After an uncharacteristically slow 2-6 start to its 2021 campaign, the Bradley volleyball team used resilience, senior leadership and a diverse arsenal of offensive weapons to take two out of three games at the CEFCU Classic at Renaissance Coliseum last weekend.
According to senior setter Kora Kauling, the last of the Braves’ non-conference action was the perfect precursor to MVC play starting on Sept. 24.
“This tournament and a lot of the other preseason matches we’ve had have been pretty challenging,” Kauling said. “I think it’s been really good for us to see how high the bar can be set.”
Bradley’s non-conference schedule was unforgiving, as they’ve tussled with strong teams such as South Dakota, Southeast Missouri St. and Central Michigan. This weekend was no different; after sweeping the North Dakota Fighting Hawks 3-0 on Friday, the Braves won a defining game in five sets against a highly skilled Northern Colorado squad.
The first two sets against the Bears were defined by runs, as Northern Colorado used a 7-0 run early on to win the first set 25-14 and the Braves rattled off a spurt of 10 straight points in the second set to triumph 25-18 and knot the match at one apiece.
After a third set in which the Bears hit .306 and outpaced Bradley 25-14, the Braves found themselves needing to come back from a 2-1 deficit, a feat that the team had not accomplished since 2018.
Led by senior outside hitter Rachel Pranger’s two kills and an ace, Bradley raced out to a 7-1 advantage in the fourth set and never looked back.
Heading into the fifth set, a situation where the Braves had not won yet up to that point in the season, head coach Carol Price-Torok knew that she could rely on their senior leadership, namely Pranger and outside hitter Hannah Thompson.
“That’s definitely something that [Price-Torok] pushes on us is that we need leadership on the team,” fellow senior Kauling said. “We need someone to step up and help out the people that might not be as experienced.”
Northern Colorado jumped out to a 4-1 lead early in the deciding set, but two of Pranger’s game-high 15 kills helped the Braves pull even at 4. After trading points back and forth, Thompson recorded four kills in the Braves’ final five points to seal Bradley’s third victory in a row.
“I think one of [the biggest takeaways] is that we can win and we can beat good teams,” Pranger said. “That Northern Colorado match, we fought back and we ended [up] winning, so we know we can do it. We’ve just got to continue working hard and keep putting pressure on other teams like we did that night.”
Pranger took time to reacclimate herself on the court after missing last season with a labrum injury but it was only a matter of time before she had a big night.
“I think it really helped, especially with all my teammates around me that I haven’t played with,” Pranger said. “Some of them I haven’t played with at all, and [with] some of them, it’s been quite a while since I’ve played with them again, so it was really nice for all of us to get back on the court together.”
Pranger’s performance helped her and junior middle blocker Karagan Coggin earn all-tournament honors for the CEFCU Classic.
The win marked Bradley’s third in a row after their sweep of North Dakota earlier in the day on Friday. After struggling to find their rhythm earlier in the season, the win streak gave Pranger and the Braves assurance heading into Saturday’s match against the St. Louis Billikens.
St. Louis, who fell to Northern Colorado the previous day, overcame six serving errors in the first set to win 25-21. Bradley responded by using an 8-1 run headlined by three kills from Coggin to push their lead to 9-2 in the second set, but the Billikens scored seven straight to cut the Braves advantage to 21-20. However, Pranger swatted two kills late in the match en route to a 25-23 win.
The third and fourth sets were both decided by the score of 25-19, St. Louis taking the third and Bradley emerging victorious in the fourth.
Bradley’s resilience was on full display in the fifth set, erasing four and two-point deficits in the crucial final stanza of the tournament. The Braves led 13-12 after a kill from Coggin, but St. Louis used another small 3-0 run to close the game out and hand the Braves the tightest of losses.
“We have some fight and short-term memory in us,” Pranger said. “It was a lot of back and forth and at the end of the day, they got an edge on us and we lost the match. But we played well, and we did fight back when we needed to.
St. Louis flaunted its forte defensively, tallying 13 blocks and holding Thompson to just one kill through the first three sets. However, Pranger stepped up again, finishing with 15 kills and 17 digs while the offensively-minded setter Kauling added 10 kills, 29 assists and eight digs.
“You can’t really win with one person, so it’s really nice that we’re distributing the ball more and it leaves more open blocks for people as well, including Hannah [Thompson],” Pranger said. “If they’re worried about someone else getting a kill, then she’ll have more openings, so I think all of us just working hard and getting kills will ultimately make us successful.”
Despite falling just two points short of their fourth victory in a row, the Braves checked the boxes of three C’s: confidence, chemistry and communication.
“Everyone was more confident to go in and play a team with different areas that we might have struggled against before,” Kauling said. “Overall, we improved on our communication a lot in general. I know in the past, [Price-Torok] has been on us about coming together as a team [and] being there for each other when other people are struggling and not to internalize and be worried about just what you’re doing.”
“We definitely noticed that when we were having fun and playing hard, we were successful and it showed,” Pranger added.
The Braves will venture to Iowa to kick off their conference season starting against Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls today. Bradley will follow up its match against the MVC preseason favorites by clashing with Drake in Des Moines on Saturday.