Courtney Pence photo

Paced by national dig leader Courtney Pence, the Illinois State volleyball team will look to improve its 2-4 record in Friday and Saturday's Redbird Classic at Redbird Arena. 

NORMAL — Like a theater troupe during rehearsals, a volleyball team functions best when everyone is on the same page.

Illinois State's squad has shown flashes of brilliance, but its record heading into Friday and Saturday's Redbird Classic — a lackluster 2-4 — is proof the Redbirds haven't always followed first-year coach Leah Johnson's script.

Johnson points to last Saturday's four-set loss to UC Irvine as an instance where not every player was on the same page.

"We had four people doing it most of the time and then some people in and out," said Johnson, who has nevertheless seen enough positives to know the Redbirds can jell in time for the Missouri Valley Conference portion of the season.

"When we're on, we're really good. I can see those highlights of what we're trying to build around or replicate. And then when we're off, I've had the players say, 'That's not us. That's the team of old.' They're starting to identify the difference and that's really exciting for me."

Also causing a stir is junior libero Courtney Pence, who leads the nation with 7.45 digs per set. The downside of that gaudy stat is that her team hasn't terminated rallies quickly.

"Courtney is giving us the opportunity to take swings," Johnson said. "I think she could still lead the country in digs even if we put the ball away faster. She really is that impressive.

"She gives me plenty of wow moments in a match. Her range is 60 percent of the court. We do need to put the ball away faster."

That is especially true on the right side and in middle transition. Freshman setter Stef Jankiewicz is averaging 9.55 assists per set, but Johnson believes that number would rise if hitters communicated better with Jankiewicz.

"Stef is very mature for a freshman, so much so, I think the attackers forget she's a freshman," Johnson said. "So they just expect her to know they are there, to know when to set them, to know how to set them, and they stop communicating because she makes them feel so comfortable."

Two months from now, that will be a positive, but not now.

"Stef still needs to hear them," said Johnson, who has also asked for more competitive practices. 

"I reminded them I'm not the kind of coach that sets the lineup and sticks with it. I want to put the best six people on the court every week. So they have to remember, we're competing every day, not just on the weekend."

Another everyday goal is to serve aggressively. A video review of past ISU squads has shown Johnson's staff that the Redbirds served too softly. The new directive has produced 48 service errors and only 16 aces.

"We are taking risks and that's why we have the service errors," Johnson said. "That doesn't bother me at all."

Three-time all-MVC star Jaelyn Keene, who is averaging a team-high 3.45 kills, says the Redbirds do serving drills two or three times every practice.

"I think we've actually seen a lot of improvement on that," she said. 

Keene hopes serving at home for the first time this season will help ISU notch extra aces against Friday's 7 p.m. foe, Dayton (4-3).  

"I'm excited to have our home opener," said Keene, whose team returns to Redbird Arena on Saturday to face Seton Hall (4-2) at 12:30 p.m. and Cincinnati (1-5) at 7 p.m.

Last year, Seton Hall beat ISU in a four-setter. Johnson believes Cincinnati had top-25 potential until losing a star hitter to injury. All the visitors will have to adjust to Redbird Arena's vastness, which can cause depth perception problems.

"Even when we go in there and practice," Keene said, "we have to get into seeing the ball right in the lights because it's all different. I think that's one thing that really helps us when we play at home. It's pretty much our court and people have to adjust to that." 

Follow Randy Sharer on Twitter: @PG_sharer


Sports Writer for The Pantagraph.

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