Different conference, same result.
CAA Volley Tournament
When: Friday and Saturday
Where: North Charleston Performing Arts Center
Friday: James Madison vs. Hofstra, 4 p.m.
UNC Wilmington vs. William & Mary, 7 p.m.
Saturday: James Madison-Hostra winner vs. College of Charleston, 1 p.m.
UNC Wilmington-William & Mary winner vs. Northeastern, 4 p.m.
When the College of Charleston volleyball team moved from the Southern Conference to the Colonial Athletic Association, the new league was supposed to provide the Cougars with a tougher road and a new challenge.
Dating to the 2001 season, the Cougars either won the regular season or tournament title 12 straight years in the SoCon — the nation's second-longest streak. Hawaii holds the longest streak with 17 consecutive regular season or tournament titles.
Traditionally, the CAA was a more competitive conference and had consistently had a higher conference RPI ranking than the SoCon. This season, the CAA was ranked 15th nationally, while the SoCon was ranked No. 21 out of 33 conferences.
But the CAA proved to be little more than a speed bump for the Cougars, who went 23-5 overall and 13-1 in the league, and easily captured their 13th straight regular-season or tournament title this year.
As a result, the Cougars will host this year's CAA tournament, which is set to begin Friday afternoon at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. Because of a scheduling conflict with the Charleston Classic basketball tournament, the Cougars were unable to play on their home court at TD Arena.
With their regular season title in hand, the Cougars earned a first-round tournament bye and will face the winner of the James Madison-Hofstra match at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
“We didn't talk much about moving from the Southern Conference to the CAA,” said Charleston coach Jason Kepner. “We didn't make that big of a deal about it because we were still going to have to go out and get results. It didn't matter what conference we were playing in, our goals were still the same, win the conference and get to the NCAA tournament.”
The Cougars dominated the CAA, finishing first in nearly every offensive statistical category, including hitting (.261), assists (13.08), kills (14.01) and were fourth in blocks (2.26).
A big reason for the Cougars' success is their transition to a formation allowing three hitters in the front to go along with two setters. It's a formation that Kepner had hoped to put in place last season, but injuries prevented its installment.
The top three hitters in the CAA all hail from the College of Charleston — Kerstin Koehler (.343), Cara Howley (.320) and Sloan White (.310). With more depth in the lineup and up front, the Cougars are not so reliant on All-American Darcy Dorton or White as they were a season ago. A year ago, if Dorton or White had a bad match, chances are the Cougars would lose.
“There's not as much pressure on me as there was last year,” said Dorton. “I know if I'm not playing well, we've still got a very good chance to win.”
While Dorton isn't getting as many chances to hit, she is getting more quality opportunities, which according to Kepner has made the senior a more dangerous and effective offensive player. Dorton, who was named conference player of the year on Thursday, is second in the CAA in scoring, averaging 3.61 points a game.
“She's doesn't have to force things or take a low percentage shot,” Kepner said. “She's getting more quality chances and that's why her hitting percentage is up from last year.”
Dorton, who transferred from Penn State, has now won a conference championship in the Big Ten, SoCon and CAA.
“I don't know that anyone has ever done that before,” Kepner said. “Darcy is just a winner.”
Earlier versions of this story misspelled Jason Kepner's last name.