Winkeler hopes to rebuild

By Gus Bode

New coach happy to be at SIU, eager to begin season at San Diego State Invitational on Sept. 2

Brenda Winkeler’s honeymoon has started in Southern Illinois and will end when she touches down in San Diego.

You’d think it would be the other way around, but Winkeler has not become one with a person, she’s become one with a program.


Winkeler and her SIU volleyball squad will start what they hope to be a productive union Sept. 2 at the team’s opener versus University of California-Riverside at the San Diego State Invitational.

The former Eastern Illinois University head coach has spent at least five years at each of her previous three jobs, racking up wins. A 131-19 record in five years at Shiloh High School in Hume, Ill. A National Junior College Athletic Association national championship, along with 428 wins over 11 years at Parkland Community College in Champaign and leading EIU’s Panthers for the past five years.

Winkeler is not a love ’em and leave ’em type; she describes her self as a “player’s coach” who involves herself in all aspects of her player’s lives.

“I’ve always been an educator, this is only the second year out of my 20 year career that I haven’t taught,” Winkeler said. “I’m interested in developing a well-rounded player. I wanted to bring that to this level, being a person that really cares about the player’s development, it’s worked really well.”

Moving from one major state college to another begs the question “Why SIU?” as well as “Why now?”

Sure, she’s a Southern Illinois native (Bartelso) and has family at SIU (a nephew currently goes here “It’s about an hour from my whole family,” Winkeler said), but her 2004 team captured part of the Ohio Valley Conference title with 25 wins, three years after making a birth in the NCAA tournament. Is SIU actually a final destination for this coach?

“I’m very comfortable at this level,” Winkeler said while sitting in her roomy office in Lingle Hall, which looks good due to what has been two months of settling in since her June hiring.


“The Missouri Valley [Conference] is definitely somewhere where any volleyball coach would like to coach,” Winkeler said. “It’s a bigger conference than the Ohio Valley, it’s ranked higher as a conference. The location is also a place where I’ve recruited all my life.”

For many in that nomadic fraternity known as coaching, this has not been the case. SIU is often branded with the not so flattering labels of “mid-major” or “stepping stone.”

The turnover of hired and fired heads of Saluki programs has stayed consistent for many years and recently has been typified by the struggle for men’s basketball to hold on to someone.

It seems that they have with Chris Lowery; the same can be said for football with Jerry Kill and softball with Kerri Blaylock. Smaller sports like swimming, track and field, and men’s and women’s golf are also holding steady with tenured coaches.

The success of these teams is due in large part to having stable, secure coaches, but it is when the new coach smell wears off where coaches earn their reputation and contract extensions.

“One positive is that this group of six juniors makes a lot less mistakes,” Winkeler said. “A lot of them have played at least two years, so that’s encouraging.”

Traditionally SIU volleyball has been blessed with the kind of stability other programs could envy. Winkeler has become the sixth coach in volleyball’s 43-year run. Winkeler’s predecessor was Sonja Locke, a former volleyball star who became a Saluki Hall of Famer and led the program for 14 years, she currently is academic advisor for Saluki Athletics.

Locke didn’t end her career on a good note, going 9-21 in 2004, but she sees good things ahead.

“My expectations are that this season will be a good one,” Locke said. “They are more seasoned as players, they’re smarter players and more mature people. Most of them are juniors and seniors.”

Part of Locke’s positive vibes stem from what she sees as a natural progression for the upperclassmen coupled with an environment that can produce success.

“When you work with good people and are supported so that you can have a good program, those are the kind of things that you look for as a coach,” Locke said. “Once you find that, there isn’t any reason to move around.”

While those on the inside have managed to keep some reverence for the program, there hasn’t been much for outsiders to fear lately. That much is shown in the team’s 2004 record. A group full of sophomores and freshman struggled against the MVC and just about everyone else, including Winkeler’s Eastern team at the Saluki Invitational last September. Locke was ready to try something new, and the team was ready to try anything that would bring more wins.

“I really do want to win,” senior Marissa Washington said. “To get picked eighth [in Missouri Valley Conference pre-season polls] three years in a row, it shows that they don’t show you any respect. We have to go out there and show that we deserve respect and show off all that we’ve learned.”

In the end, this comes down to the adage that there is someone for everyone. Winkeler and Saluki volleyball are now together for better or worse, and the future of this proud program is at stake. The SIU block is full of happy homes right now, and as far as Winkeler is concerned, there is room for one more.

“It’s been a great transition, went a lot smoother than I thought it would be,” Winkeler said. “I tell my players that if they’re happy and we’re communicating, you usually do well.”

Reporter Kyle Means can be reached at [email protected]