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Howard Volleyball

Howard volleyball looks beyond MEAC championship with dynamic duo Bria and Cimone Woodard

Twin sisters from Texas bring an HBCU legacy and determination after decommitting from Texas A&M

WASHINGTON — For twins Bria and Cimone Woodard, the nearly 1,500-mile trip from their hometown of Missouri City, Texas, to the nation’s capital to attend Howard, a historically Black college and university (HBCU), has been well worth it.

The Woodard sisters were both ranked as top 150 recruits coming out of high school, and with Bria as the team’s outside hitter and Cimone as the middle blocker, they have been instrumental in the current 12-game win streak in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference by the Bison (18-12, 15-2 MEAC). That streak includes winning the conference tournament on Nov. 21, beating Delaware State. Cimone was named most outstanding player in the tournament.

Both have taken home MEAC Rookie of the Week honors multiple times this season. And Bria won MEAC Rookie of the Year, was first-team All-MEAC and named to the all-rookie team. Cimone was named to the All-MEAC second team and all-rookie team as well. Their early success isn’t a shock to anyone who’s watched them play.

“They’ve been trained for this. They know how to play,” their mother, Krystene Woodard, told The Undefeated. “We are definitely proud of them, but I also am so excited about Howard as a team as a whole. The team is young, and they have so much growth ahead of them.”

Outside of Burr Gymnasium, the women’s lives haven’t drastically changed. They are still scholars in the classroom, with Bria majoring in finance and Cimone majoring in biology. They’ve found a hairstylist and nail technician near campus to maintain their beauty regimen. The girls are relishing the backdrop of the nation’s capital. They enjoyed their first Howard homecoming and Yardfest, and they are learning more about Black history.

“The HBCU experience honestly, just being here, just feels so unmatched. You’re around all of these people that look like you [and] are smart, educated and driven,” Bria said.

“It’s a great school. It’s in D.C. The volleyball program is really good. It’s one of the best HBCUs in the country, academics, culture and there [are] all these opportunities,” Cimone added. “Of course, all these things are found at other HBCUs as well, but I just think that Howard was like the best fit for us.”

The Woodard twins, who are 18, were always destined to attend an HBCU, but their journey to Howard wasn’t without a hiccup, including a decommitment and personal growth along the way.

Their parents, John and Krystene Woodard, met when they were both students at Xavier University of Louisiana; their 17-year-old brother Chase, a high school senior, has only applied to HBCUs to pursue his bachelor’s degree; and the family boasts dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins who have attended HBCUs, from Prairie View A&M to Virginia Union to Meharry Medical College.

On their father’s side, Bria and Cimone become third-generation HBCU students. On their mother’s side, they are fifth-generation HBCU students, with the family legacy tracing back to their great-great-grandmother Elsie Belle Holidy-Jordan, who graduated from Huston-Tillotson University in the early 20th century.

Based on their own collegiate experiences, the twins’ parents wanted their daughters to follow family tradition and attend an HBCU.

“I wanted them to experience this sense of intense belonging, and support and place where they are nurtured as young adults, and infused with not just academic education, but cultural and social and civic education, and learning the importance of community,” Krystene Woodard said. “We are blessed. To whom much is given, much is required. So, you’re in an environment that is intentionally sowing into you, and expecting you to sow into others in return. It gives them an opportunity to just feel connected with the community in a way that is different than and get empowering.”

The Woodard family, from left to right: Chase, Cimone, Krystene, Bria and John.

The Woodard family

Their father John Woodard added: “What I saw was that an HBCU catered to the needs of minority students [and] those little idiosyncrasies that we need to get us through. You’re not just a number, you’re a person. That’s what forever will keep me loyal and pushing our children and those that are close to me to an HBCU because it does offer you that little nudge, a little bit of help.”

Towering at 6-feet-3 with strong right hands, capable of hitting a ball hard enough to reverberate across a gymnasium, both sisters were highly ranked recruits coming out of Episcopal High School in Bellaire, Texas, and attracted Power 5 offers from predominantly white institutions (PWIs) all over the country. Their desire to play volleyball in a major conference won out and the girls verbally committed to SEC powerhouse Texas A&M their sophomore years of high school.

“Our parents have always been like, ‘You’re going to an HBCU.’ That’s been their focus for us. We didn’t really start considering PWIs until the recruiting process. We didn’t exactly know what we wanted out of college, but we knew we wanted each other,” Bria said. “Cimone was very volleyball-driven really young, but I just really wanted a really good school and have a widespread college experience.

“[Our parents] were really supportive of us going to PWI as well, but their experience was an HBCU. So they would just tell us their experience, which I think as we grow older, we grew to appreciate a little bit more.”

Priorities changed for the sisters during the summer of 2020 before their senior year against the backdrop of civil unrest and racial reckoning. George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police and the subsequent riots that rang out across the country caused a new level of consciousness for the two Episcopal High School seniors. For the first time, volleyball wasn’t their sole priority; the girls wanted a strong volleyball program and culture, so they reopened their recruitment.

