Ella Collins had just returned from her official visit to Eastern Illinois along with the school’s other recruits in the class of 2020. The next day, they found out head coach Julie Allen wouldn’t be returning.
Collins, a senior outside hitter at Lakeside Lutheran, delayed her official signing before speaking with the team’s new coach, Sara Thomas.
On Friday at Lakeside Lutheran High School, Collins made it official, signing a National Letter of Intent to play volleyball at Eastern Illinois University.
“That came as a big shock,” Collins said of the coaching change. “They wanted to make the right decision so they knew it was going to take a little bit. The coach wasn’t really what was keeping me there. I liked a lot of other things at the school. I thought it was still going to be the right decision but wanted to talk to the new coach before I signed.”
After spending time researching prospective schools across all three NCAA divisions, she realized playing volleyball at the Division I level was a high priority and EIU was the only institution at that level to express interest.
“I liked the campus and the feel of everything. I really liked the old coach,” Collins said. “(Sara Thomas) has a great mindset and ideas for the team. The academics are really good and I got into the honors college. The volleyball was the level of play I wanted, so I’m really excited for that.”
Eastern Illinois, located in Charleston, Ill., halfway between St. Louis and Indianapolis, competes in the Ohio Valley Conference.
In four years as a Warrior, Collins, a Lake Mills native, won a WIAA Division 2 state championship in 2017 and was on the state runner-up team a year before.
This season, Collins was named Capitol North Player of the Year, totaling 419 kills, and helped Lakeside defeat state top-ranked Lake Country Lutheran in the sectional semifinals before falling in five sets against McFarland in the finals. In Collins’ career, the Warriors were 142-29.
“The year we won state was a huge year. Everyone one the team, that whole senior class was an inspiration to me,” Collins said. “My sister (Sophia) was always there to help and encourage me. Amber Rowoldt, Kaitlyn Gehler and Ellie Westrate are insane volleyball players and great leaders. If I ever had a question, I could go to them. If I was losing my confidence, they could pick me up.
“When I watched them play, I knew I wanted to do what they were doing. As a senior, I felt I was able to take that leadership role and inspire the others on the court. I’ve had others tell me I was able to become like some of the people that inspired me so much.”
Collins, who also plays on the 18 Black team for Milwaukee Sting, credits both squads for helping transform her game and mental approach.
“High school has helped me grow as a player. I came in as a freshman and was terrified,” Collins said. “I had no confidence. Club helped me a lot these last two years. I played up my freshman year in club, which helped me work with older girls and get confidence to play with those older than me.
“The coaches realized I was terrified my freshman year. They tried to make it as comfortable for me as possible. They weren’t scared to yell at me if I was messing up. Fundamentally and mentally, I improved.”
Collins is thankful for the Lakeside Lutheran community from the supportive fans to teammates to coaches for helping provide a meaningful experience on and off the floor.“I enjoyed the Christian atmosphere (of a Lutheran high school),” she said. “Just knowing everyone had the same faith I did and everyone showed it on and off the court. That meant a lot to me.
“We were successful, but we also had that which made me comfortable every day. In the wins and losses, we knew we needed to praise God for all our blessings. That was something I really liked to have.”