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Undaunted Braves handle Redbirds, get help to keep season alive

Junior Abby Johnson prepares for the attack. Photo by Jenna Zeise

It wasn’t easy, but everything that needed to happen for Bradley volleyball (10-20, 6-12 MVC) on Wednesday night happened.

“It was exhilarating,” junior opposite hitter Abby Johnson said. “Everything was all over the place and up in the air; it was do or die.”

Heading into Wednesday night, Bradley needed a win at Illinois State (12-17, 5-13 MVC) and a Southern Illinois victory at Missouri State to force a tie between the Braves and Bears. A tie would favor the Braves, thanks to a 3-2 victory in the pair’s battle in Peoria last month.

Working against them was the thought of revenge from Bradley’s I-74 rivals. The Redbirds were defeated by the Braves 3-1 at the beginning of October, so Bradley head coach Alicia Williams was aware of the situation going in.

“I didn’t say a single thing to them [about the scenario],” Williams said. “They’ve been doing the math on that weeks ago, [but] we said let’s control what we can control and [that] we want to win.”

The opening set on Wednesday started with a quick back-and-forth with neither team taking a two-point lead until the Redbirds’ 10-8 advantage. Bradley took seven of eight points to turn a two-score deficit into a 19-16 lead and kept their foot on the gas to complete a 25-22 first set victory.

In the following set, Illinois State knocked down seven straight and pulled away late for a convincing 25-16 second set win.

With momentum on the home team’s side, Bradley fired back with a 6-1 lead to start the third set. Unfortunately for the visitors, the Redbirds soared forward, taking a 19-15 lead. A trio of ISU attack errors and a pair of kills by senior Raeann Bergmann allowed Bradley to flip the switch and take a 21-19 lead. An attack error from Illinois State’s Regan Haith gave the Braves a 27-25 third set win.

On the verge of a season sweep of Illinois State, Bradley never let the home team catch a spark in the fourth set. Using two stretches of seven points, the Braves took the final set 25-16. Johnson finished with a team-high 16 kills and Bergmann added six blocks. Afterwards, Williams was short of saying it was the team’s best performance of the season, but she was proud of her squad for their focus in a tough road environment.

Head Coach Alicia Williams preps her team in between sets. Photo by Jenna Zeise

“They did everything that we asked them to,” Williams said. “I felt like we looked like we were in control, even though we really weren’t playing our best volleyball.”

While Bradley took care of business in Normal, Missouri State was putting a damper on the celebration. After dropping the first two sets to Southern Illinois, the Bears responded by winning the following pair, setting up a dramatic winner-take-all fifth set. Regaining their strength, the Salukis powered past Missouri State, handing the Braves the final position in the Missouri Valley Conference Championship bracket.

Since the Braves finished playing before the Bears, it was difficult not to focus on the final piece of the puzzle after the game in Normal.

“Well a few of us, while we were waiting for Coach to get into the locker room, were sneaking peeks at our phones to see if there were any notifications,” Johnson said. “So, coach [Ladislav] Lelkes walked in during Alicia’s postgame and he’s like ‘SIU is up 3-2; SIU is up 7-2’ and was interrupting the speech with the score.”

It was the culmination of emotion from the group who was picked fourth in the Valley’s preseason poll. At times, the Braves presented a strong front and showcased their passing ability, but at others the team seemed to flounder on defense and lose steam. Nonetheless, when the team needed a victory, they put forth a solid effort.

Next up for the squad is a first-round matchup with the fifth-seeded host Evansville (14-18, 11-7 MVC). The two teams split their earlier games, with the home squad winning 3-1 on both occasions. For the Braves to get past the Purple Aces, a performance similar to Wednesday’s will be key.

“Right now, it’s just staying alive; that’s the theme song we have going on right now,” Williams said. “We’re going to stay alive as long as we can and we really have nothing to lose.”

The Braves’ date with the Aces takes place this Sunday at 3:00 p.m. If Bradley survives, the team will take on the No. 1 seed Northern Iowa Panthers on Tuesday.

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