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#20 Marquette Volleyball Preview: vs Illinois State Redbirds

The Golden Eagles play their first official competitive match since December 7th, 2019.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 17 UCF at Illinois State Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I don’t know what to expect from Marquette volleyball this season, and neither do you, you liar.

I mean, sure, there’s that #20 preseason ranking, and that’s pretty cool. But we have no idea how the coaches voting in that thing went about making their picks. At best, they studied rosters and said “yes, I like this team.” At worst, they said “well, they lost a lot, but Ryan Theis has proved he knows what he’s doing, where were they in the last 2019 poll? #20? Yes, that will do.”

I’ll take a reputational preseason ranking if that’s what it is! It’s great news if Marquette volleyball has earned a rep as a good and nationally relevant program by qualifying for nine straight NCAA tournaments and repeatedly upsetting ranked teams.

But I’m not sure it’s justified.

Marquette starts off this 2020 season shifted to the spring of 2021 without Allie Barber, the program’s all-time leader in kills. She was a senior in 2019, as was setter Lauren Speckman, who finished her Marquette career ranked #5 in program history in assists. Also gone from the 2019 roster: Libero Martha Konovodoff, who would have played in the fall if there was a season, but she was expecting to graduate in December and did. Even without that one final season to her credit, Konovodoff still leaves Marquette with the fourth most digs in program history. That’s a primary piece of the team in all three notable stages of the game that aren’t around from that 2019 team. You can see how I question whether or not MU is a top 25 team, and that’s before I remind you that Sarah Rose, Speckman’s setting partner in 2018 and 2019, will miss the spring campaign as she receives treatment for Ewing’s Sarcoma.

To review: All-American and most productive hitter in program history gone; both halves of the setter rotation gone, including one of the most prolific setters in program history; and one of the best liberos in program history gone.

That’s a lot to lose all in one go, especially when the plan back in January 2020 was to only lose two of those four women for the fall.

But Ryan Theis has surprised us in the past by rapidly assembling what looked at first glance as a roster with major holes into something that competes for a Big East title and earns an NCAA tournament berth. In the past, he’s done that with players he already had on the roster or incoming freshmen. Here he’ll have to do it with transfers and freshmen. Only eight women return from the 2019 roster, two of which played in fewer than 40 of Marquette’s 122 sets back then and another that was limited to 54 sets due to a season ending knee injury. Eight of the women on the 2021 spring roster are new to the program relative to never playing in a match for the Golden Eagles. They range from Carly Skrabak, a defensive specialist who joined MU in the spring of 2020, to Taylor Wolf, a senior All-American hitter who transferred in for the spring 2021 semester, to Megan Lund, who appears to be a walk-on who was just going through life at Marquette up until being added to the roster during winter break.

Who is going to lead Marquette in nearly every notable statistic this season? No idea! But we get volleyball to watch — at least via streaming — and that’s a good thing. Let’s cross our fingers for some good results, too.

Match #1: vs Illinois State Redbirds (0-0)

Date: Friday, January 22, 2021
Time: 5:30pm Central
Location: A very empty Al McGuire Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Live Stats: Sidearm Stats
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB

Match #2: vs Illinois State Redbirds (0-0)

Date: Saturday, January 23, 2021
Time: 1pm Central
Location: A very empty Al McGuire Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Live Stats: Sidearm Stats
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB

Marquette is 3-2 all-time against Illinois State. The Golden Eagles have won three of the last four meetings with the Redbirds and each of the last two, but the loss did come in the 2014 NCAA tournament.

Just like Marquette, the last time Illinois State was on a volleyball court for an official match, it was in the 2019 NCAA tournament. The Redbirds went 22-12 in 2019, posting a 12-6 record in the Missouri Valley Conference. No, that’s not a particularly great conference record, and no, they were not the regular season champion. They did, however, knock off the #2 and #1 seed in the MVC tournament to earn their automatic bid, and that got ISU a first round road match against national #4 seed Wisconsin. Yes, they lost in a sweep.

That was over a year ago, but not much has changed for Illinois State, and definitely not as much as things have changed for Marquette. The Redbirds return their three top attackers from the 2019 season, led by senior Kaylee Martin who got them 3.98 kills per set back then while hitting .230. Martin, who also added 1.55 digs per set to the proceedings is clearly a very talented athlete because ISU lists her at just 5’9” tall. If I had to wager, the average collegiate hitter is probably 6-feet tall, and for Martin to guide a team to the NCAA tournament at three inches shorter than that.... well, that’s pretty impressive. She has been an all-conference First Team honoree in all three of her collegiate career years, including her freshman campaign at Northern Illinois.

Senior middle blocker/right side hitter Sydney Holt was #2 on the team in kills last season at 2.56/set, and she led the attacking crew with a hitting percentage of .303. She also led the team in blocks with 1.21 per set. Sophomore Sarah Kushner rounds out the trio of top hitters returning for ISU after averaging 1.90 per set and hitting .160 in her first season of collegiate volleyball.

Michigan native Stef Jankiewicz handled the setting duties for Illinois State the last time they were in action, so you can expect her to be in the thick of things again. The 5’10” senior averaged 11.07 assists per set in 2019 and earned All-MVC First Team honors as well as taking home the MVC tournament MVP trophy. She’s been a starter from the get-go for the Redbirds, so jumping into the fire against a top 25 team won’t faze her.

I’m not 100% sure what’s going on with ISU’s defensive situation. Kendal Meier led the team in digs in 2019 with 4.35/set.... but she only played in 85 of the Redbirds’ 132 sets. Kaity Weimerskirch played in 112 sets — which doesn’t combine with 85 to equal 132 — and averaged 3.85 digs/set. Both are listed on the roster with the tag of libero, but ISU doesn’t list anyone as a defensive specialist, only as a libero. They’re both back this season with Meier as a senior and Weimerskirch as a sophomore. I don’t know if seniority matters to head coach Leah Johnson, but if it does, that gives the playing time advantage to Meier.