Southern Illinois University Edwardsville women's volleyball coach Leah Johnson has much loftier goals than a winning record and respectability for her program.
So when Johnson talks about the Cougars winning an Ohio Valley Conference championship and playing in the NCAA Tournament, she has complete faith that it will happen.
"Those are our goals and they're lofty, but I think they're manageable -- and I think we're capable of doing that," said Johnson, whose team finished the 2012 season with a 9-18 record overall and 5-11 mark in conference play. "I think every recruiting class we have brought in has been excited about making their mark in history."
Having coached previously at Notre Dame and Missouri State, where she also excelled as a player, Johnson has been a key participant in elite programs.
Now her game plan is to hit the recruiting trail, convincing the top players from the St. Louis area and Midwest that SIUE is a great place to play volleyball and get a solid education.
Advancing to full Division I status has heightened the Cougars' profile as well.
"You can tell that the area high schools and the area club (teams) have changed their mindset entirely, they know what a difference that makes," Johnson said. "Our name is much more recognizable in the Chicagoland area now. We're recruiting as far as Omaha, Milwaukee, Indiana. We're getting outside of just this metro area.
"I love our area and that's a big reason why I chose SIUE, because I think it's an incredible community, but also because of the fact that we can bring other people from outside in to see how great it is here."
Johnson said just being a Division I program has enabled her to expand recruiting to new levels.
"Division I makes a difference in gaining the initial interest," she said. "It helps us to get our foot in the door and absolutely 100 percent has made a huge difference in getting the players we want."
While the sub-.500 record wasn't eye-catching, Johnson admired her team's progress.
"An 8-15 record isn't all that great, but when you see where there's very specific areas you can change, everything looks bright," Johnson said.
While Johnson was happy with her team's defensive success, the Cougars lacked the offensive firepower to finish points -- and finish off opponents.
"In any given match, defensively we matched up well and we're going to continue to do that," she said. "We had the weapons, we just weren't consistent day-in and day-out and that's the difference at this level."
Johnson wants to add more offense while not losing the team's fundamental defensive foundation.
"You've got to start from a defensive mindset," Johnson said. "You've got to have a program that knows how to work defensively. It's the people who want to grind it out and win the defensive battles that are going to see you through the long haul."
SIUE will graduate three seniors, including former Metro-East Lutheran High standout Brooke Smith. Smith was fourth on the team with 166 kills and second with 22 service aces while also providing solid senior leadership, according to Johnson.
Also graduating are senior setter Sammi Minton and outside hitter Brianne Graunke.
Among the top returnees are junior middle blocker Kelsey Augustine (261 kills, 114 blocks), sophomore defensive specialist Chelsea Colclasure, sophomore outside hitter Emma Anderson (246 kills) and Kristen Torre, a 6-foot-2 freshman middle blocker from Highland.
Torre (197 kills, 55 blocks) got an early opportunity because of injuries and quickly made an impact with 35 kills in her first two matches. She had six matches with double-digit kills and led SIUE in hitting percentage.
"She's a big girl and is working on adding strength," Johnson said. "I really like her mobility and agility and she can really move well for her size. She works her tail off and she was prepared (to step in) because she spent the whole preseason making sure she went 100 percent every day to keep up.
"Her blocking game and her volleyball IQ have improved. If she puts on strength, we're every excited about what she can do."
Among the five incoming recruits are Taylor Burbage, a three-time all-state player from Omaha, Neb., and Taylor Held, a two-time all-state pick from Milwaukee. Also headed to SIUE are setter Mallory Mangun from Joliet Catholic, libero Kasey Schumacher from Minooka and Alicia Streetar from Wisconsin.
Johnson has seen numerous metro-east high school players go on to have success at some of the top Division I programs in the country. She wants to tap into that recruiting pipeline as well.
"There's stellar play and there's a rich tradition in volleyball around here," she said. "There's players from our region being pulled out and playing in Top 25 programs around the country.
"There's a lot of good coaching in this area and that shows with player development from start to finish. We've got kids coming to camp in third and fourth grade and that's tremendous. I didn't touch a volleyball until I was in seventh grade."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at email@example.com or 239-2454.