By Jacob Hudson
For most collegiate athletes in their senior year, playing through your final season can be a bittersweet revelation, because soon the playing ends and that chapter of your life as a student athlete concludes. The athlete is taken out, and the student must work to find a career off the court/field. But for some athletes, the playing may end, but their time on the court/field does not. For assistant coach and recruiting coordinator of the Christopher Newport University women’s volleyball team Cory Harris, it was not so long ago that she herself was earning her own prestigious accolades for CNU and tearing up the volleyball court as an outside hitter on the women’s volleyball team. Where Harris used to compete and lead her team on the floor of the Field House, she now leads the team on the sideline of her old stomping ground alongside head coach Lindsay Birch. Harris accepted the job as assistant coach before she even graduated from CNU, and has an advantage that most other coaches and recruiters would not; she has lived the life of a CNU volleyball player.
Cory Harris attended Christopher Newport University from 2009 to 2013, spending all four years as a part of the women’s volleyball program. Since her freshman year she had been earning high honors as well as leading her team all the way through the post season as a starting outside hitter. She helped guide the Captains to four consecutive NCAA Regional titles, including a run to the national championship match in 2011. Throughout the journey the team earned a spectacular 152-18 record, which included a perfect 65-0 in the conference. Individually, Harris was a four-time All-USA South selection; she earned second team All-Conference selections in her sophomore and junior campaigns, and for her efforts in the post season, she earned a spot on the 2009 NCAA Regional and USA South All-Tournament squads, and secured MVP honors her senior year for her performance during the 2012 conference playoffs. Alongside the laundry lists of accolades, Harris became just the fourth player in CNU history to reach the 1000-kill and 1000-dig mark. Overall, within her 169 career matches, she ranks fifth on the program’s all-time list with 1,322 kills and sixth with 1,320 digs. Obviously she has created a name for herself on the court, but it is off the court, on the sidelines now where she plays the most pivotal factor for the team, and uses her experience to guide other players towards athletic feats of their own.
Her role as a coach is actually not much different from her role when she was a player. Harris feels that her strength as both a coach and a player coincide; that is being the supporter, encourager, and positivity generator. “I always felt when I was a player that I was never the best on the team. I was never the super-star. But when I played, I felt like I kept everybody in check. I was never the best hitter, the best blocker, the best passer, so my skill wasn’t the best on the court but I felt like maybe I had kept something going good. When I play I pay attention to everybody else. My value when I was playing was making other people feel good” stated Harris. As a coach, Harris uses her experience as player to improve player moral and keep them at the peak of their mental game, leaving the technical skill teaching to Birch; “I think watching and helping the girls get through the hard times is the best thing for me because I’ve been there, I’ve done it before. I have no idea how to help them become an All-American. Lindsay is really good at that, coaching them up technically. But I think I am really good at the mental, the moral support, and I feel like I’ve been there, ‘let me help you get there and let me help you get through it… I know it sucks, I know you are not on, I know nothing feels good, but just suck it up and play through.’” Compared to her days as a player, Harris feels an immense sense of pride from being able to guide players towards the same success and honors her and her team once gained; “I know what it takes to, not just get the individual stats as accomplishing the team goals, like getting to the Elite 8, getting to the Final Four; I can see the trajectory of where our team is going based on like how hard people are working.” Harris has honed these skills since her time as a player and has now made a career out of them, but back in her days as a student at CNU, coaching her alma mater was not a part of her future agenda.
Harris’ original career aspirations after graduation was to become a CNU Fellow, but one day late in her first semester senior year, Coach Birch sat down with Harris and encouraged her to apply for the assistant coach position. “Initially she knew for a long time that I wanted to stay and be a Fellow so she knew there was a chance I would stick around anyway.” The assistant coach position had been vacant for a year up until then so Harris was convinced to apply, “This was something that was not on my mind at all… I ended up not even applying for the Fellows.” Harris was guaranteed the job before she even graduated in her spring semester senior year, but questioned whether this would be the right path for her. Compared to other potentials who applied for the job, Harris had little experience; she was a head coach of the girls’ program at Berkeley Middle School (her alma mater) and assisted with summer camps for the CNU volleyball program, so she was confused as to why she was considered a good candidate. “I was really hesitant, really nervous, and scared about what the current team was going to think about me staying. I think they were shocked. There were girls on the team that I was still really close with, who I was excited to help but I knew that it was going to be hard to not be there ‘friend’ friend just their ‘coach’ friend, so that was probably the hardest transition.”
Harris’ uncertainty of how well she would perform as a coach was nullified by the inspiration coach Birch offered her as her mentor for the four years before. Coach Birch’s coaching style was one that Harris fell in love with. She would compare it to her former high school and club coaches that would yell, scream, and degrade players, not so much emphasize support and encouragement; “For some people they need an ‘I’m going to prove you wrong’ kind of attitude, but with Lindsay it was always like ‘you’re fine, you’re great, I am supporting you and I know you can do it.’” In a playing environment where one mistake can throw your whole game off, that style of coaching felt safer to Harris than any other, and one she wanted to model herself after. Plays like getting blocked or aced in volleyball can really bring down a player’s confidence, if a coach is putting you down for your mistake, it can really affect your performance in a negative way, but a coach telling you “its ok, it happens, next play” can be just the right amount of motivation for you to keep fighting. Like any sport, the buildup of pressure can break one’s mental game, which is why Harris and Birch try to minimize the pressure with praise, “a lot of them put pressure on themselves already, so to put more pressure on them is silly it doesn’t make any sense, especially for girls.” Harris, someone who is all too used to the pressure on the court, is aware that too much of an emphasis on mistakes can throw any player’s mental game off. Instead, she uses that knowledge to in turn give the player’s positive criticism while encouraging them to keep working hard.
So what is it that Cory Harris has that fits so well with the team? What is the edge that Coach Birch saw in her when she picked her for the position? The secret to Harris’s success as a coach is due to the fact that she was in the same shoes of her players not but three years ago, earning the same honors as both an athlete and a student. She still continues to lead her team through successful winning seasons and records to boast (40-3 (2012), 25-13 (2013), 34-4 (2014), 30-3 (2015)). Just this past season, Abby McIntyre, a fellow outside hitter that Harris actually played with her last season on the team, was placed on the NCAA Regional All-Tournament team, and Briana Sutton, yet another outside hitter that Harris helped to recruit, was honored with Virginia State Volleyball Player of the Year. It was not too long ago that Harris herself was earning these same/similar honors, and now she uses that knowledge to give other players the chance to become the best volleyball players they can be.
Three years ago when Harris accepted the job she expected only to keep the position for one year, but three seasons later she is still assisting in leading the team as one the top contenders in Division III sports. When she recruits, she does not have to worry about giving a highfalutin, hollow speech, because all her experiences are genuine and she does not have to fake anything. “I can sell the pants off of this experience and everything. I think the reason why I am here and stay here coaching is because I love CNU. I want to convince students to come to CNU because I genuinely think they are going to grow into better people here, and better volleyball players.”