW Field House. Whichever team emerges out of the weekend advances to the Sweet 16.

How they got there

Illinois State rolled through the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) tournament last week, dropping just one set in wins over Evansville (3-0), Loyola Chicago (3-1), and No. 1 seed Northern Iowa (3-0). The Redbirds secured the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and became the first No. 3 seed in conference tournament history to emerge as champions.

“I just couldn’t be more proud of the team’s performance and their grit and stick-to-itness, if you will,” head coach Leah Johnson said. “We’re excited to be back in the NCAAs.”

Junior Stef Jankiewicz was named the most valuable player of the MVC tournament, while freshman Sarah Kushner and junior Kaylee Martin were named to the all-tournament team.

Players to watch

The Redbirds boast three first-team all-conference performers in juniors Jankiewicz, Martin, and Sydney Holt.

Jankiewicz earned her third consecutive all-conference honor and is fifth all-time at Illinois State in career assists. Martin was second in the Missouri Valley Conference regular season in kills and third in points. Holt had the third-best hitting percentage in the MVC and led the league in total blocks and blocks per set. These three help provide balance on offense, enabling the Redbirds to spread the ball around the court.

“It really helps, especially when blockers are scheming a certain way, to have scorers everywhere,” said Jankiewicz.

Freshman Kaity Weimerskirch leads the team with 426 digs.

Illinois State junior outside hitter Kaylee Martin goes up for a kill against Evansville in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament on November 28 in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Illinois State junior outside hitter Kaylee Martin goes up for a kill against Evansville in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament on November 28 in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Back-to-back playoff berths

Illinois State is making its first consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament since going to three in a row from 1996–1998. The Redbirds made it to the tournament last year as well, falling to Cincinnati in the first round.

While the Redbirds had to wait around for an at-large bid during last year’s Selection Sunday, they took all the drama out this year by securing the automatic bid by winning the MVC tournament.

“We earned our spot this year, and we’re really excited for it,” Jankiewicz said.

Hot streak

The Redbirds started the season strong by beating the likes of Illinois and Central Florida, but then endured two separate three-game losing streaks throughout the season and sat at 14-11 after a loss on November 8. Since then, Illinois State has won eight in a row.

The Redbirds battled through injuries and illness throughout the fall and had to rearrange its lineup throughout the season, including giving five freshmen substantial playing time.

“Every day you have to keep showing up and keep working hard and keep keeping the faith,” Johnson said. “I think it was how we stayed resilient during those times that gave us the courage at the end.”

Familiarity

When Weimerskirch takes the floor on Friday night, she’ll do so with a pair of players she’s logged hundreds of games with. Only this time, she’ll be lining up on the opposite side of the net.

Weimerskirch, who is from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, was teammates with Wisconsin players Izzy Ashburn and Sydney Hilley at Champlin Park High School.

Ashburn, a fellow freshman, won a state title with Weimerskirch in 2018.

“I’m super excited to see them, and obviously they are competing at a high level this year,” Weimerskirch said. “I think it’s just super cool to say my first round of the NCAA tournament I’m playing against two people I know pretty well. They are two of my good friends.”

After an initial text to both on Sunday night, Weimerskirch quickly turned her attention to slowing her former teammates down.

Final thoughts

Coach Johnson offered some thoughts on the weekend ahead: “Illinois State traditionally has been a team and program that has played in the postseason. That’s what we are about and what we believe. We have to take a lot of pride in our tradition. We will draw confidence from that, in that we belong. We are among some very elite schools and very elite volleyball programs with some very elite traditions as universities, and we feel we are very deserving. It’s pretty cool to represent the oldest state school in Illinois, and that’s a big deal for us. We are Illinois State for many reasons, not just to play volleyball, but to represent our community.”