When coach Warren Thomas took over the volleyball program at Southwestern Illinois College two years ago, he knew it would take time to build the Blue Storm into an NJCAA Region 24 power.
That time may be much sooner then later after Thomas recruited four players from volleyball-crazed Clinton County for his '14 team.
Returning several players from a team which finished 12-23 last season, Thomas' newest recruiting class includes libero Taylor Rakers, outside hitter Lydia Renkamper and middle blocker Maisie Kampwerth from (Breese) Central and setter Julia Billhartz from Mater Dei.
All three played on a Cougars program which placed third in the Class 3A State Tournament a year ago.
"I think even more so then just the high school they attended is where these girls ended up. If you are going to take a team to a state tournament, it means that that more and more they are competing at a higher level," Thomas said. "Belleville East, Belleville West, Edwardsville and, of course, Mater Dei, those programs are good year after year and have a history of making it far in the postseason Those are the schools I like going to."
The new edition of the Blue Storm opens its season on Wednesday when it hosts Rend Lake College beginning at 6:30 p.m. In addition to the Clinton County quartet, other standout for SWIC include sophomore transfer Callie McNeil from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M and sophomore standout Trenice Greer from Sikeston, Mo.
Thomas said he liked what he has seen in the preseason from his team.
"We scrimmaged Lindenwood-Belleville a few days ago and I thought we did a lot of good things," Thomas said. "There were a lot of good exchange and I was very impressed at well we did up the middle with Maisie Kampwerth and one of our returnees in Holly Richter (Triad).
"Holly has really improved a lot. She's hitting the ball much harder and with better angles."
Renkamper and sophomore Kaley Himelick will both see a lot of playing time as outside hitters. Freshmen Lauren Witte (Collinsville) is listed as a rightside hitter as is Katie Southard from Wesclin.
But the one who will help get the Blue Storm offense going at the setter spot will be Billhartz who played her high school volleyball at Mater Dei.
"I call her (Billhartz) my diamond in the rough," Thomas said. "She comes a tremendous program at Mater Dei. She sees the floor and distributes the ball very well."
Key reserves off the bench for SWIC will include defensive specialists Kelsi Scaiefe (O'Fallon) and Heather Breithaupt (Sparta).
Armed with his most athletic and also his deepest team, Thomas has high hop for an outstanding season.
"I'm hoping we'll have a good year. The talent is here. It's just a matter of blending together into a well rounded volleyball team," Thomas said. "The Region 24 final four will be held here at SWIC in November. We'd love to be one of those four teams."