Sara Thomas ready to lead as Eastern volleyball’s new head coach

Adam Tumino, Women's Basketball Reporter

The Eastern volleyball program has had its fair share of coaches recently.

Sara Thomas will be the next to take the reins.

Her hiring was announced last month, making her the 13th head coach in the program’s history, and the third in the last four seasons.

She said that she was aware of Eastern, having grown up just a couple hours away in Belleville, Illinois. Thomas said that this, along with other factors, made the job appealing.

“It’s close to my home,” Thomas said. “It’s centrally located from the big cities—Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis, Kansas City isn’t too far—and all the surrounding area is very strong for some quality athletes in recruiting.”

Thomas takes over a program that saw a lot of change in recent years.

Thomas’ predecessor, Julie Allen, was at the helm for two seasons before her contract was not renewed following this past season. Allen had arrived at Eastern following a three-season stint by Sam Wolinski.

For Thomas, Eastern will be her first head coaching job at the collegiate level after two seasons as an assistant coach at her alma mater Missouri State. Prior to that, she was the head coach at the high school level at Belleville Althoff Catholic in her home town. 

Thomas said she thinks her experience dealing with recruiting at both levels has been beneficial.

“I feel like I have both sides, where I’m promoting the athletes and promoting the programs, so it’s a very well-rounded experience,” she said.

Before her own recruits start coming in, Thomas had to reach out to the incoming players recruited by Allen. She said her message to them was the same as her message to the current players, who she met with for the first time on the first day of the semester on Monday.

“Just because I didn’t recruit them, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t my athletes,” she said. “They’re in the program. And that’s what I was trying to stress to them. We are all a family. That’s the culture I’m trying to build, a family-oriented culture.”

Part of that family is next year’s seniors: Laurel Bailey, Madison Cunningham and Caroline Kirchmer, as well as redshirt-junior Kylie Michael. When they take the court next fall, it will be for their third head coach in four seasons.

Thomas said she wants them, and all of the players, to remember what they enjoy about the sport and why they stuck with it through all the changes.

“I want them to remember why they love the sport so much, regardless of what they’ve been through, and where they want the future to go,” she said. “I know they’ve been through these coaching changes, but making sure they enjoy it, remember why they love the sport so much and give the sport the last year or two that they have, so they can leave saying, ‘You know what, I went through all of this but finished so strong.’”

Besides building a culture and getting to know the team, there is still the matter of the games to be played next season. The 2019 season was disappointing for the Panthers, who went 3-26 overall and 1-15 in OVC play.

The OVC itself was a highly-competitive conference, with each of the eight teams in the conference tournament posting a conference record of 9-7 or above. It was the first time since 2007 that all the teams in the tournament had winning conference records.

Thomas said she told the team that the work they put in this offseason will go a long way come the fall.

“Championships and the winning mentality are built in the offseason,” she said.

This goes beyond just on the court activities, Thomas said, and encompasses everything the players do while members of the team.

“Once they all understand that, and they trust the process, the small wins will come that will lead to bigger wins,” she said. “That’s our focus right now. Let’s take care of business here, get that going and get that right, and then in the fall we’ll be prepared.”

Adam Tumino can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]