Junior Emelie Orlando jumps for the ball.

Junior Emelie Orlando jumps for the ball.

Despite being in graduate school 1,500 miles away at Stanford, one of the best players for the Missouri State volleyball program said she was “incredibly sad” to see Melissa Stokes’ career end after nearly 25 years as the head coach in August. 

Lily Johnson, who is a four-time All-American and and three-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, said Stokes is one of those people from Missouri State she will always hold near and dear to her heart. 

“She took a chance on me as an undersized outside hitter in high school and didn’t stop believing in me since the day I received my first recruiting letter from Missouri State,” Johnson said. “She developed me as an athlete and shaped me into the woman I am today.”

Stokes resigned on Aug. 12 following an investigation into the program for NCAA violations. 

The investigation found three NCAA violations including allowing a non-qualifier to accompany the team during a foreign tour without personally paying all costs associated with the tour, allowing currently enrolled players to participate in volleyball camps and providing additional financial aid to student-athletes in the form of  reduced or free living. 

Stokes is the winningest coach in Missouri Valley Conference history. She spent 23 seasons as the Bears’ head coach and helped Missouri State to 10 NCAA Tournament appearances. 

Johnson signed with Missouri State to play in 2014 and graduated after a historic career in 2017. After finding out about Stokes’ resignation through a press release on Twitter, she said she gave her former coach some space during the investigation. 

Since the news broke a few months ago, Johnson was able to chat with Stokes a few times. Johnson knows Stokes is still busy, so they don’t keep in touch as much as people think, the former player said. 

“I’m okay with that,” Johnson said. “She is a lifelong mentor and friend to me. No amount of time will change our relationship or my ability to turn to her for anything.”

Johnson also said she hopes to get the opportunity to reconnect with Stokes face-to-face in the future.

For now, Johnson said she respected Stokes’ decision to resign and will support her wherever she ends up. 

“That’s what she’s always done for me.”

Impact of losing a program pillar

The volleyball program has proved to be one of the winningest teams in the sport, ranking fifth in the entire NCAA with 1,267 wins as a program entering this season. They trail only Nebraska, UCLA, Brigham Young and Penn State. 

Wins have been harder to come by this season for Missouri State. The Bears are on pace to have their first losing since 1998 and their first season in which they finish 10 or more games below .500 in program history. 

“It’s been a learning and growing process for everyone, “ interim head coach Manolo Concepción said last month. “I am lucky to be surrounded by this group of great players and great learners. We are still not done with the first round of the MVC. 

“We are still in the fight. We are still in the battle. The girls are coming in every single day to battle like it was the first day. I’m excited about that.”

Johnson also said she keeps tabs on the team and is aware the team is having a tough time navigating through the season. 

“You have to keep in mind they had a dramatic change in their program just days before their preseason training began,” Johnson said. “That is a difficult adjustment to make for any team. I think that alone speaks volumes about Coach’s impact on the program, university and community.”

Johnson said she’s also “great friends” with the new coaching staff that includes Concepción and sisters Sara Thomas-Dietrich and Carly Thomas. She said she respects how hard they are working to create a smooth transition to continue building the legacy of the volleyball program. 

“They have started to hit their stride in the last few weeks,” Johnson said. “I can’t wait to follow them through the rest of their season.”

Johnson, who leads the program in kills and attacks, said she will always be a loyal fan of the Bears even through the tough times. She said she is confident in the future of the program. 

“We don’t say ‘nce a Bear, always a Bear’ for nothing,” Johnson said. “I am confident that moving forward, the individuals who lead the team in the many years to come will hold the spirit of our program’s tradition close to their heart and keep Missouri State on the map on a national scale.”

The volleyball team has a 9-20 overall record and are 6-9 in MVC play, which ranks seventh in the conference. The Bears play at Evansville and Indiana State from Nov. 15-16 next weekend.