After a 4-7 record in its non-conference matches, it was hard to envision Bradley volleyball having the kind of success it has found during conference play this season. That success took the form of a six-match win streak and a 11-4 record in MVC play as the team entered what was perhaps its toughest stretch of the season.
The Braves knocked off first-place Loyola-Chicago in five sets last Friday, extending their win streak to seven matches before Valparaiso, fourth in the MVC, ended Bradley’s hot stretch the next day.
“Obviously, we are feeling great about the volleyball we have been playing now, but we knew this [past] weekend was going to be tough,” Bradley head coach Carol Price-Torok said.
The difficult stretch began with a matchup against a Loyola team that stood at the top of the Valley standings thanks in part to its undefeated record at home.
Loyola (20-8) took a five-set victory in Peoria earlier in the year, but Bradley (16-12) showed no signs of backing down to its conference rival.
“From the last game, we took them [to] five sets and we knew we could get them this time,” freshman Kaylenn Hunt said. “I think it was just the mentality of pushing hard all five sets and not letting down, no matter how long it went.”
Both teams would go back and forth, with the Braves capturing the first and third sets, and the Ramblers claiming the second and fourth, leading to another fifth set battle.
The fifth stanza started well for the Braves. After taking an 8-6 lead, Loyola head coach Amanda Berkley was forced to take a timeout to get her team back on track.
The timeout proved to be worthwhile, as the Ramblers jumped to a 12-10 lead. But Bradley didn’t succumb to the pressure. A couple attack errors by Loyola, kills from junior Karagan Coggin and one final blow from Hunt gave Bradley the 15-13 win, pushing their win streak to seven.
Hunt led the Braves with 16 kills, followed by Hannah Thompson with a double-double of 15 kills and 10 digs.
“I think [the final play] was great,” Hunt said. “The passers did great that game and we knew we could do it. Rachel [Pranger] got a great pass and Kora [Kauling] just gave me a perfect set, so it was their hard work that led to the kill.”
The tough road trip wasn’t over yet as the Braves traveled to Indiana for a matchup with another top team in the MVC in Valparaiso the following day.
The Beacons (19-8) entered the game fourth in the MVC and were looking to narrow the gap between them and the Braves, who entered tied for second with Illinois State.
It was a hard-fought match, but after winning the second set, the Braves struggled to maintain the momentum, and Valparaiso would bring the seven-game win streak to a stop with its four-set win.
Thompson led the Braves again with 14 kills and 14 digs with junior Karagan Coggin chipping in 12 kills and 4 block assists.
“They played pretty flawless,” Price-Torok said. “I mean, they played some pretty good volleyball. I thought they won the serving and passing game, which is why they kind of edged us out.”
With one game left on the schedule, the Braves hold a share of second place with their next opponent, Illinois State. That second seed, and a possible first seed if Loyola were to lose its final two contests, will raise the stakes even higher for the I-74 rivalry.
“They’re our rival; they got us last time, so we’re already pumped to play them,” Hunt said.
The Braves will look to exact revenge from a five-set home loss earlier in the year when they match up with the Redbirds in Normal on Friday at 6 p.m.