While a roller coaster is a perfect destination if you’re headed out with a group of friends, it’s not an ideal location for a volleyball program to reside.
Hanging on as best she could, but always confident of the direction, has been South Florida coach Courtney Draper, whose team bounced back from an arduous 2017 campaign to win 20 matches this year and claim a berth in the 2018 National Invitational Volleyball Championship, the first postseason appearance for the Bulls since 2002.
In her seventh year at USF, Draper has kept her faith and focus even as the program went 17-15 in 2013, 11-21 in 2015, up to 19-13 in 2016, then back down to 12-18 last season. The roster experienced some churn to the tune of five freshmen and five transfers when Draper determined the mix was wrong, and all those pieces fell together nicely in 2018.
There was one stretch of three straight American Athletics Conference losses, and four of five, but USF settled in and figured out how to handle the pressure, going 7-3 in five-set matches.
“We graduated five seniors after 2015; we were rebuilding last year and spent time working through personality challenges, so we made some roster changes,” said Draper, who will watch her Bulls (20-11) take on host Georgia Tech (17-14) in today’s opening round of the NIVC, with the winner facing College of Charleston or St. John’s. “Obviously, it paid off this season. We have a lot of young contributors this year; the 2018 class was one of the first nationally recognized recruiting classes we’ve had since I’ve been here.
“The worst of it was three losses in a row, all of them close matches and competitive. It’s interesting because we’ve been a little more successful on the road than at home. We had some matches not go our way, and with us starting three freshmen you’re going to have some ups and downs and inconsistencies.”
Those three freshmen are libero CC Clausen, setter Lauren Labeck (who was hurt most of the summer but got up to speed in impressive fashion) and Lindsey Pliapol (208 kills). The team is also blessed with a range of talents in junior Jac’cara Walker (375 kills), senior Clara Payne (280 kills) and sophomore Jaeden Brown (264 kills, 141 total blocks).
“I think we are a fairly low-error team; in rally scoring you can’t afford to be giving up a lot of points, you make them earn them,” Draper said. “We’re top-3 in hitting percentage in our league, and our blocking has improved greatly – we’ve spent a lot of time working on that. Those are the biggest improvements since last year.”
Walker missed a bit of the season with a concussion, but she earned all-AAC first-team honors, and Payne made the second team. It was the first time since 2013 that the Bulls put two players in the postseason honors circle. Walker is in her first year at USF after two seasons with Marshall; once word got out that she wanted to return to her native Florida, Draper had a pitch ready to go.
“She was voted captain here in her first year, which speaks to how she’s looked at on and off the court,” Draper said. “She was the 2015 Florida Gatorade player of the year, so I wasn’t surprised at all by the year she had. I wanted her out of high school, but the recruiting timeline didn’t work out. Then I heard she was available and looking and wanted to get back to Florida. She came to us last spring, and that semester gave her the opportunity to get comfortable in the system and with the girls in our program. In the fall, it all became pretty seamless.”
The Georgia Tech matchup has an intriguing backstory, as the Yellow Jackets are coached by Michelle Collier, arguably the best player ever to suit up for USF and the key member of the team when the Bulls were last in the postseason. Draper, who played at Florida State in the same era, faced off against Collier many times.
Draper has her own cool backstory, as she was a walk-on for the Seminoles who eventually earned a scholarship. When she took her first head coaching job at Jacksonville, she was at age 25 the youngest D-I coach in the country.
“The biggest thing is I treat all our players the same. I don’t want people outside our program to be able to tell who is and who is not a scholarship player,” she added. “Every player should be treated with respect and have the opportunity to earn playing time, and we coach them the same. This team is really good at being a team; everyone is accepting of their role and pushes hard at practice.
“There’s an appreciation for the kids who aren’t on scholarship – they are here because they really love it and want to be part of the program. I like our mentality right now."