May 19, 2014, 10:59 AM EDT
Expectations were high for the College of Charleston volleyball team entering the 2013 season despite entering a completely different conference, facing new competition and dealing with unique traveling schedules during its first season in the CAA.
Even as a newcomer, the Cougars were picked to finish first in the league during the preseason and earned respect quickly from their new CAA members by claiming 11 consecutive conference wins (and 21 victories overall), before losing their first CAA match.
Coach Jason Kepner tested his team in non-conference play and managed to keep the ‘Cougs humble as the squad went on to win both the regular season and conference title en route to their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance — second consecutive — under his direction. CofC has now impressively won 13 straight conference regular season or tournament titles (dating back to its time in the Southern Conference), the second-longest streak in Division I.
CofC still has work to do in preparation for 2014, seeing as the team must replace the 2013 Player of the Year (Darcy Dorton) and a couple of other key seniors due to graduation.
The CAA recently caught up with coach Kepner for a Q/A. Seen below, Kepner talks about the past season, new challenges his team faces, why choose Charleston, even admits his favorite places to eat in the Cougars’ hometown.
CAA: Now that 2013 is over, is it nice (strange)? To look back on the year and how solid it was for the Cougars as first-year league members?
JK: It is definitely nice to look back and reflect on our first year in the CAA. Winning both the regular season and tournament in our first year in the league is a story book ending to the season. I couldn’t have asked for more for our transition to the CAA.
CAA: Your team nearly ran through league play unblemished. Comment on some of the new challenges you’re looking forward to as a coach for 2014.
JK: Every year you start 0-0 and there are always changes on our team and on all the teams in the conference. We graduate a large portion of our starting line up so getting everyone on the same page early on is always a challenge. Building off of what we learned last year about the teams in the CAA and the addition of Elon will make for a fun year two.
CAA: How much of what took place last fall related to players like Darcy Dorton or Emily Neideffer providing leadership?
JK: Darcy and Emily were a huge part of keeping the team focused and moving in the right direction. Their leadership was just what the team needed with the transition. But we were also fortunate to have two other senior starters, Taeler (Davis) and Kerstin (Koehler), and a lot of other returning juniors from our last season. It was very veteran led team.
CAA: Do you expect many young and so called up-and-coming girls to fill that void quickly following a season like last year?
JK: It is always hard to replace four starters but I am pretty confident that we have a good group of young players who are ready to make a big impact next season. They have learned a lot of the graduating seniors and I know they are hungry to get their opportunity.
CAA: Do you expect the same type of vigorous non-conference schedule to prepare you like it did in 2013? In the same sense, though your team fell to Duke in the NCAAs, what do you take away from a competitive third and fourth set to really battle back and represent well?
JK: We will always schedule tough in the non-conference. It is a great way to learn about your team and what you need to work on before the start of the conference schedule. As for the Duke match, the first two games were definitely not how the team expected to play but I was very proud of how they battled out of the locker room. I think we learned that if we stay focused we can play with anyone but also that we can’t let a slow start affect us for as long as it did. We need to recover faster.
CAA: What did this off season entail in terms of training, recruiting or just get back in volleyball mode with the squad …
JK: We worked hard in the gym during January and February inserting a lot of new players and getting them some experience against a SEC team like South Carolina, winning 3-1, and winning against a conference opponent in UNCW at our home tournament gave them a lot of confidence. After our home tournament, we made the transition to sand volleyball were the girls trained hard and had the opportunity to compete more and get some different training than anyone else in our conference. I feel this will be invaluable for our team moving forward.
CAA: When did you first notice that there were differences between the SoCon and the CAA?
JK: The first weekend when we went to Northeastern and Hofstra. The travel was definitely different and the quality of both team was higher than a usual weekend in the SoCon.
CAA: It’s easy to look at CofC’s roster and see players from all corners of the country. Has being in Charleston helped that aspect of recruiting even more? What do you specifically look for in a player besides the typical “volleyball” mold of athlete?
JK: Charleston is such a very unique place and has the ability to pull players from all parts of the country. There is so much to do and see that I feel like there is something for everyone. It also never hurts to be close to the beach. As for recruiting chemistry is one of the most important things for me. With our players coming from all over the country it is important that they all have the love of the city and school in common.
CAA: What do you love about Charleston and/or can you share your favorite place to grab a bit to eat?
JK: I just love that it is so unique. It keeps its old feel with all the advances of a major city. There is something different every week of the year and something for everyone. My favorite place to eat for lunch here in Charleston is Kickin Chicken and Taziki’s.
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