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082218-blm-spt-2isuvolley

Illinois State volleyball coach Leah Johnson, middle, answers a question during Media Day prior to this season at Redbird Arena alongside sophomore Kaylee Martin, left, and senior Courtney Pence. 

NORMAL — Illinois State volleyball's 14-match road odyssey to start the season accomplished a number of things.

For one, ISU coach Leah Johnson can now sleep on a plane. 

"I've had to," she said, smiling.

Beyond that, Johnson has seen growth in her team heading into Friday night's 7 o'clock home opener against Evansville.

Victories in which the Redbirds (10-4, 2-0 in the Missouri Valley Conference) were in control have been mixed with matches that "exposed some weaknesses you don't know you have until you get pushed," Johnson said.

Among those pushing were nationally ranked opponents Washington State, Wisconsin and Marquette. ISU lost to all three, but made gains that were reflected in Missouri Valley sweeps of Missouri State and Southern Illinois last weekend, Johnson said.

The second-year Redbird coach saw her team "giving away" points early in the season.

"We addressed it and the next two weekends (after an opening tourney at Georgia) we're hitting .300, so we're not giving points away again," Johnson said. 

On Sept. 15, ISU had back-to-back matches against Wisconsin and tourney host Marquette, which Johnson called "our first test to feel like the conference tournament would feel or the NCAA Tournament would feel."

"Those were two (NCAA) tournament teams," she added. "I think it shed some light."

ISU used the lessons to end Missouri State's 34-match Valley win streak. The straight-set win was a special for Johnson, a former Missouri State player and assistant coach.

"I've won a lot there and I wanted to keep winning there," she said. "It felt good and our team earned it. We played very sharp, very clean volleyball."

ISU is hitting .316 in Valley play. For the season, the Redbirds have five players averaging 2.21 kills per set or higher, led by Lexi Varga at 2.81 (101 kills). Ali Line has a team-high 113 kills, Marissa Stockman 104 and Ella Francis 97.

Senior star Courtney Pence leads in digs with 263 and Stef Jankiewicz in assists with 515.

"Our attempts distribution is very equal and our kills are very equal," Johnson said. "Every time we set a player they're efficient in their own right."

Friday's match against Evansville (6-10, 0-3) includes an ISU branded flag giveaway for the first 200 ISU students. Indiana State (7-8, 0-3) is at Redbird Arena at 7 p.m. Saturday for Pack The Arena Night, which features free admission.

Contact Randy Kindred at (309) 820-3402. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_kindred

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Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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