While the Cougars faced tough opposition in a hostile environment in that first weekend, one definitive piece of the puzzle emerged, freshman Sloane White.
In her first match of her College of Charleston career against VCU, White started at right-side hitter, a completely new spot for a player who earned high school accolades as a middle blocker. A native of nearby Indianapolis, White made six errors in her first match at Purdue's Mackey Arena, hitting just .120. However, her nine kills and two blocks came with an energy and pizzazz rarely seen in a freshman in her first career match.
White quickly became recognizable for her signature stomp after big plays. She seemed to embrace the critical spotlight of key moments in a hostile environment.
"When I came in, I was playing with the same style that I had in high school," White said. "After those first few weekends, I kind of toned it down as I was learning my role within the team. But I never stopped playing with confidence."
White's struggle of playing a different position was clearly apparent as the Cougars went 0-3 in the opening weekend and Kepner moved White back to middle blocker. The move seemed to work as the Cougars returned to their winning ways the next weekend in the Georgia State Invitational, defeating Harvard, Jacksonville State and Georgia State.
White became an able complement to the offensive production of seniors Elyse Chubb and Sarah Havel. Havel moved to the outside to make room for White in the middle position, and White responded by making seven blocks against Harvard and eight against Georgia State.
However, after the Cougars lost three five-set matches to Winthrop, South Carolina and Clemson at home, followed by another five-set defeat to North Florida the next weekend, Kepner knew that he had to get his front line in a place where they could be most effective.
"We moved Sloane to the middle, but continued to let her get comfortable hitting and playing on the right a little bit with her running behind," Kepner said. "But then Havel was a little bit uncomfortable on the outside since that's not her natural position. After that loss to North Florida, we went back to Sloane on the right. And now she's flourished from there."
The move proved crucial for the Cougars and deadly to opponents. Just hours after falling to North Florida, the Cougars faced a 9-4 Wyoming squad that had only lost one set all weekend. They responded by gutting out a 29-27 win over the Cowgirls in the first set. Then a 25-20 win in the second. And a 25-22 victory in the fourth.
The Cougars celebrated a huge non-conference win at home and a Hampton Inn Invitational Championship. More important, however, were White's then-season-most 15 kills and 11 digs. Combined with Havel's returning to the middle with seven blocks, the Cougars' front line was set.
College of Charleston won the next six matches and White averaged a team-best 3.80 kills per set, hitting .313. With each successive match, she seemed to best her previous season-high output.
White finished the month of September with three SoCon Freshman of the Week awards. No other player won more than one this season.
While conventional theory says that freshman players can be prone to up and down performances and emotions, White has proven to be consistent in her play throughout her first month and a half. She is consistently improving as her attack efficiency has steadily climbed, and she's been consistently upbeat in tough, late game situations.
"We've always known that Sloane was going to be a very aggressive player. What surprised me was how she's been able to be consistent," Kepner said. "She started off making a few errors early on in the season. But once she's gotten comfortable, she doesn't make a lot of errors. For as hard as she plays, that puts her in a very successful position. That's the one thing that's surprised me for a freshman. Freshmen usually make errors and then get tentative and make more errors. Sloane is someone who is really aggressive and has limited her errors about the last month."
She's also become comfortable enough to let that signature stomp come out in big moments. White made several key plays in College of Charleston's emotional home win over the defending SoCon tournament champion Georgia Southern Eagles.
As the Cougars climbed back from a 22-16 deficit in the fourth set, White showed that she didn't need to be the one making plays to let her passion fly. She teamed with Havel for a block that made it 22-18. Then she set classmate Lizzie Theesfeld for a kill on the next play. And as the senior leader Chubb turned back an Eagle attack on match point, White was the first to jump and slide into her teammate, screaming with joy and celebrating the best set comeback of the season.
"Sloane definitely brings a lot of energy," Havel said. "She has stepped up in that right-side position, and it's new for her since she's always been a middle blocker. She's still kind of working out the kinks, but she's been very successful with it. She has such a presence on the court. She's very high energy and very positive. She's definitely fun to play with. She's stepped up as a freshman."
The Cougars still have half of the conference slate left with a tight race with Furman and Georgia Southern brewing in the SoCon South Division. The 2011 season will then come to a head in the win-or-go-home Southern Conference tournament in Birmingham, Ala.
While the Cougars will rely on the veteran leadership and play of the squad's upperclassmen to take them back to the NCAA Tournament, don't be surprised if you see more and more celebratory stomps from freshman Sloane White.