Young Bulls begin quest for second straight banner

Jac’cara Walker is the lone senior on the Bulls this season. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

Prior to last season, USF volleyball coach Courtney Draper said her goal for 2018 was to hang a banner in The Corral for the first time since 2002.

Her Bulls then went 20-12 — USF’s highest win total since the program’s last NCAA Tournament appearance in the aforementioned banner season of 2002 — and received a bid to the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC), where they fell in the first round to Georgia Tech in five sets.

So with 2018’s mission accomplished, what’s Draper’s goal for 2019?

“Another banner,” Draper said. “Postseason was a lot of fun for our girls, and I think just having them have a taste of the NIVC was a really good experience.”

If another banner does go up in The Corral, senior outside hitter Jac’cara Walker is likely to be a big reason why. In her first season at USF after transferring from Marshall, Walker finished first on the Bulls and fourth in the AAC with 394 kills, leading the Bulls with 23 double-digit kill matches on her way to an All-AAC first-team selection.

And she’s expected to do it all again in 2019, as Walker was named to the preseason All-AAC team last week.

“She’s so impressive,” Draper said. “She challenges her teammates every single day to be better … She is bringing her A-game for her senior year. She’s really been impressive so far this preseason, and really spending a lot of time on her back. She’s, I think, improved significantly in her passing game.”

The lone senior on a roster that is 50 percent freshmen, Walker now has a unique leadership role on the team.

“Now it’s more of helping teach the freshmen and the sophomores about college volleyball,” Walker said. “I guess my goal is to help teach them and help them grow in their game.”

Despite the youth, Draper thinks this is her deepest team in her time at USF. Middle blocker Ally Barnhart is set to be one of the freshmen who will see a lot of playing time this year as Draper attempts to replace the departed Clara Payne, who was second on the team last season with 291 kills.

“My assistant sent me a list of 12 kids, ‘Go check out these 12 kids,’” Draper said, ‘And I was like, ‘No. No. No. No. I want that one [Barnhart]. She’s the one I want.’ And so we feel really lucky that we got her. Her mom actually played at Wichita State — volleyball and basketball there — so they’re familiar with the conference and high-level volleyball.

“And she has been tremendous in the preseason. Our strength coach is very impressed with her, our volleyball coaching staff is very impressed with her. I think she’s going to be a huge presence in the middle. Standing at 6’4”, you kind of can’t ignore that. She’s just going to get a lot of touches and be that presence that we need.”

Another newcomer to look out for is junior setter Rafaela Biegelmeyer, a transfer from St. Petersburg College.

“She is a fierce, fierce competitor, hates to lose, has a lot of questions in practice to make sure that she’s doing the right thing for her teammates,” Draper said. “Great personality. Her smile just lights up the gym … And she is left-handed, so at the net, it allows her to either attack or set the second ball. So she’s kind of a tricky kid to play against.

“She’s one of those that you’re happy that she’s on your team, and you don’t have to play against her.”

New to the AAC this year is a six-team postseason tournament to determine the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Prior to 2019, the regular-season champion automatically qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

The addition of the tournament, which will be played from Nov. 22-24 at The Venue at UCF in Orlando, should make an already competitive AAC that much better, according to Draper, as teams that would have been out of contention in previous years now still have something to play for as the season winds down.

“So even if someone’s No. 8 or 9, if the right things kind of fall their way in the last couple of weeks, they can still slide into the sixth spot in the tournament,” Draper said. “So I think it’s just going to make our league even more competitive than it already is.”

If the Bulls, who were picked to finish with the No. 6-seed in the 12-team AAC, are to make it to the conference tournament just up I-4, they’ll do it after traveling a decent number of miles. 

USF is on the road three straight weekends — granted, with a pair of home Tuesday matches against Jacksonville and North Florida — to open the season before finally facing Indiana (twice) and Stetson during the USF Invitational on Sept. 20 and 21. In the interim, the Bulls travel to Ball State, Miami and Florida to play not only the Cardinals, Hurricanes and Gators, but  UAB (in Muncie, Ind.), Auburn (in Coral Gables) and Long Beach State (in Gainesville).

“I liked the Ball State trip where we open for a few reasons,” Draper said. “RPI. I think those are going to be good if we can go 2-0 out of the gate on the road. I think that those are going to be really big RPI wins later in the year because I think that both of those teams [Ball State and UAB] should do really well in their conference.

“Second weekend, we were hosting and Miami was hosting, and we just kind of merged our tournaments. So obviously some competitive teams there. Third weekend in Gainesville. Jac’cara is our only senior, and she’s from Gainesville, so we felt like, ‘Let’s get her back home on her home court.’ And playing in the O-Dome is just a really fun experience. I did it as a player when I was playing at Florida State.”

Walker is just as excited as Draper for the opportunity to play in the O’Connell Center.

“I’m super excited,” Walker said. “Growing up in Gainesville, going to the Gator games and now being, obviously not playing for Florida, but being able to play in the O-Dome is super special. And having friends and family there is a great way to help send me off in my senior year.”

The trips to Gainesville and Coral Gables won’t be easy by any stretch, but as a team that plays in such a spread-out conference as the AAC, Draper and the Bulls appreciate the opportunity to play challenging opponents that are a bit closer to home during nonconference play.

“It’ll be a challenge for sure, but a lot of fun — and not too far,” Draper said. “Our conference travel schedule is so spread out and so difficult that we wanted to try and stay close as much as we could with competitive matches. So obviously Miami and Florida are great.”

The quest for a second straight banner starts Friday in Muncie, Indiana, against UAB. The Bulls’ first home match at The Corral is Sept. 10 against North Florida, and AAC play begins Sept. 27 at home against Temple.