ISU volleyball photo

Returning starters, from left, Ali Line, Courtney Pence, Jacqueline Twing, Aly Dawson, Jaelyn Keene and Lexi Varga have the Illinois State volleyball team poised to improve upon last year's 22-10 campaign.

NORMAL — A starting point further down the road than last season could affect where the Illinois State volleyball team finishes this season.

"We're definitely in a better place than we were at this time last year," said Melissa Myers, who takes a 151-101 record into her ninth year as Redbird coach. 

ISU went 22-10 overall last season and 12-6 to tie for fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference before losing in the MVC Tournament quarterfinals.

The 2015 Redbirds had five freshmen among nine new players. This year, there are two freshmen among three new players.

"It's definitely been a good preseason," Myers said during Saturday's Media Day festivities. "I think the team looks stronger."

In the MVC preseason poll, the Redbirds were picked fifth behind 2015 NCAA Tournament qualifiers Wichita State, Missouri State, Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa, in that order. 

"I assumed that's where we would be picked because that's where we finished last year," Myers said. "If we want something different, we have to produce something different. The Valley is going to be just as strong if not stronger this year.

"To get an at-large (NCAA berth), we've got to do well in the (pre-MVC) tournaments. The next couple weeks are going to be really key in helping us get a decent RPI and then we have to play the conference."  

The Redbirds, who lost all-MVC star Ashley Rosch to graduation, return five starters, six if you include the libero.

Leading the returnees is two-time all-MVC first team selection Jaelyn Keene, a 6-foot-2 junior middle blocker. She hit a team-leading .420 last fall while averaging 2.82 kills per set and a team-best 0.83 blocks. No one in ISU history has a higher career hitting percentage than her .384. 

"On the intangible side, I think she's really more confident and taking more of a leadership role," Myers said. 

Keene said the Redbirds haven't fretted about being picked fifth in the Valley. She just wants them to put the fruits of their off-season training on display "and let them know we are better than fifth."

Another all-league honoree is second-team selection Courtney Pence, a 5-8 sophomore libero who averaged a league-leading 5.13 digs per set.

Also back is MVC Freshman of the Year Ali Line, a 6-1 middle blocker, who hit .288 and averaged 0.75 blocks. Sophomore Lexi Varga, a 6-1 outside hitter, made the MVC All-Freshman Team after averaging 2.72 kills on .253 hitting. 

The Redbirds have a pair of experienced setters in 5-8 senior Jacqueline Twing and 5-9 sophomore Jordan Weatherless. Twing averaged 8.87 assists over 101 sets while Weatherless averaged 6.37 assists in 70 sets.

"We'll probably continue to use both depending on the need," Myers said. "They have both improved."

Twing said setters shine when they set Keene.

"She really fixes anything I give her," Twing said. "If my set is bad, she'll fix it and make it look like it was a perfect set."

Lexi Wallen, a 6-0 sophomore, and 5-11 freshman Ella Francis are candidates to replace Rosch at outside hitter and start opposite Aly Dawson, a 6-1 senior who averaged 2.65 kills on .177 hitting. Myers rates Wallen the team's most improved player.

"She's really worked hard," Myers said. "She's increased her altitude. She's gotten stronger. "

Other new players are 6-1 freshman middle blocker Monica Miller and 5-4 junior defensive specialist Megan Beutke, a Woodland High School graduate who transferred from Illinois Central College.

ISU opens in the Loyola Marymount Invitational at Los Angeles against the host at 8:30 p.m. on Friday. That tournament includes UCLA, which ended last season at No. 12 in the national RPI rankings while Loyola Marymount was No. 19.

ISU's home opener and lone nonconference match at Redbird Arena is at 6 p.m. Aug. 31 against Saint Louis.

​Follow Randy Sharer on Twitter: @pg_sharer

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Sports Writer for The Pantagraph.

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