Crouching on the sideline, hands tightly clenched and eyes concentrating on the court, coach Cora Thompson of the Tufts volleyball team is the picture of focus.
“It’s that big Jumbo intensity that she always brings to the court that can’t be replicated,” senior Maya Ripecky said. “She’s fired up on the bench, pointing things out and always talking.”
The effect that Thompson has had on her squad is undeniable. Graduating from Jumbo volleyball in 1999, Thompson rejoined the program as an assistant under then-coach Kris Herman. When she was elevated to the head job in 2002, the team immediately responded, producing five consecutive winning seasons.
In 2007, when Thompson spent a year away from the team, her absence was noticeable. Despite the admirable efforts of interim coach Marritt Cafarchia, who parlayed her stint on the Jumbos’ bench into a Div. I head coaching job at Holy Cross, Tufts finished 19-13 overall, its first season with fewer than 20 wins since 2000.
But Jumbo volleyball returned to form this year when Thompson resumed her head-coaching duties. Tufts enjoyed one of its best seasons in program history, going 29-4, earning the top seed in the conference with a 10-0 record and hosting both the NESCAC Tournament and the NCAA Regional Tournament. In a sign of her importance to the team’s success, Thompson garnered both the NESCAC and NEWVA Coach of the Year awards.
“We just know how to win,” senior tri-captain Natalie Goldstein said. “That mental game can definitely be attributed to our coach.”
According to Thompson, the intensity and passion that she tries to infuse into her players starts with her own love for the game and her dedication to the program.
“[Intensity] stems from passion for what you are doing,” Thompson said. “It isn’t a job or work to me — it’s my life. I’m excited to come to the office.”
“She has love and dedication to Tufts volleyball,” Goldstein said. “Every player sees that and it makes them want to love it just as much as she does.”
One of the keys to the Jumbos’ success this season was Thompson’s emphasis on the team as a whole rather than individual stars, a mantra that was preached throughout the 2008 season. Tufts proved its unity through a number of come-from-behind efforts, including one in its first match of the season, and by winning four consecutive five-set matches.
“Any team that gives its heart and soul will get the most out of itself,” Thompson said. “When the whole team is on the same page, that helps, too.”
“She makes every player want to be a team player,” Goldstein added.
In returning to the team this year, Thompson faced the challenge of getting to know not one but two classes of new players. In her absence, she never got a chance to work with the players that she had recruited as freshmen the previous year, forcing her to familiarize herself with them and this year’s freshmen at the same time.
“A big challenge was having eight players I hadn’t coached yet and didn’t know well,” Thompson said. “We were trying to improve and I was trying to get to know the players at the same time.”
Thompson, though, was not ready to take all the credit.
“I give a lot of credit to [assistant coach] Courtney [Evans],” Thompson said. “For me to have an assistant who played for me three years ago makes it like having a double dose of me.”
In 2001, the year before Thompson’s promotion to head coach, the team went 20-12 with a 7-3 NESCAC record and lost to Bates in the first round of the NESCAC Tournament. Since then, the program has steadily improved, earning two NCAA bids along the way. But next year will bring with it some new obstacles, as the team will graduate the four seniors that led it during its successful 2008 campaign.
“A huge part of our success is the depth of our bench,” Thompson said. “We are trying to add to that with recruiting, but we have to replace four great seniors. But every team is a new one. There will be new challenges next year in some way. Every season teaches you something new.”