By Steve Robinson | January 18, 2021 - 10:01 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

NORMAL – The wait is finally over for Illinois State University’s Volleyball team. Precautions surrounding COVID-19 forced the Missouri Valley to push back the sport’s regular fall scheduling in favor of playing when players came back for spring semester.

On Monday, after a fall semester of wondering when they would be allowed to not think about COVID-19 restrictions and concentrate on kills and digs, third season head coach Leah Johnson and her team took to Doug Collins Court at Redbird Arena to get a feel for the new season with hopes of getting back to the Conference Championship.

They managed that last year, having been seeded 2nd and disposing of 6th seed Drake before falling to top seed Northern Iowa. And things went so well, the Redbirds obtained a berth in the NCAAs but fell in the opening session to University of Cincinnati.

What she said she witnessed during the session was “this was a team I could trust and I saw that again today,” said Johnson, who met remotely with local media members via Zoom after the practice session. “We needed this experience in practice to feel what it’s like to get our name called, seeing our name up on the big board because we’ve been beating each other up for a little while now.”

Johnson said the team was prepping for a new season with returning players coming back in July and newcomers joining before fall semester. “It was disappointing to hear our season was transitioned to the spring, but once we kind of got through that grieving process, I believe everyone expected to prepare,” Johnson said.

At that point, Johnson said, she and her team practiced six days a week, simulating playing on one side of the net through a full match. “We did as much simulating as we could, and with that, we also simulated resiliency.” She said that also meant mentally preparing for changes thrown their way as a result of COVID.

Some of that resiliency will mean contending with playing games on back-to-back days as opposed to having a few days to recover and go at it again. Johnson said the team was actually considering scheduling games in that manner in the fall before the league moved the season as a whole to the spring. “If you win day one, your opponent knows what they get to fix before game two,” she explained. “Our goal is to constantly best ourselves. I also think it will be about recovery – which team can play their depth, which team can recover and see the next match as a brand new match.”

Johnson said with five returning seniors and six freshmen on the roster, “This is a team that is pretty special. It has a lot of potential and has five seniors who have all been at starting roles or significant roles their entire career. This year’s seniors (and hometowns) are: Kaylee Martin (Sterling, Ill.); Kendal Meier (Cedar Rapids, Iowa); Stef Jankiewicz (Farmington Hills, Mich.); Alyssa Kronberg (Palatine, Ill.); and Sydney Holt (Eureka, Mo.). The team also has six freshmen, including one redshirt, joining the team for their first season as Redbirds. The team also has one player from Austria and one from New Zealand.

“They’re a pretty special senior class,” Johnson said. “If I could keep them around longer, I would.” She added that everyone underneath them is competitive. “That’s one thing the seniors have given me feedback on – how the freshmen, sophomore, even junior class, are pushing them. It’s not easy to still be a starter in our gym just because you’re a senior. It’s not given. You have to earn it and they’re feeling that. So that’s a good sign for the future, too.”

Meier, who plays in the middle blocker slot, said it may not seem like the season has finally arrived until they hit the court to open the season at Marquette Friday night.

Kendal Meier: Because of COVID, players will need to wear masks while on the court. Iowa native Meier, a senior, told reporters players didn’t play with masks, so playing with them “was a huge adjustment. Coach is all about being prepared and when the season starts, you will have to wear a mask, or working out, you will be wearing a mask. I think we all have embraced the face that we are wearing masks.”

Meier said to answer the question of what makes this team different, she has to go back to comparing advantages and disadvantages such as the advantage of training for a full semester. One of the advantages, to her, was being able to spend time at length bonding with freshman teammates, something that doesn’t happen in the midst of a season.

Stef Jankiewicz: Stef Jankiewicz, another senior on the team, said the cold and snow are the biggest difference in adjusting to playing in the spring semester because she said it usually get cold toward the end of the season, when the team plays at the MVC Tourney in November. Jankiewicz said the additional bonding time also helped the team in terms of players knowing what is expected of them on the court come game time. She said she is looking forward to helping ISU “show the team’s competitive side” when they take to the court against Marquette.

