Volleyball: Bulls brace for non-conference odyssey
Armed with the deepest team of her tenure, third-year USF volleyball coach Courtney Draper will learn soon if it's also her most resilient.
The Bulls, picked fifth in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll, embark on a daunting non-conference stretch when they open their season with two matches Friday at the Mortar Board Premier at Purdue.
The Bulls face Purdue, eighth in the AVCA preseason poll, at 10 a.m.; then play LSU, which received votes in the poll, at 5. They finish the event with a Saturday afternoon match against No. 14 San Diego.
The tournament is the first of three USF will play on the road in the season's first 23 days. The Bulls also will play three matches at Auburn the weekend of Sept. 12-13, and three more at Pittsburgh the following weekend.
In all, 11 of USF's first 14 contests are on the road. Before their first conference home game, Oct. 3 against Connecticut, the Bulls already will have traveled to five states. Fortunately for Draper, her team appears poised for the challenge.
A promising six-member freshman class joins a seasoned group led by reigning conference player of the year Erin Fairs. The top two setters, juniors Natalia Soares and Wylie Devlin, are back; and a middle anchored by 6-foot-1 Northside Christian alumnus Jennica Mullins also is solid.
"It's the closest I've had to a tournament team in my three years here, for sure," Draper said.
Fairs, however, is the vital cog. A 5-11 junior from Texas, Fairs followed her 2012 debut season -- when she was named Big East Freshman of the Year -- with 24 double-doubles and nearly a full kill more per set (3.73) in '13. With 745 career kills and 820 digs, she's on pace to become the eighth Bull to eclipse 1,000 in both categories.
"She just keeps getting better," said Draper, whose program is seeking its first NCAA tourney berth since '02.
"A lot of kids just come back for Summer B, well, she did not take a break. She was here the entire summer working with (strength coach) Walter Bell and she's jumping higher, she's got a more physical game, she's developed more shot variety. And I really notice her leadership through this preseason."