CHARLESTON, Ill. – With the return of sports to college campuses across the country still up in the air, Eastern Illinois just might have a slight advantage over other schools. Make that a huge advantage.
A coaching change within its volleyball program was made in plenty of time that allowed the Panthers to develop a cohesiveness that will be much needed if EIU is to improve on its three-win season of a year ago.
Sara Thomas was hired as the 13th coach in EIU volleyball history in January. That gave her and the Panthers time to get acquainted during winter workouts leading up to the normal spring season which allows schools to play a limited number of matches against other schools. Those spring competitions were cancelled because of the coronavirus that has college athletics and the nation at a virtual standstill.
“We were very fortunate in that we had our staff in place and we got a chance to get to know the coaches and the players,” said Thomas, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach at Missouri State before accepting the EIU position.
What Thomas and her staff saw was a program that was in need of a boost after finishing 3-26 in 2019. The Panthers were swept in 14 of those 26 setbacks. Eastern Illinois is 13-47 over the past two seasons.
“We need to set a new foundation,” Thomas said. “The players need to see themselves as outstanding players and we can do that by re-establishing the culture of Panther volleyball.”
The new coach has a proven track record behind her as she sets out on that task.
A former standout during her own career at Missouri State, Thomas helped the Bears to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including a second-round appearance in 2006. She was the Missouri Valley Conference defensive player of the year as a senior in 2007 and earned all-conference honors that same season.
In her career at MSU she tallied 1,117 digs, 797 kills, 316 blocks and 288 assists while appearing in 131 matches as a collegian.
She began her coaching career by spending seven seasons (2011-17) at Belleville (Ill.) Althoff Catholic High School. Her team placed third at the state tournament in 2016 and claimed the state 3A title in 2017 with a 41-1 record. She coached 10 players at Althoff who went on to play collegiately and five of her players earned all-state honors. Thomas was voted the coach of the year twice during her time as a high school coach.
“I genuinely care about our student-athletes and the student-athlete experience,” Thomas said. “I can relate to the athlete … I’m not that much older than our players, not yet anyway.
“We’ve got to get our culture right,” she added. “Once we get our mindset right … the volleyball will come.”
The positive approach the personable Thomas brought with her from Missouri State seems to be paying off in a big way for the Panthers.
“She has a very positive attitude about what we need to do to rebuild our program,” said Laurel Bailey, a six-foot, middle hitter, who is expected to be one of the leaders on the Panther team this season. “We kind of lost our passion, but (Thomas) has stressed the importance of a family atmosphere and she had introduced new skills and new ways to efficiently execute our game.”
Bailey appeared in 103 sets last season and tallied 180 kills (1.75 kps) and ranked second on the team with 309 digs. Her 36 total blocks were the third most on the Panther squad a year ago. A starter in each of her first three seasons, she led EIU with 311 kills (2.91 kps) in 2018, including a season-high 22 at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and topped the team with 25 aces. She finished the season with 325 digs and 36 blocks.
Bailey started all 30 matches as a freshman in 2017 and led the team with 292 kills (2.61 kps) and 29 aces and was third on the team with 309 digs.
Bailey is just one of three seniors on the roster as the Panthers head into the scheduled season opener at home against Central Michigan and Evansville as part of the EIU Panther Invitational. The Panthers are currently scheduled to play at Southeast Missouri on Sept. 24 in their Ohio Valley Conference opener.
Madison Cunningham (5-8, DS/L) and Caroline Kirchmer (6-1, RS) are the only other seniors currently on the roster for Thomas.
Cunningham appeared in 88 sets last season before having her year cut short because of an injury. She led the Panthers with 364 digs and tallied 13 aces before her injury. She tallied 330 digs over the course of her first two seasons in a Panther uniform. Kirchmer has seen limited action throughout her career at EIU.
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.