Jankiewicz said COVID has added a layer of responsibility for players in that they had to make sure that, in addition to bringing shoes, certain stretch bands, and kneepads to games or practices, they also brought masks. The end result was all team members held each other accountable for making sure additional items like masks were part of their equipment. “Freshmen held us accountable the same way we would hold them accountable for things,” she explained.

About that aspect of how the team is operating now as a result, Jankiewicz said and referring to the underclassmen, “That’s one of the biggest differences that I am really excited for because I know they will always be there to push me, and every single person on the team will. So, I have to hold myself to a new standard every match and every practice.”

Redbirds Host Bradley Monday At 6p.m.: The Redbirds will play Missouri Valley Conference rival Bradley Monday at 6p.m. followed by a two-night visit by University of Cincinnati. On Feb. 1, the Redbirds visit Bradley for a 6p.m. The game at Bradley is part of a three-game road trip as the Redbirds will visit Indiana State for contests on Feb. 7 and 8.

NORMAL – Kyle Brennan was announced as the new Athletic Director for Illinois State University in a Zoom press conference on Dec. 31. Brennan will begin his tenure as ISU’s 12th person to hold that position on Jan. 15. He succeeds Larry Lyons who announced his retirement in October after 30 years with the University, serving as AD since 2013.

Brennan explained his passion for being in higher education saying he nearly didn’t stay with it until one of his professors guided him to the tract his career is at currently. He said he works with athletes “to help them achieve their dreams, not just to help them athletically, but also academically, and socially to help them become great adults as they move forward with their lives.”

Brennan said upon hearing about ISU’s opening for the AD’s position, “When this job came open, I called every search firm in the country and told them I wanted in on this job. The reason is it has such an amazing history.” Looking at Redbirds sports history, he explained its successes in Softball, Basketball, and Football showed him “a great opportunity to build on such great success that’s already taken place.”

He added the people he came in contact with during the interview process “really made the difference for me.”

Because of COVID-19, all interviews ISU staff did with Brennan were done remotely. He met face-to-face with ISU President Dr. Larry Dietz for the first time the day before the press conference.

Turning his attention to the Redbirds in relation to the Missouri Valley Conference, Brennan said, “I’m competitive. I didn’t take this job because we want to be good. I took this job because we want to be a dominant force in this conference and win championships. This school has everything it takes to do that.”

Shifting gears to another aspect of the job, Brennan added, “Community is very important to us, my family and I.” He explained that means “jumping in with both feet and getting involved in every aspect of the community, and we look forward to that.”

He thanked his family, which includes his wife, Beth, and sons Patrick, Mac, and Murphy. “They’re excited to come,” he said, adding his kids “are coming on a leap of faith.”

“What really attracted me to the position was the people,” Brennan said, who he met at ISU during his interview process. “After all the interviews and time I had with everybody, it really convinced me that this way the right place for my family and to have the opportunity to move forward and have success.”

He also thanked Lyons for conversations they had recently, and ISU Deputy AD Leanna Bordner for her efforts during the interview process. Regarding succeeding Lyons, Brennan said, “I’m humbled. I’ve got big shoes to fill, and I look forward to learning from him as we move forward, as well.”

Brennan said one does not get through life without there being people in life who help along the way, and began his remarks after being introduced by Dr. Dietz by thanking Dr. Chris Hill, athletic director at Utah for 25 of his 31 years at that University. He also thanked current Utah AD Mark Harlan, Barb Snyder, vice president for student affairs at that university, who, Brennan said, gave him some insight into ISU, and that University’s president, Dr. Ruth V. Watkins.

Prior to coming to ISU, Brennan has more than 16 years of combined University and athletic department experience at Northern Illinois University, Texas Christian University, Ball State University and University of Utah.

Dr. Dietz said the search for a new athletic director, which also makes that person a member of the University President’s Cabinet, was unique in that, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, “it was the first time we held a Cabinet-level search without all of the candidates coming to the campus. It was different for all of us, but it worked.”

