USF volleyball receives postseason invitation

Jac'cara Walker (6) earned all-conference honors alongside Clara Payne en route to USF's first postseason run since 2002. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

USF volleyball (20-11, 9-9) is having its best season since 2002 when it won Conference USA and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Winners of 20 matches for the first time since that season, USF now gets the chance to extend its season for the first time in 16 years. The Bulls begin play in postseason competition this week for the first time since that 2002 season after receiving a bid to the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC) on Sunday.

The appearance will be USF’s 10th posteseason appearance and second in the NIVC, which was revived in 2017 after being dormant since 1995.

“It’s just really special — there’s really not words for it,” coach Courtney Draper said. “I think one of the best parts is it’s such an enjoyable group. Two or three weeks ago, I was saying, ‘We’re just having so much fun. I don’t want it to end. Let’s just keep it going.’ Because it is a special group of seniors, and just a delightful incoming freshman class. Everything just kind of meshed together really nicely the way we always hoped it would.”

Draper, in her seventh season at the helm of the Bulls, collected her 100th victory at USF on Sept. 14. She looks at this postseason invitation as a beginning — it’s not the ultimate tournament USF wants to find itself in, but she said it’s a start.

“This is so important. As you look in our gym, the last time we were at the NIVC was 1994,” Draper said. “And then in ‘95, ‘96, ‘97, ‘98 — we started going to the NCAA Tournament. So, we look at this as a springboard to get to the NCAA Tournament, because obviously that is the ultimate goal.”

The Bulls have been led by junior outside hitter Jac’cara Walker and senior middle blocker Clara Payne. Walker finished the regular season with a team-high 360 kills and 14 double-doubles. Payne collected 274 kills and 111 blocks and this season became the seventh player in program history to reach 400 career blocks.

The duo was recognized by the AAC on Tuesday for their performances this season. Walker was named to the All-AAC first team, while Payne was named to the second team. USF had not had an all-conference player since 2015.

“It’s exciting,” Walker said. “My goal is to have the team do good, but it’s nice to be individually recognized.”

Walker, Payne and the rest of the resurgent USF program travel to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech on Thursday at 7 p.m. The Yellow Jackets are one of eight schools hosting the first two rounds of the tournament. Georgia Tech (17-14, 6-12) holds a 3-2 series lead, with the last meeting coming in 2015.

“It’s fun to play a Power Five school for postseason,” Draper said. “I played at Florida State, so I played in that gym lots of times. It’s very similar to The Corral, actually. Obviously, not too far to travel. I think we’re really excited and ready to go.”

The Yellow Jackets are coached by USF’s most-decorated alum, Michelle Collier. Collier, a member of the 2002 Conference USA championship team, is the only USF volleyball player to have her number retired and was the first volleyball player inducted into USF’s Hall of Fame. Prior to being named coach at Georgia Tech in 2014, she spent 2008 and 2009 at USF as assistant coach.

“When I was playing at Florida State, Michelle Collier was playing here at USF,” Draper said. “She beat me many times as player-to-player, so hopefully the result will be different coach-to-coach.”

The winner of USF vs. Georgia Tech will face the winner of the College of Charleston vs. St. John’s in the second round of the single-elimination tournament Friday at 7 p.m. in Atlanta.