No question, when Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville turned to Kendall Paulus this summer and tabbed her as head coach for the volleyball program, it was a compliment.
But when the title officially read as “acting” head coach, Paulus could have been excused for wondering if the Cougars’ athletic department was tip-toeing into the relationship.
It obviously worked out quite well, since earlier this month SIUE made her the official hire as head coach, and it’s hard to argue with the decision: The Cougars sit at 23-5 overall and open Thursday’s Ohio Valley Conference tournament as the No. 2 seed when SIUE faces Eastern Illinois at 1:30 p.m. Central in the quarterfinals.
Having set a program record for wins at the Division I level and going 13-1 in one stretch is the kind of thing that breeds confidence.
“It was extremely unique. I didn’t have a ton to go off of. I just took it day-by-day and focused on not getting caught up in the end result,” said Paulus, who was an assistant coach for six seasons at SIUE before the 2017 season.
“I put all of my focus on making sure that our team was doing well. We had a large roster, the largest we’ve ever had and I was down a staff member. I chose to not get into any marketing or fundraising, and just be available for (the players).”
As if Paulus didn’t have enough to tackle, another variable had to be confronted –- she had just turned 30 years old in March. You don’t typically see someone that young running a program, but she actually had an ideal role model in Leah Johnson, the Cougars head coach who left in June for Illinois State and was 30 when she had taken over at SIUE.
“She sets the bar very high for me. Anytime I get caught thinking about my age, I think about how accomplished and confident she was at 30,” Paulus said. “I feel like I should be pushing myself regardless of my age.”
While Paulus may be younger than most D-I coaches, she’s not mystified by the task of getting her players in step with each other. The lion’s share of directing the offense goes to two sophomore setters –- Samantha Knight and Mallory Nicholson –- who rely on four senior attackers.
Taylor Joens, in the middle, is hitting a gaudy .349 and leads the way in total blocks (108) and kills (337); Ashley Witt has added 291 kills, and that’s bolstered by Jackie Scott (238 kills) and Emily Harrison (222 kills). The Cougars don’t have a junior class at all, so blending the range of player ages has been a topic all year, with Paulus carefully weaving in team dinners and other bonding opportunities with the responsibilities of film study and general practice time.
The emergence of Joens, the 6-footer from Johnston, Iowa, as a reliable weapon essentially began after her sophomore year, when she put her name in the hat for a change from outside hitter to the middle.
“She played outside at the start and got moved to middle her junior year. She came into the office and said, hey if we need another middle, I’m ready to go,” Paulus said. “We said, yeah, we’ve actually been thinking about that as well.
“There’s always something magical that happens when they request something. They have more ownership, and she’s such a smart player with a magnificent volleyball IQ. We run a lot of our offense for that position, and I love having her in the middle.”
The Cougars enter the stretch run with a couple of trends in their favor. First, there’s the natural bounce and swagger the team has earned from that 13-1 run during the season. They finished 13-3 in the OVC, a game back of Austin Peay. There’s also the grit displayed in two tough five-set wins at the tail end of the season (versus UT-Martin and Southeast Missouri). Both those opponents had losing records, but more importantly, SIUE had the resources to dig out of a negative mood and finish strong.
“We addressed how tough the matches would be, because those teams needed to win to get in the (conference) tournament. We knew we would get their best volleyball,” Paulus added. “It wasn’t for lack of eagerness or motivation; we had some things go wrong, and it just spiraled.
“We talk a lot about getting experiences that you can then reflect on the next time; then we have confidence knowing how we came out of it. In both instances (going 13-1, and then being tested in other matches), we’ve been able to draw on that. In those five-set matches we could say, remember how we dealt with this last week, or last night? We stayed loose and had fun.”