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In 1987, Dr. Joe Bowman thought his career as a coach at USC Spartanburg was over. And for eight years, it was. He turned his attention to the physical education department and was an instructor while his sons made their way through high school. He was still a fan, of course, and he was probably one of the most keen observers of the USCS athletic department. But he wasn't directly involved.
In August of 1995, though, second year Director of Athletics Mike Hall had a rather large issue. With less than a month to go before the season was supposed to start, indeed, just a week before pre-season camp was set to begin, the Lady Rifles had no volleyball coach. It was a tough situation to walk into for anyone. The Rifles had been through five coaches in the seven seasons since Bowman had stepped down.
With little time to look for a replacement, Hall sought out Bowman in his Hodge Center office and Bowman agreed to take over the team for the season along with student-assistant coach Jennifer Rakers.
It was a transition year for the Rifles, who had gone 72-12 combined in the previous two years, but under Bowman, the team ebbed and flowed as only two players returned to the squad. The Rifles won five straight matches in early October but dropping four straight at the South Region Classic heading into the Peach Belt Tournament at the Hodge Center.
Just as in 1987, though, Bowman had the team ready for the tournament. With a first-round bye into the semifinals, the Rifles didn't have to play until Veteran's Day, the second day of the tournament, starting the tournament by facing Augusta State.
The No. 2 seed, USCS had its work cut out for itself against the Jaguars, surviving a four-set affair thanks to the duo of All-Peach Belt selections Heather Abrams and Michelle Graham, who combined for 35 kills. Abrams also added 10 digs, four aces and three blocks and Graham posted 13 digs and four blocks. Jill Bornkessel added 42 assists and five aces, helping USCS into the finals, where it met Pembroke State.
In the championship game, USCS posted a 15-12, 15-10, 15-10 win over the Braves, thanks to an 18-kill match from Abrams. Graham notched 12 kills and 18 digs, helping her earn Tournament MVP honors. Perhaps no surprise, both players later found a spot in USC Upstate's Athletics Hall of Fame.
Graham, a senior, finished her career with three Peach Belt Championships and went on to win the NCAA South Carolina Woman of the Year award, as she graduated cum laude from the school in the spring.
"We called her Blaze because she had bright red hair," Bowman said. "She could hit with either hand and could jump up in the air, see she was blocked to the right and hit with her left hand. She had a good sense of the game and was able to hit and move the ball around."
Abrams went straight from the volleyball court back to basketball where she was a Preseason All-American in 1996.
"She was a very strong jumper," Bowman said. "She was very effective in certain types of quick attacks and she was a very intense competitor. I think her basketball together with what she did in volleyball really complemented one another."
Bowman, for his part, also moved on after his 350th career win on that Veteran's Day over Pembroke State, but even then, he seemed destined to find his way back to the sidelines. He coached at Wofford for four seasons from 1998-2001, even being inducted into the Upstate Athletics Hall of Fame while he was Wofford's volleyball coach. He returned home to the Hodge Center in 2004, this time as an assistant coach to his former protégé, Jennifer Rakers Calloway, where he coached for five more seasons before retiring again at the end of the 2008 season.
As for the volleyball program's coaching carousel, Bowman recommended to Hall that he hire Calloway at the end of the 1995 season. Hall did and more than 250 wins and 14 years later, Calloway still patrols the Hodge Center sidelines for the Spartans.