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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 28, 2024

From the Sidelines | Cora Thompson

Growing up in the small town of Half Moon Bay in northern California, Tufts' volleyball coach Cora Thompson was a three-sport athlete in high school, playing volleyball, softball and basketball. Thompson credits the mentors she had while playing sports for a great deal of what made her want to coach.

“My youth softball coaches were the biggest influence for me,” Thompson said. “One of my coaches in my travel squads, her name was Naomi Patridge and she was also the mayor of our town — that’s how small things were. Naomi was and still is a legend. She inspired me on so many levels. Just to see a woman do what she was doing on a political level for our community, for our town.”

Patridge first pushed Thompson, then a first-year in high school, to try her hand at volunteer coaching for the 10-and-under softball league. Thompson explained that she got satisfaction from watching the kids' faces as they first understood the concepts she was teaching.

She was also quick to share that her senior volleyball season was ended by a three-time Olympic gold medalist.

Kerri Walsh [Jennings] ended my senior season,” Thompson said. “Ended by an Olympian, I feel better — not that any of us were bitter. The middle hitter, one of my teammates from high school, when Kerri [Walsh Jennings] won her first medal, called me and was like, ‘Do you feel better? I feel better.’”

When it came time for college recruitment, softball was a major focus for Thompson, along with volleyball.

“That’s ultimately why I ended up choosing Tufts,” Thompson said. “I could be an engineer and also still play two of the sports that I really loved. In Div. I you couldn’t be an engineer and be a varsity athlete.”

Thompson played four years as a two-sport athlete at Tufts: She was a starting shortstop on the softball team and a defensive specialist for the volleyball team. Both teams were coached by Kris Herman at the time. The 1996 volleyball team was the first Tufts team to make an NCAA tournament, a feat Tufts accomplished three times during Thompson’s tenure on the softball team.

“[Herman] was an incredible mentor on many levels,” Thompson said. “She had never played volleyball but she was able to pull the best out of her athletes.”

Thompson started coaching at the collegiate level under Herman in the graduate assistant position while pursuing her master’s degree in education.

“I still had that coaching bug from before, plus I’m just a competitive junkie,” Thompson said. “I was 24, but at that point I thought I was done.”

Thompson was ready to return to California after finishing her master’s degree in education at Tufts in 2001, but at that point Tufts, like many universities at the time, was doing away with two-sport coaches. Thompson explained that it was thought to be far too much work for any one person.

“[Herman] was going to stay with softball, which was her original sport and love and she was going to hand off volleyball," she said. "They wanted to take a chance on a young 24-year-old kid. I still did not see it as my long-term career but I said in my own head, I want to give this four years and see if I can do this."

By her fourth year the team made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament and Thompson was hooked.

“I was awful that first year,” Thompson said. “It’s one thing being an assistant coach, but being a head coach and figuring out what works ... There’s more to coaching than X’s and O’s.”

Thompson credits her mentors and coaches for giving her a solid baseline from which to work, and noted that while knowledge of the sport is important, it’s secondary to understanding how to deal with people.

“It was a lot of being a young coach and those insecurities of ‘what the hell am I doing?’” Thomspon said. “I have to credit those early teams and those rosters for helping me go through that process. I still lean on my players to do that. I am constantly learning from them.”

The sport of volleyball itself has changed greatly since Thompson first started with it, with the advent of rally scoring and the significant changes to recruiting that came along with the widespread use of computers and the internet. Thompson owned her family's first computer during her first year at Tufts.

When Thompson was recruited, everything was done by post, whereas today, Twitter, email and other online social media profiles all play key roles in recruiting athletes according to Thompson.

Now in the midst of her team’s seventh NCAA tournament berth during her tenure,the five-time (and current) NESCAC Coach of the Year and two-time New England Women's Volleyball Association Coach of the Year remembers each team and the unique challenges and victories that accompanied them.

“Every season is a different story,” Thompson said. “I think that’s part of why I’m addicted to this thing we call coaching — it truly is different every single year.”