By Craig Pearson
It was an extremely busy weekend for Indiana State athletics this weekend.
After the Indiana State basketball teams got practice under way in Hulman Center — more on that later — I had an opportunity to see the second half of the Sycamores volleyball team in a heated match against Illinois State. In front of a solid crowd, first-year coach Traci Dahl’s team improved to 2-7 in the Missouri Valley Conference.
OK, big deal, you might be thinking.
It is a big deal for a program that’s struggled as much or more than ISU football in recent seasons.
Dahl took over a team that, like coach Trent Miles with the football program, went absolutely winless during the 2007 season. Not only that, but the Sycamores had lost 33 straight MVC matches until they defeated Bradley this season.
Bradley is 0-9, so beating them is nice, but beating an Illinois State team that had a winning record (10-9, 4-4 MVC) before arriving in Terre Haute this weekend is a much bigger deal.
“It seems to me all of there was all these clouds hanging over the team’s head,” Dahl said. “They’ve got a get an MVC win, got to get a road win. We’re slowly but surely tackling all of these clouds.”
The Sycamores took fourth-place Missouri State to five sets at Springfield, Mo., and also lost in five to Drake, whom they are tied with in the standings for eighth place.
They hope to have built momentum Friday. Illinois State looked poised to steal the fourth set after Indiana State built an early lead. The set was tied at 24, 25, 26, 27 and 28. The Sycamores showed some killer instinct and didn’t allow the match to go a fifth set.
“We’ve been close. What we’ve been working on in practice is closing out the match, closing out the match because these girls have been struggling getting over the hump of the fifth game,” Dahl said. “The tight close games, to get us the lead we weren’t able to do it. [Friday] we just kept battling back and got after it. It paid off. This was a well deserved win.”
Junior Jodi Stoker finished off the match with three straight kills to give her a career-high 25 on the night. Stoker’s leadership as well as the defensive leadership of senior Kristy Cox, who had 20 digs, were signs that ISU could turn the conference season around.
“We’ve really been training for these close matches,” Stoker said. “We’ve really been working on playing point for point. We’ve really been training for matches like this. We still have a chance to make the conference tournament. This win was big for our chances and to get us some momentum going into the second half of conference play.”
Those words are music to Dahl’s ears.
“Jodi’s a trooper,” Dahl said. “She worked hard for the win, all of them worked real hard. Every time that they get over this hump, they’re not going to go back. Once you get over all these obstacles, there’s no going back.”
The Sycamores’ next home match is Halloween night against No. 14 Wichita State, who has won 33 straight MVC matches, a conference record. At least that tough match will be out of the way with eight more left to climb two spots in the standings.
• ISU hoops — Coach Jim Wiedie had as much energy as I’ve seen at a first day practice. During the entire practice/scrimmage, he was constantly praising his freshmen — he has seven of them so that’s a lot of praise — and veterans.
The eighth newcomer, University of Illinois transfer Chelsea Buher, is going to be a first-team all-conference player in the Missouri Valley Conference at some point in her career. The sophomore is unable to play this winter due to NCAA transfer rules, but she’s 6-foot tall and appears to have a wide array of skills from ballhandling to passing to shooting the 3-pointer.
ISU will have a player available with multiple skills as well in freshman Deja Mattox. The Sycamores have no true post-up player anymore with Laura Rudolphi — who was visiting with former teammates at the Big Blue Block Party — moving on to graduate school.
Mattox could have the ability to step in and score double figures as a freshman. She showed her ability to drive to the basket during the scrimmage, and her mid-range jumper looks like a strength.
Without a low post player like Rudolphi, Wiedie sees this team getting back to a lot of pressing. Freshman Bianca Jarrett’s quickness on defense is her biggest strength, and adding her to the offensive abilities of Kelsey Luna and Leah Phillips could be a winning combination.
“You might see us now, getting back to 3 or 4 years ago when we had Stephanie Lisch playing kind of that 4 position,” Wiedie said.
Lisch was a guard playing a post position, which was also made possible by Lisch’s ability to defend and rebound against a lot of players.
“We might be able to do that with Deja Mattox or a Kayla Mullins,” Wiedie said. “We’ll get back to that pressing style and wearing people down. [Their success] depends on how quickly the freshmen come around.”
• In the hour of practice I saw, the men’s team has a lot of length that could make it a strong defensive team as Coach Kevin McKenna likes to employ a matchup zone.
Jay Tunnell could be poised to play more minutes — he averaged 22.5 last year — after shedding a few pounds that could help ease the pressure on his troublesome knees.
“I want him to be able to play a little bit more on the perimeter, taking advantage of his strength shooting the ball,” McKenna said of his 6-8 senior that shot 32 percent from beyond the 3-point line last year. “If you’re in better shape and have the experience Jay has, you better be out on the floor.”
Craig Pearson can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (812) 231-4357.