Last year, head volleyball coach Courtney Draper wanted to test her squad’s tenacity. The result: an 11-21 overall record and a ninth place finish in the 11-member AAC.
Though critics of the team might look at this season as a regression from the team’s 14-18 record the previous year, Draper said there were other factors at play such as poor luck with injuries and a decision to increase the quality of non-conference competition.
“We were playing the best teams in the country,” Draper said. “We played Nebraska, who won the National Championship last year, and we had set point on them two times, so we can compete on that really high level. We also hosted Penn State, who had won the National Championship the previous year.”
To be clear, she said, in no way were last year’s on-paper results a step back for the team or damaging to the image of the program.
“Scheduling last year played a part in our record … and I think that’s how teams get better is by playing that tough competition,” Draper said. “So from a coaching staff standpoint, we really wanted to push our kids to compete at the highest level.”
Draper said she has no regrets about the scheduling and felt the upsurge in competition paid dividends, specifically in the form of a 3-sets-to-1 win over AAC champion SMU in the penultimate game of the season. More importantly, it was by no means a fluke win.
“SMU played well, if you look at the stat sheet it’s not like, ‘Oh, they had a bad night’ or, ‘they didn’t take it seriously,’ they played very well,” Draper said. “It was the best that we had played all year.”
One major factor that gives Draper, her staff, and the entire team resolute confidence in their ability to improve upon last year’s record is the makeup of their roster. With six seniors, five juniors — including one redshirt — and a redshirt sophomore, the team is stacked with upperclassmen leadership.
However, it is to junior starting setter Alex Mendoza that coaches and teammates point as the glue of the team, with her position making her the “quarterback” in the team’s offensive strategy. But it is perhaps her work in the offseason that sets her apart in her coach’s eyes.
“For being the youngest of the leadership crew, she really motivates her team. She ran all the open gyms throughout the summer, and really holds her teammates accountable,” Draper said. “She was the one picking the drills, helping to prepare the young kids, it’s everything you want in your leadership.”
Specifically, she knows how to toe the line between motivation and disrespect when she feels a teammate is not performing up to their capabilities. It’s really her time off the court that makes her such a unique leader on a team full of upperclassmen.
“We did a team-bonding day where we did some rope course and played some team-bonding games, it’s really fun to … see the team members’ personalities in a different kind of way,” Mendoza said.
The team’s 12-day volleyball-centered excursion to Europe was something neither she nor the team said they will ever forget. Mendoza said their experience there will directly contribute to the team’s success during the upcoming season.
“We got to sight-see together and really share an unforgettable experience, and you won’t ever forget the people that you were with,” Mendoza said. “Also playing volleyball together over there, I think we found a really good team chemistry.”
Though some stops on the trip included Italy, Prague and Czech Republic, among others, the consensus favorite destination was Slovenia.
While team chemistry will undoubtedly play a role in the 2016 Bulls’ success, senior transfer T’ara Austin — the 2015 Mid-American Conference Player of the Year for Northern Illinois — will provide a boost at the outside hitter position.
Austin has quickly found her voice, and a more cohesive unit, in her relatively short time on campus with her new team.
“We would win games (at NIU), but I wasn’t as tight with the girls as I am with the girls here,” Austin said. “I’ve only been here for a couple months and I already trust like half the girls on the squad with my life. I love it here and I love the chemistry that we have.”
While she’s done her best not to ruffle any feathers as the newbie on an already tight-knit squad, she’s quickly found her voice on and off the court.
But first, she had to prove herself.
“Just like coming in as a freshman, the girls are going to be sweet to you, but once you get on the court, that’s how they show that you’ve got to earn this spot, show (them) why you’re here, show (them) that you want to play,” Austin said.
Despite coming from a winning culture at Northern Illinois, Austin, as well as the rest of the Bulls, knows reaching their ultimate goal of a conference championship will be no easy task.
“Here, the girls are more physical,” Austin added. “They’re taller, they’re stronger; The ethic and the expectations here are higher.”
And after being predicted to finish ninth in the conference yet again, Draper said she sees a fire in her team that has translated into harder practices and, hopefully, more wins.
Her tangible measure of what would make this a successful season: 20 wins, a mark USF volleyball has never reached before.
“The other coaches in our conference put us ninth out of 11, and our kids were fired up,” Draper said. “Returning all of our point scorers and finishing the way we did with SMU last year, I think that people don’t realize how much talent is in our gym, I think it’s going to be a fun season.”