“There was an awakening at their high school. The girls were very involved in diversity and inclusion and involved in some of the diversity organizations. They just got older. Their eyes started to open up a little bit more,” their mother said. “Then you add their increased advocacy at their school to what was happening in the United States in 2020 with social unrest, and George Floyd’s public murder, I think that all of that came together.”

Their father added: “The girls have a strong sense of social responsibility. I’m glad that their recruitment came through this time, because there were some other extrinsic factors that helped push them toward an HBCU. There are some things that the girls were not comfortable with that kind of nudged them toward Howard.”

The girls committed to Howard on Sept. 4, 2020, on their favorite singer Beyoncé’s birthday. Bria’s Twitter announcement stated: “The history of the school and the strong sentiment of black excellence is something I cannot wait to learn from and contribute to.”

Bria’s and Cimone’s commitment was a storybook ending for Howard coach Shaun Kupferberg, who had been recruiting the girls since they were in the eighth grade. The girls’ strong HBCU family tradition and high-level play were selling points during their recruitment. He wasn’t discouraged by their initial commitment to Texas A&M but remained patient and consistent in building a relationship with them. Kupferberg was the first and only call when their focus shifted to HBCUs.

“I think it takes a specific type of athlete to want to come here. You have to have a young woman that wants to come here [and] you have to be focused on different things. I don’t think you have to sacrifice volleyball. I don’t think you have to sacrifice academics,” Kupferberg said. “We have great volleyball [and] we have great academics.

“Sometimes [recruits] want all the bells and whistles, and they want the huge school experience. That’s not something we are. So I want people that are really comfortable with what Howard is. Every single time I talk to [Bria and Cimone], it’s been great because I think they’re just as excited about Howard as they are about the volleyball program.”

Howard is no stranger to attracting the nation’s top athletic recruits. In 2020, Makur Maker, a five-star basketball recruit, committed to Howard. Due to injuries and the coronavirus pandemic, Maker’s lone season at Howard didn’t go as projected, and naturally fueled questions and concerns about how top recruits might perform at HBCUs.

“Makur Maker was a great player [and] still is a great player, but obviously COVID derailed their season and caused a little bit of chaos there. I think we’re in a little bit better space right now,” Kupferberg said. “I think hopefully [Bria and Cimone] showing what’s possible right now, they’ve done a great job. The pressure has been on all year long, and they’ve handled it really well.

“I can’t really control what happens in the future with top prospects and whether they choose to continue to go to HBCUs. But what I can say is that we offer an experience like no other place can offer. So, if they want that experience, this is the place to be.”

Howard’s volleyball program is a perennial powerhouse in the MEAC, including winning the league championships five years in a row from 2015 to 2019. The Bison have the second-most MEAC volleyball championships with 12 (Florida A&M has 13). During the spring season, the team finished 3-11 (2-10 MEAC). It was the Bison’s first season below .500 since 2012. The main focus has been improving upon last season’s poor record and climbing back to the top of the MEAC standings.

“I try to stress to them every year, like, you’re a different team. Like, this team hasn’t accomplished anything yet. Every year is different. Every team is completely different,” Kupferberg said. “So there’s really not any pressure on them as far as I can see. I know that they put pressure on themselves because they have that name across their chest and they have the school and everybody expects that from them. But from my perspective, I just want to see us game by game get better.”

Bria and Cimone are two of 17 underclassmen on the team oozing with talent and potential to continue the Howard volleyball legacy. During practice, Kupferberg notices three freshmen lined up for serve receive. He recalled that ages ago he would never line up three freshmen for serve receive, but this season is different and he’s embracing the team’s youth by finding a balance between being critical and accepting mistakes. Coming in, the sisters had to work hard to earn a spot on the court.

“Everybody’s superexcited about when we get people like these young ladies to join us. It’s something that’s really exciting. These two young ladies, like everybody else, had to come in and earn their spot. I wasn’t guaranteeing them any spot,” Kupferberg said. “They happen to win it, but they’re going to have to come back next year and win their spot again.”

Both Bria and Cimone are getting acclimated to the collegiate pace and style of volleyball. As an outside hitter, Bria is adjusting to playing six rotations, and Cimone is working on her timing for blocks. Both are mastering ball placement skills on their attacks. They’re also working on their timing in transition and breaking tendencies from playing club volleyball.

“I think that for me the game is faster. It’s important for me to recognize just how important every touch is. It’s not enough to just hit the ball as hard as you want anymore, you have to hit to a certain spot,” Bria said. “Just making sure those small touches like you don’t think about are to the right spot, and it makes the game a lot easier.”

In the team’s regular-season finale on Nov. 14, Bria notched six kills and three service aces and Cimone added four kills and two aces in the Bison’s 3-0 victory over Norfolk State. The Bison earned a share of the regular-season MEAC title with Delaware State with the win. It also clinched the No. 1 seed in the MEAC tournament that begins Friday when the Bison open against South Carolina State. The Bison are looking to build off the momentum they’ve created during their win streak.

“I think that we all came in knowing that’s the end goal. So it was more like an expectation coming in to have a good season and we know we have to take this win,” said Bria.

“We’re definitely taking them head-on. Winning the MEAC is one of our team goals that we created at the beginning of the season,” said Cimone. “We’re just really focused on making the No. 1 spot at the end of the tournament.”

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."