“When Illinois State announced Kyle’s hiring on Dec. 23, I commented that Kyle’s leadership and experiences make him an excellent fit for Illinois State,” Dr. Dietz said. “His terrific attitude perfectly complements his diverse and well-rounded background.”

A member of the Division 1A Athletic Directors’ Association Fellows Program for future Athletic Directors, Brennan has been mentored by Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith since 2013. He was hired in 2008 as Utah’s assistant athletics director for compliance and was named associate A.D. for compliance in 2009. In 2011, he was promoted to special assistant to the athletics director, and in 2012, he was named senior associate A.D. for administration. He was named the school’s first deputy athletics director in December of 2014.

Prior to joining the staff at Utah, Brennan served as the director of compliance at TCU in the 2005-06 school year and at Ball State from 2006-08. But his career life hasn’t always been in athletics. Prior to the job he had at NIU, Brennan was an estate planning attorney in Denver, beginning his collegiate athletics work as a graduate assistant at NIU during the 2004-05 school year. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Calvin College in Michigan, and earned his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Denver in 2001.

The press conference opened with Dr. Dietz calling for a moment of silence for Ty Jordan, a freshman at Utah who was also named PAC-12 Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year. Jordan died of a gunshot wound back home in Texas, according to broadcast and print reports. A preliminary investigation by the Denton, Texas Police Department indicated Jordan shot himself, while reports from a Salt Lake City TV station indicated the gun went off accidentally.

Brennan thanked Dr. Dietz for acknowledging the loss of Jordan, saying, “Ty was very important to his teammates, to the University of Utah and it’s a great loss for everyone there. So I really appreciate the respect and honor that you’ve shown him today.”

By Steve Robinson | November 25, 2019 - 4:15 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

NORMAL – With his team’s road loss at Youngstown State still weighing on his mind through most of Saturday, Illinois State University head football coach Brock Spack admits that he didn’t even start to address whether his 8-4 team would be considered for 2019 FCS playoffs until he woke up Sunday. When he and his team gathered in the Hancock Stadium Club Room, they found out within the first 15 minutes of the broadcast which would announce the teams which qualified to extend their seasons.

ISU, with an 8-4 record, did qualify, leading to cheering from the team and those fans and supporters, numbering around 35, who anxiously awaited word on the subject. As a result, the Redbirds will be the visitors when they take on Southeast Missouri University Saturday, beginning at 1p.m. The game can be seen on ESPN3. A total of eight teams received byes from the selection committee. One of those teams, Central Arkansas University, received an 8th seed, and would be the Redbirds’ next opponent should Spack’s troops emerge victorious Saturday.

Two other Missouri Valley Football Conference teams earned high seeds and byes courtesy of the selection committee. North Dakota State, at 12-0 overall and 8-0 MVFC, earned the top seed in the FCS playoffs. South Dakota State, at 8-4 overall and 5-3 MVFC, earned a 7th seed.

Redbirds players sat quietly waiting for the broadcast to start but cheered loudly along with those fans who came to check out the results when ISU was announced as one of the teams in the brackets.

Following the announcement, Spack reminded reporters, “We’ve built a pretty good road team this year and we’ve been a pretty good road team in the playoffs. So, we’ll see. SEMO has a very good football team and a good program, so we’ll have to play well.”

The 11th season head coach will be taking the Redbirds into the playoffs for a fifth year, which includes to the FCS Championship against North Dakota State to close out the 2014-15 season.

“We’re just excited to be in the playoffs, whether on the road or at home,” Spack said.

“We’re excited about getting a bid in the playoffs since it has been a couple years where we haven’t been in,” said Spack’s boss, ISU Athletic Director Larry Lyons. “You know what? Someone gets to host and someone gets to go on the road. We’ll go down to SEMO and we’ll do our very best to win that game, and then it looks like it could be a rematch with Central Arkansas in the second round.” Lyons was quick to remind the Redbirds and the Bears met in FCS play a couple years ago.

