Low bids, high hopes: Saluki volleyball sees improved MVC season

By Brooke Buerck, Sports Reporter

For the SIU women’s volleyball team, the Missouri Valley Conference season has been an opportunity for the Salukis to show growth and improvement.

In the preseason MVC poll, out of 10 teams, Southern Illinois was chosen to finish ninth, while Northern Iowa was picked for first, Illinois State for second and Bradley for third. 

Senior setter Alayna Martin said the low bid gave the Salukis a desire to prove everyone wrong and show that they are better than people expected. 

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“Being expected to finish ninth out of ten teams is not a great feeling, but it also lit a fire under us to come out and show people what we’re really made of this year,” Martin said. 

To head coach Ed Allen, however, the rating doesn’t hold much weight.

“Whether we’re picked first or we’re picked 10th, it makes no bearing on me,” Allen said. “You’ve got to go play those matches.”

This season, the Salukis played a total of 14 matches before entering conference play, 12 of which were matches played in pre-conference season tournaments. 

Before their first MVC match, SIU had already compiled an 8-6 record, which beat out the total number of wins the team recorded last year by three, when they finished 5-26.

Senior setter Alayna Martin said heading into conference play with eight wins under their belt gave the team an extra boost of confidence. 

“We were really excited to get going into conference play, because our conference is super competitive,” Martin said. “Being 8-6 in preseason is already a huge improvement from the past couple of years, so I think that just really gave us a lot of encouragement to come out and prove some people wrong.”

In his first season at Southern Illinois, Allen said despite their game against Bradley marking the beginning of MVC play, his team would take them on just like any other. 

“You approach every match the same way, and I felt like we were good enough to be able to compete and win that [match],” Allen said, “Although, it is tough to win on the road.”

SIU defeated Bradley on Sept. 27 at Peoria having outlasted the Braves through not only a five-set match, but two instances of tornado sirens sending the game into a weather delay, which caused the match to last for over three hours. 

Martin said the win showed the team’s grit and ability to stay focused.

“That win was super exciting, just [being able] to get that right off the bat,” Martin said. “The game against Bradley had some twists and turns, [like when] we had a tornado warning, so just the fact that our team was able to sustain our focus through the tornado warnings and a five-set match just really showed what we’re capable of.”

The Salukis’ first conference win would tie them for the amount of wins they recorded in MVC play last season, when the team finished 1-17. Their one win came later in the season against the Indiana State University Sycamores, who they defeated 3-1 on Nov. 2. 

Prior to this, Southern finished 5-13 in league play in 2017, compiling an overall 6-23 record.

Allen said coming out on top proved to his team that winning in conference can be done, despite the team’s lack of previous success. 

“To [win] with a team that hasn’t had any degree of success in league play, and to see them maybe at times wonder if this can be done, they’ve done a brilliant job of embracing the fact that we’re very capable of doing a lot of things,” Allen said.

SIU traveled to Normal, Il. on Sept. 28, for their second conference game, facing the Illinois State University Redbirds. ISU overpowered the Salukis by taking them down in three sets. 

The Salukis then took the week to practice and prepare for their next set of games, one on Oct. 4 against the Drake University Bulldogs, and another on Oct. 5 against the University of Northern Iowa Panthers.

Allen said, in preparation for a conference match, the team stays focused on the teams they’re about to face. 

“We look at who we’ve got to play next up and we figure out how we need to match up against them and what we need to do to beat them,” Allen said. 

Southern Illinois found their second conference win in their match against Drake, taking down the Bulldogs 3-1 at home.

Allen said the win showed his team’s relentlessness.

“Our [team] showed some resilience,” Allen said after the win over Drake. “We’re not the kind of team that can play consistently for an entire match, so we’ve got to deal with the valleys, and I thought we managed that pretty well.”

The following evening, the Salukis fell to Northern Iowa 3-0, and SIU moved to 2-2 in MVC play.

This past weekend, the Salukis headed north to take on the Loyola University Chicago Ramblers on Oct. 11 and the Valparaiso University Crusaders on Oct. 12. 

The Salukis fell in both matches, 3-1 to the Ramblers and 3-0 to the Crusaders. 

Despite the losses, however, the Salukis were able to win one set against Loyola, which they hadn’t been able to do in three out of their four previous matchups.

Next, the Salukis will play at home again, taking on the University of Evansville Purple Aces on Oct. 18 followed by a match on Oct. 19 against Indiana State.

Martin said she believes the team has a great opportunity to find success based on how they have performed against these two teams in the past.

“Last year, we matched up well with Indiana State and Evansville, and those are teams that we’ve consistently beat in the past,” Martin said. “I think those are two teams that we’ll just come out and get a W against this year, which is really exciting because we weren’t able to do that the past two years.”

Other than Indiana State and Evansville, Martin said she looks forward to playing the Missouri State University Bears.

“I think Missouri State has always been a big rival for us. I think we have a really good shot of competing with them and beating them this year,” Martin said. “For me, personally, I’m excited to play them and show them what our new team is made of.”

As the Salukis progress deeper into their conference season, 2-4 so far and still having 12 scheduled matches remaining, Allen said his team’s achievements so far have been special, based on the adversities they have faced and overcome.

“I think it’s pretty special. I think one of the biggest compliments you can pay this team is that we’re finding a way to make it happen,” Allen said. “[After playing Bradley,] we’re leading the country in five-set matches. I think it speaks volumes to their desire to be better individually and collectively.”

Sports reporter Brooke Buerck can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @bbuerck25.

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