NORMAL — With a season-high, Hoopfest-boosted crowd of 1,806 looking on, the Illinois State volleyball team wanted more than victory at Redbird Arena on Friday.
"One of our goals coming into this match was to win hearts and minds of people who have never watched a volleyball match," said Redbird coach Leah Johnson after a 25-15, 21-25, 25-22, 25-21 victory over Valparaiso. "I felt like we did that."
Johnson labeled the outing her team's highest quality victory because of Valpo's No. 53 national RPI rating compared to the Redbirds at No. 61.
"This is a good win for us, one that we needed to get," said Johnson, whose team improved to 14-5 overall and 6-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference ahead of Saturday's 7:30 p.m. home match with Loyola (11-8, 3-4).
Digging helped set up the upset as Valpo (18-4, 5-2) came in as the Valley leader in digs, but got outdug, 65-43.
"We wanted to outgrit them," said Johnson, whose team had five double-digit diggers led by Courtney Pence with 21.
If any sequence summed up the match it came in set three when Valpo erased a 17-12 deficit to force ties at 19 and 20 only to watch a quick-set kill by Marissa Stockman send ISU on a 5-2 set-ending run that finished on Ali Line's back-set kill.
"I thought we got a little comfortable in set three and couldn't quite find a point," Johnson said. "I thought they were playing at a high level."
During a timeout, Johnson reminded her players, "Your stuff is good enough. Just trust it."
That trust turned into 5-2 run featuring two kills by Line. For the match, four Redbirds notched double-digit kills led by Lexi Varga's season-high 16. Line added 12, Stockman 11 and Ella Francis 10.
Varga just wanted to play free.
"You don't go up and swing scared," said the senior. "You go up and go for it."
While match-high assist honors went to Stef Jankiewicz with 54 as expected, four other Redbirds had one or more assists led by Pence with seven.
"I love it honestly," Jankiewicz said of the setting help. "That just shows how good our hitters are on out-of-system balls. They can make anything into a point."
Last week at Drake, Kaylee Martin made a lot of noise en route to 20 kills, but Valpo limited her to three kills on .067 hitting. Johnson countered with a change-up pitch of sorts by bringing in Francis and Sydney Holt (six kills).
"We have so much depth," Johnson said. "It doesn't matter which of our pin hitters play...which of our rights play, we're able to stay in pace. We don't take a step back."
In the first set, ISU stepped out to a 5-2 lead thanks to a 5-0 run and never trailed thereafter. In set two, Valpo flipped its lineup to get better net match-ups for Lizzie Zaleski, who had four kills that set.
The fourth set featured five lead changes and nine ties, the last at 20-20 when a Martin kill sparked a 5-1 match-ending run that Lexi Wallen finished with one of ISU's four aces.
The Crusaders, who lost the hitting battle .254 to .156, were led by Katherine Carlson's 15 kills and Allison Ketcham's 13.
"We have been dealing with some injuries so that was our biggest concern coming into tonight," said Valpo coach Carin Avery. "We just had trouble finding our rhythm offensively. Nothing really worked well for us tonight.
"Illinois State played awesome, but I thought on our side, we didn't manage the game well at all."