“I think the kids and the coaches are very excited to be back in the playoffs,” Lyons said. On the way back from Ohio, Lyons added, “I still felt confident we had the resume to get a home game. The committee didn’t see it that way.”

Redbirds Injury List: For ISU, getting into the FCS playoffs is the good news. But looking at their injury list, they will take on the Redhawks of the Ohio Valley Conference while missing some key players and playing a team that seems to know how to handle MVFC teams. Among ISU’s injured: Senior offensive lineman Gabe Megginson, out for the year; Junior quarterback Brady Davis, who was injured in ISU’s game against Missouri State game and is out for the year; Junior backup running back Jeff Proctor, injured in Missouri State game and gone for the year; Sophomore wide receiver Taylor Grimes, a starter on the team who was hurt in ISU’s game against Northern Arizona and is gone for the year); And redshirt freshman wide receiver Eric Rogers.

The Redbirds did get two other key players who just came off the injury list. Sophomore starting wide receiver Andrew Edgar, a 2018 freshman All American who was out for 8 weeks and returned last week at Youngstown State; And junior starting fullback Tim McCloyn, who saw limited duty for a month due to a hand injury but is back in time for the playoffs.

Familiar ISU Foes Lost In Cape Girardeau: If you want to know if or how SEMO did against other MVFC teams, all you need to do is look at their schedule. SEMO, members of the Ohio Valley Conference, played host to and defeated Southern Illinois to open the season in August, 44-26. Eastern Illinois, an OVC member who often plays ISU, also fell victim to the Redhawks this year, two weeks ago, 26-12.

By Steve Robinson | October 17, 2019 - 10:45 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

NORMAL – Going into his eighth year as head coach of his alma mater’s men’s basketball team, Illinois State’s Dan Muller told reporters at the team’s media day event on Oct. 16 he can start to assign an identity to his team as their season approaches. “We have a lot of defensive identity this year,” Muller declared.

“We share the ball better than we ever have,” Muller said, giving credit to associate head coach Brian Jones for making players see the advantages in that. “I really like how the ball’s moved. “We’ve been an isolation team in the last few years with our personnel, but I do think this team will share the ball better and more.”

Muller wants his Redbirds to continue to try to “establish an identity as a defensive team.” That means letting each player know the role Muller wants them to play. He said the players find that out about each of their roles in a 10-minute meeting with him.

Finding that defensive identity early on in the season is the priority for the Redbirds if they hope to avoid repeating the .500 season they had last year, finishing one game above an even overall, at 17-16, including dead even in play against Missouri Valley Conference opponents at 9-9.

But although it’s early in the practice stage, ISU has a lot to try to prove as the 2019-20 season dawns. The Redbirds are predicted by Missouri Valley Conference to finish seventh in the league’s pre-season poll, with Missouri State getting the most media votes and anticipated to finish first. ISU’s nemesis residing up Interstate 74, Peoria’s Bradley University received enough votes in the preseason poll to be predicted to finish second.

An early injury to senior guard Ricky Torres has meant freshman D. J. Horne would be stepping into the position until Torres heals, Muller said. Also injured and waiting to heal are sophomore Taylor Bruninga. Muller said Bruninga is “shooting and moving around.” While that sounds positive, Muller said he doesn’t know how long it will be before the 6 foot-8, 220 pound forward and Illini Bluffs High alum will see any court time.

Wichita State transfer Ricky Torres has a sprained ankle, the coach reported and could be ready for the start of the season after potentially having missed the team’s exhibition game against Truman State. LeRoy High alum and Loyola Chicago transfer Matt Chastain is sporting a large cast to protect an injured right thumb sustained in practice.

Matt Chastain Learning While Sidelined: Because of his size, one would think 6 foot-6, 190 pound guard Chastain would ably defend a charge and not do any damage to himself. But during a recent practice three weeks ago, he was the recipient of a charge which resulted in a fall which ended in him landing on it wrong. Doctors have his arm emerging from the cast in another three weeks.

