It's been a roller coaster ride for the Eastern Illinois volleyball team over the past three seasons. In Sam Wolinski's first season, the Panthers went 16-15 overall and were 11-5 in the Ohio Valley Conference, but they lost in the first round of the OVC Tournament with the senior-laden roster.
Without much of a back row in 2016, the Panthers struggled and finished with a 5-26 overall record and were 2-14 in the OVC. EIU got better back-row play in 2017 and finished with a 15-15 record and were 8-8 in the OVC.
Wolinski had been able to bring in a couple of impact recruits, but the play in the back row wasn't consistent enough, which was one of her strengths as an assistant at Mississippi State. I thought Wolinski did bring in some talented players in her three seasons, but the play was inconsistent in the past three seasons.
But still, I was a bit surprised when Wolinski's contract wasn't renewed for the 2018 season. EIU athletic director Tom Michael decided to go in another direction, and I am sure he has a good reason. So Michael will bring in a new coach that returns setter/outside hitter Taylor Smith, who led the nation in triple-doubles, libero Anne Hughes and outside hitter Laurel Bailey, who led the team in kills as a freshman.
There's also plenty of younger players on the roster to mold, such as middle hitter Maggie Runge, defensive specialist Madison Cunningham and outside hitter Katie Sommer, to name a few.
I am not going to pretend to know exactly what Michael is looking for in a coach, but I'm guessing he wants someone that can take charge of the locker room, develop the younger talent and is able to bring in quality recruits ... which is what most ADs want in a coach. So here's a few names I've put together, and more than likely I will be completely off the mark, but hey, why not give it a shot?
Brittany Dildine, Wisconsin assistant coach
Yeah, I know, I am reaching here. Why would a top assistant come to EIU? Well, you won't know until you try, right?
Dildine is in her fourth year as an assistant coach at Wisconsin and is the Badgers' recruiting coordinator and on-court assistant. She specializes in coaching back-row defenders and passers. That's one of the biggest things EIU needs to work on is its passing.
Yes, this does look like Wolinski's resume, but Wolinski had head coaching experience where Dildine doesn't. Still, Dildine was named an up-and-coming talent in 2014. Like I said, it's a long shot but hey, sometimes you have to take chances in life.
Lorelee Smith, Lewis University head coach
Smith is in her 11th season as the head coach at Lewis, a D-II school, and the Flyers have made the D-II National Tournament all 11 seasons. In 2016, she guided Lewis to a 29-8 record and advanced to the D-II National Tournament semifinals. This past season, Smith led Lewis back to the D-II National Tournament and won the Flyers their first two matches before falling to Rockhurst.
Smith has a 279-71 record at Lewis, and the Flyers are consistently one of the top teams in the conference. She's won the Great Lakes Valley Conference Coach of the Year three times.
The kicker, though, is that Smith is married to the Lewis head men's volleyball coach Dan Friend and they have a daughter, so they might be entrenched at Lewis.
Jason Mansfield, Illinois assistant coach
This is another long shot. He's in his second season as an assistant at Illinois and beforehand he spent 14 years at Stanford. He also has 20 years of club volleyball coaching experience.
I would assume he knows what talent to look for with his experience at Stanford, Illinois and with his club volleyball program. Granted, his duties on the Illinois website include training and scouting, so his player development and recruiting might be a question mark. Illinois just made a run to the Sweet 16 with Mansfield serving as an assistant coach.
Jim Boos, Minnesota Duluth head coach
I've been to Minnesota Duluth's volleyball arena since they've hosted the NCAA Division II regional tournament. Boos was the head coach and Duluth was very good then and are still very good now. Duluth is basically Canada, so it can't be easy to recruit there, even though I have enjoyed the two trips I've taken there – one for pleasure, the other to broadcast the University of South Dakota's trip to the D-II regional tournament.
Boos has been there since 2002 and has the most wins in the program's history. Boos led Minnesota Duluth to 13 straight trips to the D-II National Tournament from 2002-14. Boos has produced two National Players of the Year. The coach he took over for, Pati Rolf, because the head coach at Marquette at the time. Boos has dominated at D-II with 412 wins.
Once again, it might take a bigger program to rip Boos from Duluth, as crazy as that may sound to everyone, since it is, like I said, basically Canada.
Tia Brandel-Wilhelm, Ferris State head coach
Wolinski was also the Senior Women's Administrator at EIU, and Brandel-Wilhelm holds the same position at D-II Ferris State, where she has been the head coach for 22 years. So chances are, she's settled in there. Still, she's led Ferris State to 11 D-II National Tournament appearances, including this past season.
She's a Michigan native, so it might take a lot to lure her away from her home state.