In next step of turnaround, Coppin State volleyball seeks MEAC title

The Baltimore Sun
As tournament host, Coppin State looks to win MEAC volleyball championship this weekend.

When Ashley Preston and the Morgan State volleyball team would play Coppin State, winning wasn't enough.

"Coppin cannot get more than 10 points on us," Preston recently recalled saying before the Bears would face the Eagles when she was a libero at Morgan State from 2004 to 2007.

Coppin State routinely had one of the worst teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference during those years, so a matchup against one of the conference's bottom-feeders was hardly a challenge.

Now, as Eagles coach, Preston thinks Coppin State can beat any team in the MEAC.

Since taking over in 2012, Preston has become the program's all-time leader in wins.

Last season, the Eagles reached the MEAC tournament championship before losing to Hampton in a five-set match. This year, Coppin State enters this weekend's conference tournament at its Physical Education Complex coming off its most successful regular season ever, finishing 13-13 overall and 7-5 in the MEAC.

With the Eagles facing Bethune-Cookman in the first round Friday, Preston hopes the team's next milestone of its historic turnaround will be a conference championship.

"When you made [the MEAC championship] in your second year, it's so hard to say 'I don't know if we're going to make the championship,'" Preston said during practice last week. "We have the whole same team that we did last year. So that's the goal, and that's what we're trying to pursue."

Preston, 28, spent three combined years as an assistant coach at Morgan State and Loyola before seeking a head coaching position in 2011. During her search, she specifically looked to join a struggling team, adhering to advice she received from then-Belmont coach Deane Webb at an American Volleyball Coaches Association seminar.

"He said, 'Take the jobs that nobody else wants,' because, he said, 'When you take those jobs, anything you do is great,'" Preston said. "And so I really stuck to that."

Preston was hired as coach at Spelman College, and though the team went 9-16 in 2011, she set a program record for most single-season wins. She returned to Baltimore the following year to coach Coppin State, a team that had no upperclassmen and was coming off a 5-24 season in which it had only one conference victory.

The team's previous coach, Millicent Van Norden, left the Eagles to take an assistant role at Pittsburgh, leaving Preston to coach a recruiting class that expected to be under Van Norden's guidance.

"Me and my mom, we really liked coach [Van Norden] when we met her, so I was kind of torn between actually coming or not coming," junior outside hitter Cindy Okpegbue said. "But when I met the team … I really liked them."

Okpegbue, and the rest of the freshman class, decided to stay. Keeping Van Norden's recruiting class, Preston said, was a critical factor in the program's turnaround.

"[Van Norden] did a great job of making a foundation for the team, and I've just been able to grow upon that," Preston said.

Now Preston and her players are in the team's record books. Her 39 career wins at Coppin State are only 10 less than the Eagles' combined win total from 1994 to 2011.

This season, the Eagles finished without a losing record for the first time. Senior outside hitter Ariel Richard and senior libero Gabrielle Otero became the school's all-time leaders in kills and digs, respectively.

Despite the record-setting year, Preston said, the team still could have done better. The Eagles enter the MEAC tournament on a two-match losing streak.

"It's kind of funny," Preston said. "We don't think we accomplished anything."

Richard, one of the two players on the team the year before Preston's arrival, has noticed that MEAC opponents are giving Coppin State more respect than they received under Van Norden. More teams are devising strategies to beat the Eagles, she said, which didn't happen before.

As the past three seasons have shown, they aren't the perennial losers they used to be when they were getting beaten by Preston's Morgan State squads.

And that turnaround has been encouraging for Preston and the players.

"It gives us a confidence boost that we really have come in and changed the whole outlook of this program," Richard said. "We'll be able to look back and say, 'Hey, we were the first ones to actually come in and change this program around.'"

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If you go

What: MEAC volleyball championships

Where: Physical Education Complex, Coppin State

When: Friday through Sunday

More information: MEACSports.com

Schedule

Friday

Bethune-Cookman vs. Coppin State, 10 a.m.

Hampton vs. North Carolina Central, 1 p.m.

Florida A&M vs. Morgan State, 4 p.m.

Howard vs. North Carolina A&T, 7 p.m.

Saturday

Semifinals, 12 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

Sunday

Championship, 12 p.m.

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