2 daughters, 2 teams, 1 woman

Han Byer and Ashanti Thomas

 “Yes I can and watch me.”

That is what Eastern head volleyball coach, Sara Thomas, says to those who think being a single, working mom can stop you from doing what you want to do.

Thomas, who has been at Eastern since 2019, has led the team to great success in her years. She took her team to the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament as the fourth seed this past 2022 season.

She also helped the program with posting the teams’ most wins in a season since 2015.

During the 2022-2023 season, Thomas coached Eastern’s third OVC Player of the Year, Giovanna Larregui Lopez, who is also the second player in Eastern’s history to earn an AVCA All-American honorable mention. 

Her roster also consisted of Kaitlyn Flynn, who was selected as first team All-OVC, as well as Christina Martinez Mundo who earned a second team All-OVC player spot.

Sara Thomas, the volleyball coach, cheers with her team after winning a point. (Han Byer)

Coaching Division 1 volleyball is not Thomas’ only achievement. Growing up in Belleville, ILL, Thomas grew up playing volleyball.

“I started playing volleyball as a baby,” she said. “I don’t remember not playing.”

Thomas also mentioned multiple women in her family played volleyball as well, including her mother and her aunt, making volleyball a big part of her life.

“It was kind of in my blood.”

Thomas played volleyball at Missouri State in Springfield, MO. In her years there, she achieved first team All-Conference for the Missouri Valley Conference, went to the NCAA tournament three times, making it to the second round her junior year, and earned Defensive Player of the Year her senior year in the Missouri Valley Conference as well.

“I told my aunt when I was in high school [who was her coach], that I was going to come back and take her place as a coach.”

For Thomas, coaching was a big goal of hers.

“I knew at a very young age that I wanted to just help young women find a love and develop life skills through a sport.”

Thomas’ coaching started at Belleville Althoff Catholic High School for 10 years, which is the high school she attended, where she brought the team to winning their only state championship. She also coached at Missouri State, at USA Camps, and now coaches for Eastern.

Thomas said that she loves the job itself, so it’s hard for her to say what’s difficult about the job, but that there is a stigma in any profession that is hard to overcome about being a single mom and working.

“No matter what your situation is, you can always overcome,” she said. “Even the people that try to bring you down.”

Thomas said that working hard is something she always tries to show her kids.

“[I] show them what the meaning of hard work is and valuing yourself. I can be a role model for them,” she said. “And I see those young women on my team as my daughters too.”

Thomas said that even though she coaches volleyball and her daughters love it, they do take interest in other things as well. 

Her daughters are both involved in other sports, like gymnastics, basketball, soccer, Ninja Warrior, and summer training programs.

“As long as they love and enjoy it, I want them to do everything they can.”

Sara Thomas is one of three female head coaches at Eastern, the other two are Tara Archibald, head coach of the Eastern softball team, and Erin Howarth, who coaches Cross Country and Distance for Eastern’s track and field and cross-country teams.

“I think it’s a great honor and privilege to be able to represent EIU being one of the three. I think with that also comes with a lot of responsibility,” she said. “I want to make sure that the girls on my team are learning to be young women.”

Thomas mentioned that it’s a very fulfilling feeling to be coaching a successful Division 1 volleyball team, but that it takes her whole staff, the support from the administration, and the hard work her players put in.

“It’s absolutely fulfilling, but what fulfills me more is seeing one of my girls who could be struggling in a class, at the end of the year getting an A,” she said. “They’ve learned to have a good work ethic on the court, which transfers to the classroom.”

Thomas also added that skills on the court are not the only skills her players are learning through playing.

“To me, that’s going to be lifelong skills that they’re learning, and creating a culture of trusting a safe zone of vulnerability,” she said. “I need to be doing more than the bare minimum. That’s where our culture grows within our little family.”

Coaching a sport is not the only thing that Thomas sets out to do.

“To be able to coach other women and be a role model to them and show them that I’m human,” Thomas said. “It’s easier for them to be comfortable to grow and to be real, because life’s hard and it’s what I love.”

Thomas sees a good future for her team, and not only the girls on her current roster.

“I told the girls on the first team [that she coached at Eastern], we’re creating a foundation that’s going to be lasting,” she said “It’s not just one year of success, it’s going to be because of them that in five, six, years where we’re seeing growth and every year getting better.”

As for her future, Thomas said that she wants to see those goals achieved, and that it takes support from the staff and administration. 

She also said that her daughters love it here, and that they are thriving here, so she is excited for the future of the program.

In regard to young women who want to go into college athletics or coaching, Thomas gave some advice.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help and surround yourself with good humans. No matter what profession you go into, do it full-heartedly.” she said. “Work-life balance is extremely important for your mental health, so make sure to take care of yourself first.”

Laughing, she also added “and call me if they need anything!”


Han Byer and Ashanti Thomas can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected] and [email protected]