Can Howard volleyball finally break through in the NCAA tournament?
Bison face No. 7 Penn State in a first-round game on Friday
Maybe the fourth time is the charm.
The Howard University women’s volleyball team, which just won its fourth straight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) title, plays at Penn State in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday. Howard beat North Carolina A&T for the MEAC championship in straight sets (25-23, 27-25, 25-16) on Nov. 18 to earn the NCAA bid.
In two of the past three seasons, the Bison faced the Nittany Lions, who are currently No. 7 in the nation, in the NCAA. In Howard’s other tournament matchup, it lost to Wisconsin.
“Working hard every day, we focus on the fundamentals because those never change and allow us to be competitive in every match,” said Howard coach Shaun Kupferberg. “As the season moves on, we try to add some layers in hopes of getting better every week, hopefully culminating in playing our best at the end of the season.”
Howard (9-1 MEAC, 20-10 overall), which won the MEAC regular-season title, led the conference in assists, kills and keeping opponents from returning their shots.
Kupferberg was named MEAC Coach of the Year and senior Tamia Dockery was named Player of the Year. Dockery averaged 10.3 assists per match this season, while Kira Porter, a junior, led the conference in hitting percentage at .353 this season. Dockery and Porter were among four Bison players who earned all-conference honors.
Porter, a first-team All-MEAC middle blocker, said her prowess is a result of discipline, limiting her mistakes and her connection to Dockery, her primary setter.
“I’ve disciplined myself through a lot of practice,” Porter said. “Constant reps and building a connection with my setter by figuring out what works best for fast-tempo hitting to beat the blockers on the other side of the net is the main goal. I think me and Tamia have mastered that this season.”
Dockery, the veteran and heart of the program, attributes their success to a winning culture.
“Howard has been successful through the years because we’ve built a winning culture that everyone buys into and enjoys,” she said. “We try to promote and do fun things that keeps the crowd coming. The success comes from the crowd’s energy.”
Howard has been the best team in the MEAC in Kupferberg’s six seasons. However, the Bison know they must win in the first round of the NCAA tournament to cement their legacy.
“I think we can get over the NCAA tournament-win hump by cutting down on our unforced errors,” said sophomore Fola Wilson. “We have the athleticism to play with these top teams, but we make more errors. So going into the tournament, we are focusing on being more disciplined.”
Wilson, who made the All-MEAC second team at libero, is ranked first in digs on the season, averaging 4.59 a set.
Howard has not had an easy draw in NCAA tournament play, facing top-10 programs in their last four appearances. Penn State beat the Bison 3-0 in Kupferberg’s first appearance. The next year, they lost 3-0 to Wisconsin, which was ranked No. 3 in the nation. Last year, the Bison went up against Penn State again and showed a bit of progress, losing 3-1.
Howard played both Penn State and Stanford this season in an effort to improve against higher-level competition. The Bison lost to Stanford 3-0 in August and to Penn State 3-0 in September.
“We are as athletic as them, and because of that we played some pretty close sets with both teams,” said Wilson. “I think by playing against Penn State and Stanford, we learned what our true potential is as a team. When we played them we were playing great offense and defense and we were having fun, so we saw how good we are if everything is clicking.”
The Bison are looking for any way to keep history from repeating itself.
“Competing against higher-ranked teams gives us a big advantage going into the tournament because we are exposed to the faster speed of play that these teams bring to the court,” said Porter. “It helps us to know what standards we have to meet before we see Penn State again and how to clean up our offense and defense.”