“We’re just trying to show up for practice and get better and work on our game to try to put us in the best position to win games this season,” The redshirt junior said. “Whatever coach needs me to do, I’m going to try to do to the best of my ability.” He is looking at things from a positive point of view, explaining watching from the sidelines will “help me to learn more about the game from the coaches’ point of view.”

This isn’t Chastain’s first injury wearing Red and White. He was sidelined for a majority of his freshman year due to an injured left knee.

Lijah Donnelly Focusing On Team Needs: As redshirt junior Lijah Donnelly sees his role in a Redbirds jersey, he is needed “to bring energy to the team and make sure everybody is playing in the slots they’re supposed to be in.” He said, as a team, the Redbirds are looking to win the Missouri Valley Tournament and advance to receiving an invitation to the NCAA tournament. While he might have personal goals for himself, the 6 foot-2, 170 pound guard is putting any of those aside to do whatever he can for the team, he said.

“If anything happens for myself from that, I’ll be proud,” Donnelly said. “But other than that, I’ll just focus on what’s important for the team.”

Eleven Day Trip To Italy, 3 Wins: The Redbirds got in a little bonding, a little game time and plenty of sightseeing during an 11-day trip to Italy in August, journeying to Rome, Florence, and Venice. In addition to seeing the sights, they showed off their skills going 3-0 by defeating Stella Azzurra Basketball Academy, in Rome, 65-58; A Lithuanian team called BC Silute, in Florence, 73-64; and LCC International in Treviso, 86-61.

Circle Your Calendars: Having played an exhibition against Truman State Oct. 23, ISU will begin the season against Belmont University in a non-conference tilt on Wednesday, Nov. 6 at 7p.m. More travel is ahead of the Redbirds starting Nov. 25 heading to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam tournament where they will meet up against Fordham and Grand Canyon University. Also taking part in that tourney are Nevada, who beat ISU last year, and an early tilt with MVC member Valparaiso. Northern Iowa will be the first MVC opponents to visit Redbird Arena, on Dec. 31 for a 2p.m. game. Interstate 74 nemesis Bradley will visit here Wednesday, Jan. 22 for a 7p.m. game and the Redbirds will visit Peoria in return to take on the Braves on Wednesday, Feb. 26 for a 6p.m. tipoff.

By Steve Robinson | August 6, 2019 - 10:41 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

NORMAL – Considering how training camp has gotten off to a positive start for the Redbirds of Illinois State University, ISU head coach told reporters he believes opponents will see how his team plays and make note of how improved they are in 2019.

The Redbirds’ last three seasons have seen a team slide downhill: Tying for 4th with a 6-6 overall and 4-4 Missouri Valley Football Conference record and losing a first round FCS contest in 2016, followed by repeating 4-4 in 2017 in Conference and going 6-5 overall but not qualifying for playoffs, tying for 6th. Last season ended with ISU finishing with the worst Conference record a Spack Redbird-coached team had experienced to that point – 3-5. Understandably, Spack said he wants to reverse course.

“You always hope you are further off in the game than you were last year,” head coach Brock Spack told reporters on Media Day at Hancock Stadium on Aug. 6. “The team has prepared and they are farther ahead of where they were this time last year, which is good.”

But that being said, Spack added, “There are still some questions and those won’t be answered until we play an opponent.” He said it appeared his players had worked a little more on conditioning during the off-season than, perhaps in past years. “This team seems to hold itself accountable, which is very nice,” explained Spack, who is entering his 11th year at the Redbirds’ helm having tallied an overall record of 74-45. That includes a MVFC record of 48-32 which counts among the games played one FCS Championship Game loss in 2014 and three other playoff appearances – quarterfinal appearances in 2012 and 2015, and a loss in the first round in 2016.

This past off-season, Spack issued a challenge to his players to pay attention to their weight and workout habits. He divided his players into eight squads, the winners getting dinner at the coach’s house. “It made it kind of pleasurable because the guys were kind of governing themselves, which is what you want,” Spack said.

