Howard’s volleyball team seeks domination

WASHINGTON, D. C. – Over the past decade, Shaun Kupferberg has taken the Howard University women’s volleyball program to great heights, having posted five 20-plus win seasons, six Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Tournament titles and six NCAA appearances as an automatic qualifier. The team has played as many Power 5 opponents as any HBCU program in the country and history (Penn State, Ohio State, Stanford, etc.).

Moreover, the program has attracted more upper-level student-athletes than any of his predecessors. It is enough to rest your laurels on after going 1-23 in his first season as head coach at The Mecca.

Yet, Kupferberg, or Coach “K” as he is sometimes called, is not satisfied.

Howard University senior volleyball player Kayla Diaz is a look of intensity. Photo by Frank Mitchell III

“We are looking forward to a new beginning this fall,” he says. “We had an energetic and focused group training all spring and we look forward to that energy continuing as we enter the season. We have a deep group of very talented, young women that will make competition tough every day in our gym.”

Kupferberg returns an outstanding group of players, who have been accustomed to winning. Yet, like most successful coaches, he is not content with past success and future potential.

“We are looking to improve on our first contact to allow our offense to run smoothly,” explains Kupferberg, who is entering his 11th season. “Also, we need to be more consistent in all of our skills to allow us to achieve at higher levels of play.”

The Bison’s fortunes will rely heavily on the performance of the dynamic duo of sophomore twins, Bria Woodard (Missouri City, Texas) and Cimone Woodard (Missouri City, Texas).

Bria, a 6-foot-3 sophomore outside hitter, showed she was an elite player early as a freshman last season en route to being voted MEAC Rookie of the Year and a first team all-conference selection. She led the team in total kills (286), second in service aces (37), and third in total blocks (37).

Cimone, also 6-foot-3, was second to her sister in total kills (221) while leading the club in total blocks (82).

“I have watched the program progress over the past three years since I have been here,” says Kayla Diaz, a senior setter from Nanuet, N.Y., who brings valuable experience to this year’s team. “You can see and feel the difference going into this season. We have a mixture of players with experience and a talented group of freshmen that makes it more competitive than any time since I have been here. I have high expectations and hope that we can finally get past that first round of the NCAA Tournament.”

Howard University women’s volleyball coach Shaun Kuferberg getting his players’ attention. Photo by David Sierra

C. Woodard echoes Diaz’s analysis and adds, “There is so much chemistry and confidence in the team. We are all on the same page as we all know what to expect.”

While Coach Kupferberg refused to openly admit the obvious, Bria is a cut above because of her presence is a difference maker.

“Bria is special because she is so confident and coachable,” says Coach K. “She listens and tries to get better every day. She has a chance to be great, but she will be pushed every day with the group in our gym. I’m interested in seeing how she responds this year after such a strong freshman season.”

Rather than point to individuals who will be key contributors, Kupferberg opts to provide a “team” analysis.

“I don’t think there is any position guaranteed on our court right now,” Kupferberg expressed. “We have such great depth that it will really depend on what many of them put into this summer. Not only do we have an excellent group returning and incoming recruiting class, but Maya Gerlach (6-foot-2 sophomore middle blocker, Philadelphia) and Colleen Temple (sophomore middle blocker, Baton Rouge, La.) redshirted last year and I know they are excited to get their shot this year. It was a nice luxury for us to be able to redshirt two 6’3” freshmen last year.”

It can be challenging when it comes to recruiting top student-athletes, who fit your program year in and year out.

Howard University women’s volleyball team won the 2021 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship. Photo by Howard University Athletics

“This year, we have another great group of freshmen coming to Howard,” he noted. “Rya McKinnon (freshman, outside hitter, 5-foot-11, Bessemer, Ala.), Leah Reeves (freshman, setter, 5-foot-7, Allen, Texas), Maddie Siegel (freshman, outside hitter, 5-foot-11, Fishers, Ind.) and Claire Simpson (freshman, libero, 5-foot-6, Plainfield, Ill.) all had great success at the high school level and we are excited to see them in the gym this week. Over the years, we have never changed philosophy and now we just have more highly decorated student-athletes willing to listen. Before, we used to have to find more under-the-radar student-athletes that the larger schools had not seen, but now we go head-to-head with the Power 5 programs. We are still looking for dynamic student-athletes, but now we just have a bigger pool.”

It might be added that members of the team represent regions of the Midwest, Southeast, Southwest, West Coast and Northeastern parts of the country. To continue to stabilize the program, Kupferberg brought in Phil Evans, a highly respected coach in the sport, to join Sareea Freeman as an assistant coach.

“We have Phil Evans joining the program and he is a very good coach that is eager to get in the gym. His personality is really going to work well within our team. “

With the established success of the program, Coach K has strategically put together a schedule designed for success and exposure.

“We are testing ourselves again early,” he explains. “We always start with the D.C. Challenge to play all the local teams and that tournament is always tough because everyone knows each other so well. Then, we will head down to New Orleans to play in the Green Wave Classic (hosted by Tulane University) that has a good mid-major group of teams. It will be a chance for us to be on the road and see if we can focus in a new city and be consistent. Third weekend, we head to Fairfield, Conn., where we will play three tournament teams in Fairfield, High Point and Washington State. That will really let us know where our team stands on a more national level. Fourth weekend, we head to Penn State for a chance to play against their legendary program along with Coastal Carolina and Albany. The whole first month is set up to challenge our players to see if they can continue to improve and grow into a better team each week.”

Howard University placed 12 players on the MEAC All-Academic team in 2021. Photo by Howard University Athletics

During his tenure, Kupferberg is especially proud of the success of the student-athletes in the classroom. This past season, the team received the USMC/AVCA Team Academic Award while 12 members were named to the MEAC Commissioner’s All-Academic Team.

“Howard attracts student-athletes that are focused academically, so academic excellence is the expectation,” boasted Kupferberg. “It always makes it nice to have real alumni you can show with their success, post-grad.”

One of the challenges that many coaches now face is the transfer portal and the danger of losing quality student-athletes.

“Once again, Howard is a destination school; people love Howard once they arrive and get involved in the community,” he notes. “On top of that, our success on and off the court has allowed these young women to buy in and work toward a goal bigger than themselves.”

Written article by Ed Hill, Jr., retired Howard Sports Information Director Derek W. Bryant, Howard Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations & Sports Information, Reina Hill and Romanda Noble-Watson contributed to his story.

Source: Howard University Athletes

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