Sara Thomas-Dietrich graduated from Missouri State University prepped for a career in hospitality and has since plied her degree toward marketing and event planning.
But during the last 10 years, she's also built her resume for a future in volleyball, first signing on as an assistant at Althoff, then leading the Crusaders to their first state championship in 2017.
It's a career progression that comes as no surprise to Melissa Stokes, the 22-year head coach at Missouri State University who last week lured her former All-American away from Althoff to be an assistant coach with the Bears.
"I have kept my eye on Sara after she graduated as I knew she was going to develop into a great coach," said Stokes, who coached Thomas-Dietrich at MSU from 2004-2007. "After winning a state championship this past fall as well as playing for Missouri State when we went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Sara knows what it takes to win at a high level."
Thomas-Dietrich spent seven seasons from 2011-2017 as the head coach of her high school alma mater, leading the Crusaders to an average of 20 wins per season, a third place state finish in 2016, and their historic 41-1 championship run.
Along the way, she coached five all-state picks, three Belleville News-Democrat players of the year, and 10 who went on to play in college. Thomas-Dietrich herself is a two-time BND Coach of the Year and, last season, was a finalist for National Coach of the Year at prepvolleyball.com.
But coaching at the college level has been a long-time dream for Thomas-Dietrich.
"It was an easy decision to make on my end. I’ve wanted to get into college coaching for a few years and this was the perfect timing," she said. "My husband has known that this is my passion and has been my biggest supporter in helping me pursue my dream."
It's a dream that began in earnest. Thomas-Dietrich moved to Springfield last Thursday and was on the recruiting trail less than two days later, watching for talent at the President's Day Classic held at the Dome in St. Louis.
Brad Dietrich, a paraprofessional, will remain in Belleville to care for their two children, 6-year-old Emma and 19-month-old Charlotte until the end of the current school year. That part of the transition won't be easy, Thomas-Dietrich said. Neither will leaving Althoff, where she helped the Crusaders to a third place state finish as a player her senior season.
"I'm going to miss the girls. They are all beautiful young ladies inside and out and we've had a great group of parents behind them," she said. "(Althoff principal) Dave Harris and (athletic director Greg) Leib have been wonderful to me over the years as well. "Althoff is a special family. Everyone genuinely cares about everyone. They are very supportive on my decision and opportunity but are sad to see me leave."
In addition to coaching at Althoff, Thomas-Dietrich left her job at Deli Start Corp in Fayetteville, where she worked in sales and marketing, event planning and customer experience.
As a player at Missouri State, Thomas-Dietrich helped the Bears to three NCAA Tournaments, including a trip to the second round in 2006, and won Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the year honors as a senior in 2007. Also a first-team all-MVC pick that season, she averaged 3.20 kills on .279 hitting, 3.45 digs and 1.23 blocks per set, finished her career with 797 kills, 1,117 digs, 316 blocks and 288 assists in 131 matches.
Thomas-Dietrich has taken that competitiveness to the bench, which is why Stokes said she hired her.
"She is one of the best six-rotation players I have ever coached. Being named Defensive Player of the Year in the Valley for being able to block and defend proves that," said Stokes in a university release. "She can train any position on the floor and will make an immediate impact in the development of both our middles and right sides.
"Her enthusiasm for coaching and passion for the Bears will make an impression on everyone she meets."