HAMMOND -- It took a while to get there, but Karlee Wilkerson and Patrick White are finally in the same place at the same time.
And they’re both hoping that means some positive things for the Southeastern Louisiana volleyball team.
Wilkerson is a former Springfield standout who transferred to SLU after spending last season at Louisiana-Monroe, while White is gearing up for his first season as the Lady Lions’ coach.
“I think a lot of the recruiting process, it’s kind of about finding your place – finding your new home,” White said. “Some kids find it quick. Some kids take a little bit longer, maybe have to transfer a little bit or something, but it all ends up working out in the end, usually.”
Wilkerson, who was an All-District 10-2A selection all four years of her high school career and was the league MVP her final two seasons, signed with Louisiana-Monroe after her senior year.
Things were a bit different from the start for Wilkerson as Patrick Hiltz, who started recruiting her during her junior year, wound up resigning and spending last season as an assistant coach at Blinn College in Texas.
“He (Hiltz) had asked me to follow him to whatever school he went to, but I loved Monroe too much to leave it,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson stayed put when ULM hired Russ Freidman to replace Hiltz, which she said was an adjustment for all.
“You’re safe your freshman year, but after that, anything can happen,” Wilkerson said. “This was his first head-coaching job, so he was still learning from us as a team and how everything worked. He did a good job. He was a good person, but I wasn’t used to his coaching style quite yet, but being a D-I athlete, you have to adjust to everything and you really can’t say much or do much about it because it’s not your say-so.”
Wilkerson said adjusting to college was about learning to “grow up” more than anything after just turning 18 as she started school.
“My mom left and it was just (having to) do everything on your own – wake up, feed yourself, do your laundry,” Wilkerson said. “Just being responsible for you and your mental health was really important because the game can get tough, and you really have to rely on yourself pretty much.”
She said she was also trying to make a positive impression on veteran players and a coach who didn’t recruit her.
“When you’re in college, everyone expects the freshmen to come in and just take everyone’s spots because we’re the freshest off the club game and we’ve just done the most playing,” Wilkerson said. “I kind of had to live up to those standards. Just being around the competition made me just want to eat everybody up.”
That helped Wilkerson get off to a fast start with the Lady Warhawks, turning in season highs in points (13.5), kills (9) total blocks (8) in a 3-1 win over Mississippi State on Aug. 24.
She turned in a solid freshman season, finishing with 83 points and 37 blocks, but she missed almost a month late in the season after shin splits led to a stress fracture in her foot.
“I would wear a boot throughout the day, and then I’d take it off and practice and play, but it kind got to the point where it drains you because you know you can’t play as good and the other girls are stronger than you, obviously, because you’re hurt,” Wilkerson said. “It just gets tough.
“You’ll do anything if you want to play,” Wilkerson continued.
But between the injury and the coaching change, Wilkerson said she had an idea her time in Monroe was winding down.
“Towards the end, I kind of just told my mom, ‘I don’t feel like this is where I need to be.’”
Wilkerson’s departure from the ULM volleyball program was solidified after going through her exit meeting with coaches.
“We just kind of came to the conclusion that it would be best if I just left for my own sake and for the future,” Wilkerson said. “It was a better choice for me.”
Her path to Southeastern started once her name was placed on the NCAA transfer portal.
“When you do that, every coach can see you and see everything about you pretty much, and they can contact you,” Wilkerson said. “Literally, the day I got put on there, I had three coaches reach out to me.”
Wilkerson said she received contact from 18 school after entering the portal, but a simple twist of fate ultimately led to her to signing with Southeastern.
“It was funny because Jeremy came from Northwestern Oklahoma State and my old club coach (Danny Tullis) texted me and he said, ‘I have a friend named Jeremy at Northwestern Oklahoma State that has (scholarship) money for you and would like for you to come play for him,’” Wilkerson said. “I just told my mama, ‘I don’t know if I want to go to Oklahoma. You know, there’s not much out there.’”
Around the same time, Wilkerson’s mother, Dawn, told her daughter of a coaching change at Southeastern and suggested she email the new coach.
At the time, Wilkerson didn’t realize the coach was White, who knew of Wilkerson because of her club volleyball background with WD Nation Adidas while he was recruiting coordinator at McNeese State. White said he was looking at Wilkerson before leaving Northwestern Oklahoma to take the SLU job after Jim Smoot retired.
“I emailed him, and about five minutes later, he called me,” Wilkerson said, noting White gave her a little grief for not signing to play for him in Oklahoma in favor of coming back home. “He was really, really happy – like open arms. We set up a meeting, and I came and checked out the campus and then committed.”
White said Wilkerson is a perfect fit for the Southeastern program, which is trying to keep local talent in the area.
“We had some positions available, and even better, we actually had a void of athletes in her class, too, so it kind of helped us out and kind of balanced us a little bit more,” White said. “She’s a big, physical kid. She’s going to be able to help our program get better. Having an opportunity to get a kid like that while you have the chance to grab them, you do it.”
White is hoping Wilkerson can make an immediate impact for the Lions.
“Karlee is kind of a versatile athlete for us,” White said. “She’s a kid who can play in the middle or the opposites (hitter) position. She’s a big, physical kid – big arm, big, heavy arm with a big block, so … we’re kind of looking at her being able to be hopefully a primary point scorer on the right, or if we need her in the middle, we might transition her there. She played on the opposite position for us on the right in the spring. She scored pretty well, and we’re hoping that a little more time and consistency from our ball control and our setting will allow us to utilize her a little bit more, too.”
The biggest challenge Wilkerson may face this season is learning a new position at the college level after playing outside hitter at ULM.
“I’d really, really prefer to play right side like I did at Monroe just because I have more experience there,” Wilkerson said. “Back when he wanted to recruit me, I was a middle blocker. In college, it’s kind of hard to take two or three years off from that position and then bounce back because it is the hardest position on the court by far. There’s so much movement. Middles are always big – much bigger than me. I’m not saying I can’t do it because he hates that word ‘can’t’, but I would prefer to not do it, and he knows that. If he wants me to, I’ll try it. You’ve always got to try it.”
Wilkerson, however, is ready for a fresh start as the Lady Lions look to bounce back from a 2-27 season last year.
“I’m excited to see if I can bring a good work ethic, and we have really good freshmen that are coming in, too,” Wilkerson said. “I think the competition is going to be good, and the returners are going to see how things happen when you need to rebuild. Coach is really, really ready, and he’s already told us plenty of times it’s going to be tough, but he has really high expectations because he’s been very successful at his past schools.
“We put a lot of faith in him and we trust him, so I’m pretty sure things are going to turn out pretty good.”