With all of the obstacles brought on by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it can be easy to give in to frustration and long for how things once were. However, Illinois State volleyball student-athlete Sydney Holt takes it one day at a time, grateful that she is still able to close out her senior year on a high note.

“I’m just really thankful that we’re having a season. Because after it got canceled in the fall, we didn’t even know if having a season in the spring would be possible,” said Holt. “It’s just been really, really awesome to be able to play. All of our seniors are just cherishing every moment; we’re so ready to leave our final mark on the court and make another appearance in the NCAA tournament.”

The Redbird volleyball team took full advantage of its spring season, posting a 13-5 record to win the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) regular-season title. From April 1–3, the team will host the MVC Volleyball Tournament at the Redbird Arena. The Redbirds open up against Indiana State at 11 a.m. Thursday, April 1.

A four-year player, Holt has witnessed the program’s progression throughout her time at Illinois State. She is proud to be a Redbird, feeling at home since day one.

“After touring the campus and meeting the team, I just knew that it was a perfect fit for me,” said Holt, a senior exercise science major from St. Louis. “It’s a perfect-sized school, the academics here are awesome, and the volleyball team culture is amazing.”

On March 22, University Marketing and Communications photographer Michelle Hassel followed Holt through a typical day in her life as a Redbird student-athlete.

Sydney Holt and her roommates purchasing drinks at Fusion Brew.
Sydney Holt and her roommates purchasing drinks at Fusion Brew.

To start her day, Holt and her roommates stop by local coffee and tea shop Fusion Brew to pick up drinks. According to Holt, Fusion Brew is one of their favorite local restaurants to frequent.

“Ever since freshman year, it’s somewhere that we usually go to a couple of times a week,” said Holt, who orders a peach green tea.

Sydney Holt and her roommates making breakfast.
Sydney Holt (left) and her roommates (and teammates) Carley Nicholson and Kendal Meier make breakfast.

After purchasing their drinks, Holt and her roommates return to their apartment to make breakfast. Holt’s roommates are also her teammates—senior Kendal Meier and junior Carley Nicholson.

Holt and her roommates make pancakes, turkey bacon, and scrambled eggs. Holt says cooking is one of her favorite hobbies outside of volleyball.

“I like to cook and bake, so coming home and being in the kitchen is just really fun for me and helps me relax,” said Holt.

Sydney Holt watching film.
Sydney Holt watches game film.

After breakfast, Holt sits down to watch film from a previous match, reviewing her form and technique.

Sydney Holt takes notes from her biochemistry lecture.
Sydney Holt takes notes from her biochemistry lecture.

Following her film review, Holt watches a lecture for her biochemistry class taught by Dr. Jon Friesen. While Holt misses in-person instruction, she also notes the advantages of her asynchronous courses.

“It’s nice to be able to pick and choose when I work on stuff so that I can spread out my time evenly,” said Holt. “It helps when I’m traveling, because now I can watch lectures on the bus or at the hotel.”

Balancing the responsibilities of being a student-athlete is not easy, but Holt credits the many academic resources that Illinois State provides for helping her succeed in class and on the court. She especially credits Kelly Benacka Anderson, the team’s academic advisor.

“Since my freshman year, she has really helped us and taught us how to keep our lives organized with time management and communicating with professors,” said Holt. “She’s been a big part in helping us figure out how to deal with all that.”

Sydney Holt prepares for her match.
Sydney Holt prepares for her match.

After finishing her schoolwork, Holt gets ready to take on the rest of her day. She begins to shift her focus to her match against the University of Evansville in the evening.

As the match against Evansville is the Redbirds’ senior night, Holt’s family visits to celebrate her special occasion.

Sydney Holt and her teammates eat their pre-match meal together.
Sydney Holt and her teammates eat their prematch meal together.

After arriving at Redbird Arena, Holt and her teammates sit down to enjoy a prematch meal catered by Famous Dave’s barbecue restaurant. As the team eats together before and after their matches, Holt feels that the meals help them strengthen their team chemistry.

“It’s a fun time to get to hang out with the team,” said Holt. “It’s nice to just sit down and relax before we have to go out there. It gives us time to bond.”

Sydney Holt warms up before the match.
Sydney Holt warms up before the match.

After finishing their meal, the team takes the court to begin their warm-ups.

Sydney Holt and her teammates in a pre-game huddle.
Sydney Holt and her teammates huddle up pregame.

Prior to the start of their match, Holt joins a huddle with her teammates. As she has played for all four years, Holt has played a role in shaping the team’s culture and considers the team to be her second family.

“My time here on the team has been awesome,” said Holt, a middle blocker. “It’s like a family with all the girls; we spend so much time together. The coaches have been the same for me for all four years, so I’ve been super lucky to be able to get close to them.”

Holt especially credits head coach Leah Johnson for her guidance and support during her time on the team.

“I really think Coach Johnson has helped me develop into a leader today,” said Holt. “She really likes to focus on us as people and not just as volleyball players; she helps us develop our leadership through book clubs, team meetings, and community service. She has had a really big part in how I’ve grown as a leader.”

Sydney Holt on-court during the match.
Sydney Holt on-court during the match.

Holt and her teammates were able to get into a groove on the court, winning their senior night match in a sweep.

“For that to happen on senior night was really fun and special for us,” said Holt.

Sydney Holt and her fellow seniors with the team's coaching staff.
Sydney Holt and her fellow seniors pose with the team’s coaching staff.

Following their victory, Holt and her fellow seniors pose with the team’s coaching staff. When she reflects on her journey, the team’s coaching staff were among the factors that led Holt to come to Illinois State.

“I really liked the values that they had, how they wanted to run the program, and how their team culture is,” said Holt.

Sydney Holt with her family outside of Redbird Arena.
Sydney Holt with her family outside of Redbird Arena.

After the match, Holt reconvenes with her family. Volleyball runs in Holt’s family: Her mother was also a Division I volleyball player who fueled Holt’s passion for the sport from a young age.

As Holt wraps up her senior year, she begins to prepare for her next chapter. At the moment, she plans to attend graduate school to become a physician assistant. Holt believes her experience as a student-athlete at Illinois State has set her up for success postgraduation.

“I think ISU has really helped me prepare to be a professional,” said Holt. “All of the time management and leadership skills I’ve gained here will be really helpful in my professional career.”

Watch the Redbirds in the MVC Volleyball Tournament April 1–3 on ESPN+. For more information on the tournament, visit its website. For tickets, visit goredbirds.com.