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Inconsistency to blame as volleyball drops two before postseason

Kaylenn Hunt prepares for a set against Illinois State. Photo by Jonathan Michel

It’s been a season of highs and lows for Bradley volleyball. Through a tough non-conference slate to a seven-game win streak, the team has fought hard and fought close, which is why its most recent results, starting in Bloomington, have been the most puzzling.

The Braves’ final contest of the regular season on Nov. 19 came against rival Illinois State, but the Redbirds defended their home nest at Redbird Arena, earning a sweep thanks to overpowering the Braves at the net. Illinois State outpaced Bradley with 40 kills compared to 23 from the Braves. 

The first set saw the Braves and Redbirds trading blows early on, alternating the first 6 points. Freshman Kaylenn Hunt continued her stretch of quality play with a block and a kill to burgeon the Braves lead to 15-12, their largest of the set.  

Illinois State pulled off the small comeback and after tying the match at 24, a kill from the Redbirds’ Kaitlyn Prondzinski and a block from Nicole Lund and Nora Janka pushed the hosts across for the winning threshold for a 26-24 set victory. The Redbirds tallied seven blocks in the first set, led by two and a half rejections from Sara Kushner and two from Lund.

The Redbirds kept the momentum in an effervescent Redbird Arena, taking a 9-5 lead early in the second set. Senior outside hitter Hannah Thompson gave the Braves what they needed though with a nicely placed attack that sparked a 8-0 run. 

Thompson led the Braves with nine kills and 12 digs, the latter of which tied junior Serena Sparks for the team lead. 

Bradley sat comfortably in the driver’s seat at 18-13, but a kill from Redbirds’ middle blocker Tamara Otene sandwiched by kills from Prondzinski keyed an 8-2 ISU run to regain their lead. The Braves would jump ahead 22-21 after a block by Karagan Coggin and Raeann Bergman but a 4-0 run capped off by a kill from ISU’s Sara Kushner helped her team capture the second set 25-22. 

After the first two sets were hotly contested, the third set saw a much different tone, as Illinois State jumped out to a 9-3 lead early on. Illinois State’s middles proved to be no match for the Braves on either end as Bradley could not establish any sort of momentum in the third set, falling 25-10.

“Obviously they have a really great team but we felt great going into the week even with an injury to Pranger that changed our lineup a bit,” head coach Carol Price-Torok said. “Thought we had a good game plan and matchup but just couldn’t change the tide consistent enough to get the victory.”

It was a difficult pill to swallow for the Braves, but an opportunity to prove themselves at the MVC Tournament the following week was knocking on their door.

The Braves settled in with the third seed and faced sixth-seeded Indiana State, whom the Braves had bested in both matches prior to the tournament.

Despite Pranger’s return to the lineup, it was another shortcoming and early exit for the Braves Thanksgiving Day. Dropping the first three sets again, the Braves struggled to contain a Sycamore team that hit .308 in the match and committed 10 errors compared to a Bradley squad who hit .104 and committed 21 errors. 

Junior Karagan Coggin led the attack for the Braves; earning eight kills and two blocks to lead the team. Describing the sour taste afterwards, Coggin noticed the difference-maker of the match came down to what has plagued the team during struggles all year.

“We made a little too many errors along with them playing a really good, clean game,” Coggin said. “We just weren’t as consistent as they were.”

It was a bitter end to the season, but even with the losing skid, Price-Torok knows the heart of her team and how talented they are. 

“We feel like we have a really great team, and we do have a really great team,” Price-Torok said. “Sometimes someone just has your number and there’s not much you can do.”

Despite the loss, Price-Torok’s squad will get one last opportunity to shine in the spotlight with another win-or-go-home tournament in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC). The Braves matchup will take place in Chicago against the Chicago State Cougars (17-10).

With another postseason opportunity , a feat Bradley hasn’t accomplished since 2018, the team will look to make a name for not only themselves, but for the program as well. 

“Our first postseason bid was when [the seniors] were freshmen, now they get to cap it off and get a postseason bid as seniors,” Price-Torok said. “I think it’s important for them as they continue to go on a high note knowing that they helped turn this program around by making it a powerhouse in our conference.”

The Braves will look to catch the Cougars napping when they arrive in Chicago on Thursday for the first round of the NIVC.

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