Cougars volleyball off to fast start

College of Charleston outside hitter Darcy Dorton leads the Cougars in kills this season. (photo provided).

The College of Charleston volleyball team was off to one of the best starts in school history.

The Cougars had begun the season winning their first six matches — dropping just three sets along the way.

But Cougars head coach Jason Kepner sensed there was something wrong with his team after losing its first set, 25-22, to Indiana in the team’s Hampton Inn CofC Invitational tournament last weekend. The Cougars had hit for a high percentage — .385 — but had recorded just five digs and Kepner didn’t like the trend.

Kepner gathered the team around him between sets and stressed a higher commitment to defense.

“We got hit with the ball more than we actually dug,” Kepner said. “I told them that we needed to be more aggressive defensively with our digs and our blocking or we’re going to lose this match three to nothing.”

The Cougars responded with 17 digs the rest of the way, winning the final three sets, 25-18, 25-18 and 25-21, capturing the tournament title and earning the program’s first win over a Big Ten opponent. The fact that the win came against former College of Charleston coach Sherry Dunbar was just icing on the cake for the Cougars. Dunbar coached the Cougars from 2003-06 and won four Southern Conference titles.

“I like the way we responded,” Kepner said. “I thought up until that point we were a pretty good team, but we faced a little adversity and we responded very well. I think that convinced me that they’ve got the potential to be a special team.

“I know beating Sherry meant a lot to our alumni and the former players that showed up. But none of the players here now played for her, so it wasn’t that big of a deal for them.”

The Cougars (7-0) are just one win shy of tying the school’s mark for the best start in program history. That distinction is held by the 2005 squad, which was coached by Dunbar and finished 32-2, capturing the Cougars’ first NCAA tournament victory. Charleston enters the weekend as one of just 27 unbeaten teams in all of Division I volleyball.

With wins over Georgia Tech and the Hoosiers already in hand, Charleston will travel 3,000 miles to Long Beach State with a chance to make program history and send a message on a national stage. The Cougars face Seattle, Long Beach State and Loyola Marymount this weekend. Long Beach State received votes in last week’s AVCA Top 25 poll.

“It’s a big weekend,” said senior blocker/hitter Emily Neideffer. “We want to build on the momentum that we’ve started at the beginning of the season. We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now, and we’ve got more depth on this team than on any team I’ve been on.”

A big reason for the Cougars’ success this season has been their transition from a 5-1 to a 6-2 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. Cara Howley, a transfer from South Carolina, has been pivotal in the transition.

“Adding Cara on the right side has been huge for us,” Kepner said. “It allows us to be consistent with three attackers.”

As a result, the Cougars are not so reliant on Darcy Dorton and Sloane White. A year ago, if Dorton or White had a bad match, chances are the Cougars would lose. That hasn’t been the case so far this season.

“We’re a little bit deeper than we were last year, and if Sloane or Darcy are not hitting for a high percentage, we don’t panic,” Kepner said. “It kind of takes the pressure off of them. They don’t have to be on all the time.”

Charleston has been one of the most consistent teams in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Cougars lead the CAA in kills (13.92), assists (12.84) and in hitting percentage (.294) a mark that currently ranks 22nd in the country.

Dorton is still a dominant force for the Cougars. The Muncie, Ind., native finished last week with 44 kills (4.0 per set) and a .348 attacking percentage. She also led the team in blocks with six and tallied 16 digs. Her season average of 3.59 kills/set currently ranks fourth in the CAA.

“She’s probably not getting as many chances as she did last year, but she’s getting better quality scoring chances,” Kepner said.