In terms of academics, the team has achieved a combined grade point average of 3.0, Spack added. “That’s a huge, huge indicator for where our team is at from an attitude standpoint. They are taking pride in everything they do and in what they have to do to be a champion.”

Seven Local Players Look To Contribute: A total of seven Redbirds players are local guys – three each from Normal and Bloomington, and one who calls Towanda home. Of this group, all three who hail from Normal are Redshirt freshmen. That includes wide receiver Nick Hesse, a Normal Community High School alum. His turn on the field is on hold for the time being as he is recovering from a sprained ankle. “We’ll see what happens after I talk to the doctor,” he said. He optimistically said he would like to be out battling with his teammates by week two of the season – the home opener against non-conference foe Morehead State. Once the ankle is totally healed, “I definitely want to see some action this year,” he said.

Junior offensive lineman Garrett Hirsch attributed the team’s poor finish last year to what he saw was “a lot of negativity” he thought was present last year, especially when, he added, “we thought we were better than we were. So this year, we’re trying to keep that negativity out of here. As a group, that is what we decided we were going to do this season. That’s why I think we’re going to much more successful than we have been in the past.”

Having sat out as required last year, Peter Bussone will be a redshirt freshman this year ready to keep opposing defenders at bay as an offensive lineman. The 6 foot-2, 305 pound Bussone said he has learned plenty about the mental toughness needed to go from the high school game where he played at Normal Community High School to the college game. A former nose guard, he said he realizes the game from that position switch is different than he had experienced previously. “I’m just ready, for when an opportunity strikes, to get onto the field this year,” he said.

Like Bussone, redshirt freshman Dalton Tevis sat out last year but is looking forward to seeing action this season playing outside linebacker trying to open holes to get through to quarterbacks and running backs. A Normal Community High School grad, Tevis said he wants to have a depth of knowledge of the playbook, “so that I don’t make any mistakes mentally.” He adds though that, “We practice so much that I know I will be in the right spot at the right time.” For Tevis, being on the team is a dream come true, having gone to football youth camps set up by ISU since he was in grade school. Being a player now on the team “is a dream come true,” he said.

Having transferred from Division II South Dakota-based Augustana University to ISU, freshman defensive back Franky West, a Normal Community West High School alum, said he is looking forward to playing, once again, for the home crowd. To comply with NCAA rules, the 5 foot-10, 170 pound defensive back will sit out this season and be ready to play for the Redbirds next season. His father, Frank Sr., played for ISU in the 1980s and played in two and won one Canadian Football League Grey Cup Championship game with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Until he gets to play next season, the younger West is on the Redbirds’ scout team helping play the role of the upcoming Redbirds opponent, and said he is looking forward to competing on behalf of ISU.

Sophomore defensive lineman and Bloomington High alum John Ridgeway saw action last season – “about 50 snaps a game” by his count – and the experience last season “gave me a chance to show my talents.” He said the biggest change playing at this level versus in high school is “I’m usually surrounded by dudes who are my size if not bigger.” But since Ridgeway is listed at 6 foot-6 and 325 pounds, being around opponents of similar strength wasn’t intimidating, he said.

A redshirt freshman last year, long snapper Joey Malinowski said he is looking forward to getting in some action on the turf this season. The 6 foot-1, 250 pound Central Catholic product is spending training camp trying “to work myself into the standard rotation for points after touchdown and punting situations. Right now, in training camp, I’m just trying to perfect the craft I’m working on and be as prepared when that time comes.”

Circle Your Calendars: ISU opens the season on the road at Northern Illinois Saturday, Aug. 31. Spack’s Redbirds play before a home crowd at Hancock Stadium Sept. 7 in a non-conference contest against Morehead State, starting with a 6:30p.m. kickoff. The Redbirds’ first Missouri Valley Football Conference opponent will be Saturday, Oct. 5 when North Dakota State visits Hancock Stadium for a 12 Noon game. Indiana State visits for Homecoming 2p.m. game on Oct. 26, and Missouri State closes out the home schedule for the Redbirds on Senior Day for a 12 Noon kickoff.