Coach Johnson at the Vadalabene Center

Coach Johnson instructing her SIUE players

SIUE Head Volleyball Coach and Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year Leah Johnson has announced that she will be leaving Edwardsville to become the head coach at Illinois State University.

Johnson has spent the past six years leading the Cougars volleyball program through the transition from Division II to Division I. The Cougars are coming off one of the most successful seasons in program history, where the team amassed a program record of 22 victories on their way to the OVC Tournament championship.

Director of Athletics Bradley Hewitt said the move to the highly-touted Illinois State program is an opportunity for Johnson to take a big step forward in her promising career.

“It’s a better opportunity for her financially and support-wise for greater success. Everybody coaching has an ambition of reaching the pinnacle of their particular sport. This gives her a closer step toward that goal,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt said ISU handled the situation with utmost class, asking permission to speak with Johnson in regards to the position.

“They explained that they didn’t want to disrupt our program, but that they were wanting to talk to her. Shortly afterward, they announced that their coach was moving on. Following that, their administration called, and I supported them with contact info for Coach Johnson,” Hewitt said.

The program’s growth throughout Johnson’s six years at the helm is a testimony to her vision and ability to set the standards necessary for turning a program around.

Hired at the end of 2011, Johnson took the reigns of a program not yet acclimated to the skillset of Division I volleyball. With patience and resolution, she planted a seed that started small, building the foundation of her program with good recruitment and disciplined defense.

Like any rebuilding period, the first few years of growth came with ups and downs before Johnson’s program fully flourished in the 2016 season. In their first season finishing above .500 at the Division I level, the Cougars went 22-8, appearing in the OVC championship for only the second time in program history.

Johnson’s OVC championship-contending team yielded two OVC All-Tournament team members: senior setter Mallory Mangun and junior defensive specialist Katie Shashack. Mangun — along with senior middle blocker Taylor Joens and senior outside hitter Jackie Scott.

“She came in and built a program the right way. When we hired [Johnson] we wanted someone who wouldn’t take shortcuts, wouldn’t undermine values, and wouldn’t take athletes that aren’t going to be committed. In her six years, Leah met all of those standards,” Hewitt said.

Johnson’s coaching career began where her playing career ended — the national powerhouse Missouri State — as an assistant to head coach Melissa Stokes. Johnson played for Stokes all four years at Missouri State, winning a Missouri Valley Conference tournament with the Bears in 2003.

After two years with Missouri State, Johnson moved to Notre Dame where she served the Irish as a volunteer assistant coach before being named SIUE’s fourth head coach in 2011.

As the Cougars prep for their 2017 season, former assistant coach Kendall Paulus has been named acting head coach, while former assistant Luke Young has been named associate head coach.

“It will be different, but we need to step up as players and hold ourselves accountable. We’re all familiar with Coach Paulus and Coach Young, so I think we’ll be prepared when the season comes around,” redshirt sophomore setter Sami Knight said.

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