New coach, young team, bright future for Panthers

Connor Cooper encouraged the JV player to follow his lead.

“Give me a high five,” he said as the girl tapped his palm. But the coach was persistent. He made her repeat the process until she gave his hand a solid smack.

“Now,” he said, “do that to the ball.”

The brief one-on-one session Friday highlighted the approach of Carolina Forest’s new varsity volleyball coach: have fun, but keep up the intensity.

“I really do love working with people that enjoy playing the sport,” said Cooper, 25, who is also teaching English at CFHS. “Those girls that are hungry to learn and want to get better, want to play, that really drives me.”

Cooper stepped into the post that was recently held by longtime program leader Brittany Drew. She coached at the school for 15 years before resigning this year.

“It was a very successful program before I got here,” he said. “I’m looking to continue that and grow the game, grow the sport. The girls have been great so far. I’m really excited.”

Cooper comes from the club volleyball world of Wilmington, North Carolina. The Wisconsin native learned the game from his parents, but his high school in the Raleigh, North Carolina area didn’t offer men’s volleyball. It wasn’t until he was a student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington that he flourished as a player.

“When I got to Wilmington, they have a very large volleyball community,” he said.

Cooper ended up playing for and running the men’s club volleyball team at UNCW. He got his start in education at Laney High School in Wilmington. That’s where he did his student teaching while serving as a JV coach and an assistant to the varsity team.

Since arriving at CFHS, Cooper said the team has embraced him.

“I haven’t gotten any push back,” he said. “And I’ve definitely come in and changed some things. Not saying for better or for worse, just I do things a little differently.”

Cooper focuses on simulating game play at practice rather than basic drills.

“That’s really how you solidify those skills,” he said. “I try to bring everything up to a higher level.”

Cooper said this team is still young. The roster includes just two seniors, a few juniors and many freshmen and sophomores. However, he’s optimistic about this squad. The Panthers played in a tournament in West Ashley last weekend, and while they didn’t win every contest, each one was competitive.

“I see a lot of potential on this team,” he said. “Every single girl out there comes every day ready to play. No one’s complained about anything, which is a coach’s dream. They’re all out there willing to do whatever it takes to get on that court and play.”

Players appreciate their new coach’s approach.

Kaitlyn Andresen, a senior and one of the team’s captains, said a brief meet-and-greet was all it took for Cooper to understand the team.

“At the first day of practice, it’s like he knew everyone personally,” she said. “It was very easygoing. No awkwardness.”

Although Cooper has some different strategies than his predecessor, Andresen said the transition has been seamless.

“They both coach the same,” she said. “They know what they’re talking about.”

The Panthers are coming off a region championship, but they lost some key players from that team to graduation. One of those stars was Alexis Tomlin, the first Carolina Forest volleyball player to notch 1,000 kills.

Despite those players moving on, their influence is still obvious.

“It helped me get better as a player because I was able to really look up to a role model, even though we play different positions, and she was just like a really great coach for me,” said Fallon Tomlin, a sophomore libero and Alexis Tomlin’s younger sister. “Now this year I’m kind of carrying over her position on the team and leading the team.”

Fallon Tomlin is also a captain. And like Andresen, she said her new coach is making an impact.

“He has been such a blessing,” she said. “He has really stood with us and cooperated since we’re a fairly young team,” she said. He’s really taught us a lot even though the season is just at its beginning. … We didn’t have any hard time adjusting. We were all just ready to play.”

Photo by Charles Perry/myhorrynews

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