In 2017 point guard Paige Saylor decommitted to play basketball at a college in Pennsylvania after the team fired its coach. Illinois State was one of the other colleges she received offers from, and Saylor felt that it would be the perfect fit for her.
Women’s head basketball coach Kristen Gillespie joined the Redbirds’ basketball program around the same time, and Saylor is now Gillespie’s first four-year player at Illinois State.
“What really drew me here was the coaching staff and the school in general,” said Saylor, a senior biology major from Martinsville, Indiana. “I love the campus, I love the community, and it just really felt like home.”
At first, Saylor struggled to juggle the responsibilities and pressures of being a student-athlete. “Dealing with school and basketball my freshman year, it was challenging to find that balance.” Utilizing the expertise of her academic advisors and the convenience of the Athletics Study Center helped Saylor excel in her classes, but she also faced challenges on the court.
“My freshman year, I had a big role to fill on the team,” said Saylor. “Coming in that year, I was not confident in myself.”
While academic resources helped Saylor adjust to the rigor of college classes, Gillespie became Saylor’s primary basketball teacher. “Coach really helped me develop as a player, but even more as a person,” said Saylor. “She helped me believe and be confident in myself as a leader.”
After four years together, Gillespie has witnessed Saylor’s evolution firsthand. “She has grown so much, and it has been fun to watch her transition into an all-around player,” said Gillespie. “I am most proud of the leader that Paige has become. She has stepped up big time for us and is a passionate player who’s good for the team culture.”
Saylor has racked up her share of accolades as a Redbird. Her freshman year, she led the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) with 2.4 steals per game and was selected for the 2018 MVC All-Freshman Team. She is also a two-time MVC All-Defensive Team selection, and her goal for the 2020‑2021 season is to be the Defensive Player of the Year.
“I truly think Paige is the best defender in the league,” said Gillespie.
Saylor started the current season strong, putting up 11 points in a victory against Saint Xavier. Her 10 assists were the most recorded in an Illinois State women’s basketball game since 2011 and tied the single-game high for an MVC player this season.
If you told Saylor four years ago that she would reach these heights in her basketball career, chances are that she would not have believed you.
“You just have to know that everything will click eventually,” said Saylor. “If you don’t have confidence in yourself, a lot can go wrong. You just have to keep working at it.”
Saylor has seen the women’s basketball program improve as a whole since she joined the team. “We’re definitely more competitive, and we’re more solid in our methods and our system,” said Saylor. “We’ve become a family; they’re my home away from home.”
Saylor’s fondest memories with the Redbirds include their 2019 Italy trip as well as their first win over a ranked opponent in 28 years. “The Italy trip helped me know the coaching staff and their families better,” said Saylor. “It was really cool to be in a different country with the team; I think it really strengthened our chemistry.”
No matter where they are on the map, the Redbirds are a tight-knit team that has the same goals in mind. With the new challenges posed by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Saylor notes that both the players and staff have worked harder than ever to operate smoothly—especially Director of Women’s Basketball Operations Katie Bolkema.
“With COVID and everything going on, our staff has been working tirelessly to figure out game cancellations and scheduling,” said Saylor. “It’s a really high-stress job right now, but they’ve done a great job.”
While Saylor did not envision a global pandemic impinging on her senior season, she and her teammates have continued to make the most of the situation.
“It’s been tough, but you just have to focus on what you can control,” said Saylor. “That’s what we’ve been doing. Even though a lot is out of our control right now, we just have to try to stay positive and focused on our goal.”
As Saylor prepares to graduate in May, one of her most special accomplishments is maintaining a 4.0 grade point average throughout her time at Illinois State. She plans on attending graduate school and becoming a physician’s assistant.
After watching her blossom into a success story, Gillespie knows that Saylor’s work ethic and dedication will help her reach new heights after graduation.
“Paige works hard every single day to be the best she can be,” said Gillespie. “She is going to be very successful in life.”
Watch the Redbirds women’s basketball team kick off a five-game homestand this week on ESPN3, facing Valparaiso at 4 p.m. Thursday, January 14, and Friday, January 15. Keep up with the schedule on the team’s website for all updates and broadcast information this season.