Leah Johnson is more than just the new volleyball coach at Illinois State. She’s a juggler, learning to balance the roles of a Division I coach and as the mother of a 3-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old son.
“I’m juggling literally all day long every day and it’s a beautiful thing,” said Johnson. “Every mom, and parent for that matter, feels this way. You are always thinking about your children and you are always thinking about your student-athletes.
“To some degree it gives you balance. When you are with one, you try to always be with them. When my kids come to mind, I stop for a second and make a quick note then I get back on track because this is where my attention should be right now. It’s no different when I get home. I try to schedule my recruiting calls in the afternoon or after bedtime hours so that when I’m with my kids I’m fully present.”
Johnson added that her husband, who works for a law firm from St. Louis, is a big part of the juggling act.
"I couldn’t do it without my husband. He has been fantastic. He is very much about me pursuing my goals and vice versa,” Johnson continued. “We run a very equal household. There aren’t traditional roles. There are everyone’s roles and it is all hands on deck. I think that’s the best way to do it for us. He supports me as best he can and certainly there are times we both compromise when something has to give, but it’s been a really cool thing.”
Johnson, who hails from Springfield (Mo.), said many things attracted her to ISU.
“I played in the Missouri Valley (Conference) at Missouri State, and when I first started playing Illinois State was the premier program,” she said. “It was the team you had to beat if you were going to be anyone. I really had this idea of Illinois State being on the threshold above everyone. That had been kind of engrained in my head.
“I’ve watched the program grow. I love how well it is supported. I love how the administration gets behind the volleyball program and the rich tradition of women’s athletics. There are so many things that make this such a great place.”
Johnson added that her knowledge of the MVC and ISU is a benefit.
“The Missouri Valley now is at a place where people realize what a major volleyball conference it is,” she continued. “Having the knowledge in my situation of knowing how strong the conference is allows me to be prepared for how hard you have to work to win in this league.”
Johnson, who came to ISU after six seasons as the head coach at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, also inherited a strong nucleus of players from last year’s 17-15 team that was picked third in this year’s preseason poll. How does she approach that?
“Well, I think about it a lot,” she said with a laugh. “It’s stressful to some degree, but it’s exciting too. I think high expectations when you’re an athlete—me being a former athlete too—makes you rise to the occasion.
“I think we have a tremendous amount of talent. I think anyone could start on any given night. Our depth is very deep, so it allows me a lot of options and allows me to be creative and that plays to my strengths. So in that sense, I feel it’s a good pairing for me and the program.”
Johnson was named to replace Melissa Myers, who resigned after nine seasons, in mid-June, a relatively late time in volleyball circles with the season beginning in August. Johnson admits that presented challenges.
“Personally, I had a baby in March,” she said. “I was still on maternity leave when this job came open. I was still trying to get my bearings in that sense, on top of a 3-year-old. Personally, I had to re-set my mind. I wasn’t in the mindset of having to start over if you will. But this is one of those jobs you’d be crazy to say no to. That was my first challenge.
“The second challenge is the team knows they should be successful and they had their heads in a certain place when I arrived. They weren’t expecting a late change either. It was a matter of building trust as fast as you can.
“I think we all know that establishing trust can take some time and we just had to go in with an open mind and say we don’t have time to get our feet wet. It has to be blind trust from the beginning. That was the biggest obstacle to overcome first and I feel very good about where we’re at there.”
How is she going about building trust?
“It’s conversations; it’s relationships; it’s sticking to your word as much as you can,” she offered. “When you say something you follow through. You give people the benefit of the doubt when they can’t, so they know you’re on their side and that you have their back.”
Johnson also had to learn the personalities of her players.
“I met with their parents before the Red-White scrimmage and I told them I had only had two weeks with this squad,” she continued. “But I told them I would go back and recruit them all again. They have been so impressive in the way they carry themselves, who they are and what they stand for.
“It’s going to be a season-long learning curve. As much as they are trying to show their true colors, they’re trying to learn mine. We’re working through that pretty quickly and quite well. I’ve been very pleased with how open-minded they are.”
Longtime ISU volleyball fans will also notice some changes in the Redbirds’ style of play.
“One of the biggest changes you’ll see is that we are trying to run a more balanced offense,” Johnson said. “Jaelyn Keene obviously carries a lot of weight for us and she will all season. But to allow her a little relief, we want to spread the ball more.
“We also want to speed things up especially to our hitters on the outside and the right side, so we’re setting our offense a bit faster. I tend to counter flow a bit more or use different options situationally than most people would.”
Despite a 2-4 record after its first six matches, Johnson likes where the team is at this point.
“I had expectations we would be good, but I didn’t know where we would be right away,” said Johnson. “I knew I was going to introduce some things that would be different. They were going to have to earn their starting spots differently and that was going to add stress early that they would have to work through. But I feel good about where we are.”
You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Johnson:
WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.