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‘The doors are opening’: Women’s volleyball on verge of championship title

If USF beats Rice on Wednesday, it could secure its first championship title in 21 years. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

Leading the USF women’s volleyball program to a division championship on Friday was a full circle moment for coach Jolene Shepardson. 

The last title USF (18-11, 12-6 AAC) won was in 2002 at the Conference USA Tournament when Shepardson was a Bulls player herself.

Shepardson said this season’s triumph has displayed one of her goals of rebuilding the game-winning culture she experienced during her time as a player.

“It’s happening,” Shepardson said. “We’re finally getting the work we put in and the attitude behind it is taking part now. It’s like seeing the light as the doors open. It feels amazing.”

USF will need to keep that momentum heading into Wednesday’s game against Rice. Rice (18-10, 12-6 AAC) currently ranks No. 3 in the West Division. 

Depending on where the teams rank in the conference after their final season match could determine if the title will be shared or not. 

To clinch the title entirely, FAU will have to lose against Tulane on Wednesday along with ECU losing both of its matches.

South Florida had a difficult start to Shepardson’s tenure as a coach. USF had a 23-52 record between the 2020-22 seasons. 

The Bulls’ dealt with external struggles, such as building a program at the start of the pandemic and injury-riddled players. 

“I believe everything happens at the right time and you never know why you’re going through the hard,” Shepardson said. “These young women have given me the courage to persevere and kept me determined.”

Her senior players and staff have stuck with her. Senior outside hitter Marta Cvitkovic has been with Shepardson for all four years. 

Shepardson said that newcomer senior middle blocker Niki Khoshatefeh, who transferred in 2022, brought balance to the Bulls with her confidence as a more experienced player.

USF’s strong mindset and chemistry this season has allowed the team to persevere against difficult opponents, Shepardson said. 

Playing with a persistent attitude is something else Shepardson gained during her time as a player. Her former teammates are seeing that spark again in the USF volleyball program.

“It’s very fulfilling and shows the direction we’re going,” Shepardson said. “They’re starting to enjoy fighting for the win. I’m connecting them emotionally so they know how to do that. It brings back a ton of memories.”

Although USF has made progress this season, Shepardson said the team is focused on blocking out any distractions come Wednesday.

“It’s not about ‘We could win this,’ it’s about going out there and giving our best and enjoying the moment of the competition together,” Shepardson said.