NORMAL — The philosophy that says coaches should manage fans' expectations about the upcoming season usually results in cautious forecasts.

Illinois State volleyball coach Leah Johnson was not in a cautious mood during Media Day festivities at Redbird Arena on Tuesday.

"It is our expectation to win," said the second-year coach, whose goals include competing for an NCAA Tournament berth and setting home attendance records.

"I think the first goal is to put ourselves in position for an at-large (berth). We know that in the Missouri Valley, traditionally two to four teams get a post-season bid. We schedule in a way that allows us that opportunity."  

The Redbirds open the season Friday against Furman in the Georgia Invitational at Athens, Ga. That tournament includes Coastal Carolina, which like Furman is expected to win its conference. Host Georgia is a top-four Southeastern Conference pick.

ISU's schedule features six NCAA Tournament qualifiers from a year ago. The Redbirds' home and MVC opener is at 7 p.m. Sept. 21 against Missouri State.

ISU, which lost three seniors to graduation, went 22-13 last season when it reached the second round of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship. 

Johnson says her second preseason in Normal felt quite different.

"If felt so comfortable," she said. "Last year, this was the first time I had conversations about volleyball with the athletes at the first day of practice. This year, we are 365 days into it with the exception of our (five) new players."

Johnson senses more trust between coaches and players.

"I've been really pleased with how year two has started," she said. "It's a testament to the athletes. I really do think that comfort level goes a long way." 

Among the five returning starters is senior libero Courtney Pence, who ranked second nationally last season with 6.27 digs per set. Her 2,083 career digs leave her 573 from tying the Valley record.

"She is definitely the caliber of player who could compete on an Olympic roster," Johnson said. "We're going to try to push her to try out." 

Also back is setter Stef Jankiewicz, the 2017 MVC Freshman of the Year who averaged 11.06 assists per set.

Other returning starters are senior middle blocker Ali Line (1.81 kills per set), sophomore middle blocker/right side hitter Sydney Holt (2.15) and senior outside hitter Lexi Wallen (1.62).

Other key returnees include sophomore libero Kendal Meier (2.22 digs) and junior outside hitter Ella Francis (2.16 kills).

Sophomore outside hitter Kaylee Martin, a 5-foot-9 transfer from Northern Illinois, will hope to contribute early on along with freshman front-rower Marissa Stockman, the tallest Redbird at 6-3.

In Saturday's 3-0 exhibition win over DePaul, ISU started Pence, Line, Jankiewicz, Wallen, Stockman, Martin and freshman defensive specialist Carley Nicholson.

"I think our lineup will keep evolving," said Johnson, who saw Martin and senior hitter Lexi Varga both notch a team-high 10 kills Saturday. "Kaylee Martin is certainly a key piece."

Holt was held out of the exhibition to rest a "nagging" health issue even though she has been cleared to play.

Johnson feels she has five or six reliable scorers.

"It's going to allow us to game plan in a way that makes us very hard to defend," she said.

In the MVC preseason poll, ISU was picked third behind Northern Iowa and Missouri State.

"I think the preseason poll is definitely motivation just to really show everyone and prove that we are better than that," Pence said. 

Normal Community graduate Machayla Leonard, who played in 76 of ISU's 131 sets last year while battling knee problems as a redshirt sophomore, did not return.

"Having injuries, she decided it was in her best interest to take a step back and focus on her personal and professional career," Johnson said. "We absolutely support her. She's always part of the Redbird family."

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Contact Randy Sharer at (309) 820-3405. Follow him on Twitter: @PG_sharer



Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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