Bulls aim for historic start

Senior Dakota Hampton is one of three Bulls with Chicago roots. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

USF volleyball enters the weekend one victory away from tying the record for consecutive wins to open a season, set by the 2000 squad. 

With the Bulls set to travel to Chicago for the DePaul Invitational beginning Friday, what would seem like a road trip for the Bulls will provide a chance for some of their Illinois-based recruits to play in front of friends and family.

The Bulls open the weekend tournament at 6-0, having swept their first three opponents at the season-opening Charlotte Invitational. They then went on to beat Western Carolina, New Mexico, and Stetson — all home games — by a combined margin of nine sets to one. 

“Part of our program’s goal is to get kids back to their hometown … to play in front of their hometown crowd,” USF coach Courtney Draper said. “I think that it helps in the recruiting area, as well, knowing that if you come play for us that we’re going to hopefully get back to the closest Division-I university (near your hometown) that we can compete with.”

Draper credits a number of factors for her team’s early success — a winning streak that defies the Bulls’ predicted ninth place finish by AAC coaches. 

She sees great value in the relative abundance of seniors, whose mix of six distinct personalities have made for competitive practices that have translated into the six straight victories.

“Dakota (Hampton) has obviously been hot on offense,” Draper said. “Elyse Panick passing and digging, and her back row play — as well as her blocking — but particularly her back row play, has kept us at the top of our game.”

Hampton, Panick and senior transfer T’ara Austin all have roots in either Chicago proper or a nearby suburb. Moreover, Panick and Hampton have a close personal tie with a member of their first opponent in the DePaul Invitational.

“One of my good friends that I used to play with on my club team (DePaul middle blocker Jasmine King) with me and Elyse Panick, she’s going to be blocking us, so that’s going to be really, really fun,” Hampton said. “I’m from Chicago, and I’m going to have about 30 people there watching me and my team compete, so I’m really excited for DePaul.”

However, with a tight schedule including an 8 p.m. contest Friday against DePaul and two Saturday matches (11 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.) there is not going to be much time for Hampton, Panick and Austin to give their teammates a tour of their home city.

Aside from planned dinners at Panick’s and Hampton’s respective family homes, the DePaul Invitational falls strictly into the category of “business trip,” according to Hampton.

Draper is originally from Chicago herself, making this trip a special one for her, as well. 

The goal is to come out victorious against all three opponents, but Draper admits the anticipated support from friends and family will help their cause.

“Opening with DePaul is definitely going to be a challenge, their athletes are pretty physical, I think we are similar-type teams,” Draper said. “I would expect that we would have a pretty nice crowd, even though we’ll be the visiting team.”