WASHINGTON — When he came to Howard as the women’s volleyball coach six years ago, Shawn Kupferberg had a wild idea. It was becoming more and more common for college sports teams to take international trips, exposing their athletes to life-changing experiences. There were basketball exhibitions in Europe, football games in Australia.
Why not a volleyball tour in Africa?
For one, the sport isn’t that popular there. But the big reason was the logistics. Flights are long and expensive, the travel experience not nearly as turnkey as it is in other parts of the world. But if there was a school in a position to pull it off, Howard might just be it.
Of course, winning helps, too.
And so, as it enters the 2018 season as three-time defending MEAC champs, the Howard Women’s Volleyball team also arrives with a fresh memory of a two-country swing through Botswana and Zimbabwe. It wasn’t simply the first time nearly any of the young women had been to Africa — it was the first time many had left the country.
“Originally, when I first got here it was sort of this dream of, ‘OK, well, what would make an impact on these young women’s lives?’” Kupferberg told WTOP after a recent practice. “This whole thing is supposed to be about education, whether it’s about education through school in their major, whether it’s about on the volleyball court, getting them to be competing at the highest level, or whether it’s us really trying to educate them culturally or worldly.”
In addition to playing national and college teams, the Howard players taught clinics for local youth to spread the game.
“The first clinic we did was definitely my favorite, and that’s the memory that sticks out most to me,” said senior captain Courtney Dalton. “It wasn’t only about volleyball to them.”
Considering Africa as a future hotbed of the sport isn’t so outlandish when you consider its explosion in America. Once a sport largely concentrated in the Midwest and California, it has grown rapidly as a girls sport at both the prep and collegiate level.
Between Divisions I-III, there are roughly 16,500 women’s basketball players, but the numbers have stagnated the last few years. Women’s volleyball has overtaken basketball in overall participation, surpassing 17,000 college athletes in 2015 and continuing to grow. Only track and soccer attract more female athletes at the college level.
Howard’s own progression into something of a mid-major powerhouse is emblematic of the rising tide. But the program will get its sternest test to date right out of the gates this year.
They open at home against George Washington on Friday, drive to Fairfax, Virginia, to take on George Mason Saturday, return home to play a Wichita State team ranked just outside the Top 25 nationally Sunday, then turn right around to face the top team in the nation, Stanford, Monday.
“I feel like Stanford’s going to take us to the next level because we need to get past the mindset of ‘Oh, we’re just happy to be here,’ or ‘This is a big team, and they’re going to beat us,’” said Dalton. “We need to go in knowing we can compete with them.”
Fellow senior captain Olubunmi Okunade has had Monday’s match against the Cardinal circled since the schedule dropped.
“I have Stanford in my mind,” she said. “For us to be able to play them and to be able to go out there and show them what we have … I want to be able to go out there and compete against top level teams.”
Stanford isn’t the only such team on this year’s slate. On Sept.14, Howard will face an old nemesis, the same Penn State team that has bounced them from the NCAA Tournament two of the last three years. But last year, Howard won a set over the Nittany Lions, which is no small feat — it was the first time the seven-time national champions had lost an opening round set in 28 years. Penn State enters this season ranked sixth in the nation.
“It’s not unusual for us to have good teams here from big conferences, but for us to have this year’s level is a little different,” said Kupferberg.
While the summer trip and the brutal schedule lined up as something of a coincidence, the timing couldn’t have been better. The Bison graduated a fair amount of talent last year, but Kupferberg hopes the summer will help them accelerate through some of the growing pains.
“Our team’s really young this year, so that helped them get some extra playing time, bonding time, where they got to work through some issues while we were over there, instead of working through them in preseason right now,” he said.
As for the team, they’re focused on the task at hand, on continuing to grow Howard into a viable power that can contend with the best.
“We just really want to win,” said Okunade. “Attention is great, we’ll love it, but if there’s nobody in the gym to come and support us, we’re going to play the same way, as if these gyms were filled every single seat.”