With the 2023 season underway, the NIVC looks at some of the programs off to a notable start as we track the depth and competitive excellence found throughout D-I volleyball.
by Kyle Koso
Volleyball coaches aren’t wired to whimper about a roster that is profoundly young and unseasoned and requires extra attention when it comes to getting a game plan in motion. Heck, that can provide some of the greatest satisfaction in the job.
However, on those stray seasons when an ocean of experienced athletes fills the locker room and most every topic in terms of positioning and attitude and culture has long been ingested … yeah, that’s feel pretty good, too.
Running the show in 2023 at Southeast Missouri State for head coach Julie Yankus has been a matter of running out a lineup she can trust in all situations and conditions, with the Redhawks fulfilling their promise with a 16-4 record, 8-1 in the Ohio Valley Conference. It’s a good time to be feeling confident and capable, as SEMO has a big assignment this weekend with two road matches against Eastern Illinois (19-2, 9-1 OVC) that easily could dictate who earns the regular season title and the top seed in the OVC tournament.
The Redhawks will go to work backed by stalwarts like Tara Beilsmith, the fifth-year libero who is the OVC’s career leader in digs and well on her way to finishing in the NCAA all-time top 10. The drum keeps beating thanks to senior Marisa Guisti (a transfer from Bulter) and her 210 kills; senior Kayla Closset has 179 kills and fifth-year middle Talia Gouard has added 118 kills.
Senior setter Izzy Lukens keeps it in balance (697 assists) – all these assets have allowed SEMO to figure out the lingering questions without dropping too many matches.
“You don’t have to analyze who’s going to play today, what’s the lineup … we are pretty smooth, even if there are some positions where players are fighting for spots, who will fill a role consistently,” said Yankus, who is in her 13th year as SEMO head coach and guided the squad to NCAA tournament appearance in 2019 and 2021. “Having the core group that is so experienced has led this team to some great seasons, and that puts me at ease. We still work to figure out our right side, but while we have depth and experience everywhere else. We have options in quite a few positions and can tinker if we want to.
“Tara – she will notice things. The other team adapts, and we have to respond. We may have planned something and she’ll say, that’s not working, I want to shift it. We talk about and end up saying yes, we change it. The middles are great talking with each other, and it’s a very collective effort. They just see things, being fourth- and fifth-year players.”
The good times of 2023 definitely sprung from the sour conclusion of 2022, a wildly inconsistent year where the Redhawks changed offenses late and, as a No. 5 seed in the OVC tournament, had a chance to win it and go back to the NCAA’s. But a five-set loss to UT Martin (the No. 6 seed) doused the fire.
“We had a great season in 2021, then lost a lot of seniors and didn’t know how 2022 would look. There was a lot of adversity early on with injuries and figuring out the lineup,” Yankus said. “At the end of the season we turned to a 5-1 for the first time ever, last weekend of the regular season and into the tournament and obviously, it was the answer for us. It was tough to come up short. We talked all offseason how we never want to feel like we did after that final point, being on the losing end, that was a tough moment. It was fuel to work hard in the offseason, to continue to build a championship mindset. This team has done a great job.”
All the savvy on her roster didn’t keep Yankus from recruiting with a purpose, and she clearly landed on a key part of the future with Lucy Arndt, who leads the team with 256 kills as a freshman. Arndt was a somewhat hidden gem, starring at tiny Aquin Catholic High School in Freeport, IL (population 24,000).
“We did get her early, saw a lot of promise and wanted her to commit before many other schools were seeing how she was developing,” Yankus said. “It’s great to see her pan out and have such a remarkable season. Her ability to adapt; the other weekend they kept digging her and I said, hey shift over here, approach it this way, and the next swing she does it exactly and scores two points. Most seniors can’t do that, make the adjustments so quickly. We are very excited to see what the future holds.”
Just as the Redhawks are excited about what this weekend holds. Eastern Illinois wasn’t picked to be an OVC force this year, but it does have two players who already have almost 300 kills.
“Looking at the opponents they have the rest of the way and our schedule, this weekend is probably a battle for first place. If one team goes 2-0, it will likely be a pivotal moment and very well may determine who is the regular season champions,” Yankus said. “If we split, then it’s up in the air. It is an important weekend. They are very solid and have a lot of weapons; if we can slow those weapons down … when you’re facing five attackers on the court, it’s tough to slow them down. I think we match up fine in a lot of ways, and it will be a battle every set and probably every point.”
Yankus is fully aware that in seasons to come, it will take a lot more heavy lifting to get the roster functioning with as much efficiency as the SEMO 2023 edition. Without being too distracted about how that future might play out, she’s making sure to treasure the present.
“Senior weekend is almost here; I’ve been planning it out, the gifts and videos, and that’s making me think about all those who are graduating and how it’ll be such a big change,” she added. “I want to appreciate the moments; we have so many great personalities and these are people I’ve been around for six years in some cases. You can get a little emotional, but there’s a lot of work still to do.”