By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - Courtney Draper sits in her new office that's a part of the halfway finished volleyball coaches section of a newly renovated Sun Dome that's still being perfected.
There are no plaques or trophies in sight, just a clean office with USF's new and energetic head volleyball coach soaking it all in for a few moments before getting back to a laundry list of things still to do before the Bulls even get to their full practice on Aug. 8.
"I love everything about it. The people are fantastic and it's a nice family environment," said the mother of two almost three weeks into the job. "They got to come into the office yesterday and they were running around (yelling) 'Go Bulls.' It's not just me that's excited about this opportunity, but my family is as well."
USF had the same feeling of excitement when Draper shared her interest in the job after longtime Bulls coach Claire Lessinger decided to resign for family reasons. Draper, now in her 30s, has done quite a bit since suiting up for the Seminoles on the volleyball court in college. Her latest body of work came at Division II Eckerd College, where she eclipsed the 150-win mark as a head coach while setting a ton of school records along the way in her eight years with the program. Draper led the Tritons to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2006 and their first Sweet 16 trip last year while numerous coach of the year awards came her way.
"I loved the people and it was really hard to say bye to them, but this career opportunity for my family and I would never come around again. This was perfect," Draper said.
Draper's road to USF was filled with previous stops that have made the transition of becoming a Bull truly feel like coming home.
The Lisle, Ill., native was 18 when she walked on at Florida State and got the coaching bug in the process. Draper got her feet wet as a sophomore when she started coaching a high school club team for a spring and the experience lasted for two more.
"I really loved coaching at the club level. That made me a better player as well. You see things from a different angle," she said.
Draper's all-around knowledge of what goes into the sport grew even more when she interned in the FSU volleyball office as a senior on top of serving as a team captain on the floor.
"I kind of got to learn the ropes and I'm thinking, 'Wow, people can really make a career out of this,'" she said.
The timing of Draper's internship was perfect as the Seminoles had an assistant coaching position come open and the head coach felt she was prepared for the new task.
"I didn't realize at the time how fortunate I was, but now looking back that's where it all started," she said.
Draper spent three years as an assistant at FSU and Duke, where she picked up more experience as the program's recruiting coordinator and the director of volleyball camps. All of that groomed her to become the NCAA's youngest Division I head volleyball coach in 2003 when Draper took the job at Jacksonville University at the age of 25.
"It was back in Florida in a big city close to the water. I'm thinking it's a no-brainer, I can recruit there," she said. "I thought Jacksonville was a good first head coaching job and I felt pretty confident even though I was young (because of my background). I was surrounded by such a great support system and they had taught me so many things that I felt ready."
Draper's team also was young with six freshmen on the roster and the group endured some beneficial growing pains that season. Draper won the first match of her career in five sets, but the Dolphins went on to lose their next 10 matches.
"Here I am 1-10 going, 'Maybe I am not cut out for this. Maybe this is not for me,'" she said.
Things turned for the better in a hurry for Draper when the Dolphins went on to win their next 11, finished 15-15 and made the Atlantic Sun Tournament.
Draper went on to get the coaching job at Eckerd with much more experience and success gained in the eight years she spent with the school. Draper served as an assistant athletic director and the senior women's administrator on top of being a head coach that guided the Tritons to five NCAA Tournament trips during her time with the program.
"I liked that I gained the administrative experience. It's nice to always have that in your back pocket," she said. "I think it also helped me on the coaching side of things to maybe make better decisions from an administrative point of view as well."
Draper's biggest impact came in the coaching role after taking over a program that had only four winning seasons in school history before her arrival. The Tritons wound up reaching the third round of the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2011 while she earned Sunshine State Conference Coach of the Year honors along with being named the American Volleyball Coaches Association South Region Coach of the Year.
"I had similar views walking into Eckerd as I do at USF. I feel like the sky is the limit. There is so much to sell here," she said. "What high school girl wouldn't want to be a Bull? There are so many things to offer."
Draper's current task is working with the Bulls from the ground up. She's still getting to know the players and isn't deciding on any game plans until she sees what the team can do during practice.
"There is going to be a lot of teaching and learning in the first couple of weeks," Draper said.
The situation might sound very stressful for a new coach, but Draper sported a genuine smile while talking about the process. She already has an initial idea of the Bulls' capabilities thanks to gaining knowledge through her coaching connections and she's also faced USF in past exhibitions.
"I think there is already a trust level. They know that I turned an average program at Eckerd into a great program. I think they're really open and excited to learn and just get better every day," she said.
Excitement is the key word that could be used to describe Draper's coaching style as she's a high energy person that likes to work the team hard in practice.
"The biggest emphasis is on effort and discipline. Those things don't even take a lot of athleticism. It sounds like those things have been stressed to these players, too, so I don't see there is going to be too much change on that end."
Draper uses her strong amount of energy to build a team up along the way. She's huge on giving the players feedback on things in between rotations instead of waiting a while to provide her assessment of things.
"If you wait until a timeout it's just too much information to overload them with. I'm constantly helping them through each rotation," she said.
Draper's smile was the biggest it had been at that point of her short break from day-to-day duties. She's ready to go, even though the volleyball office isn't quite yet, and she feels very comfortable with the situation she's walked into at USF.
"There are an unbelievable amount of resources to help us become better than where they've been in the past," she said.