Last season, the Rice volleyball team was soaring. After sweeping the University of Southern Mississippi, the Owls were 17-8 and were preparing for a home match against No. 22 Western Kentucky University. Weeks later, however, the Rice volleyball team suffered a meltdown in the first round of the Conference USA tournament, losing 3-1 against the same Southern Miss squad that they had swept earlier in the season. It was a disappointing ending to an otherwise positive season, one in which the Owls won 21 games. After the season-ending loss, head coach Genny Volpe said Rice players are sure to use the 2015 season as motivation for the upcoming campaign.
“We’re going to work harder than ever now to build on our achievements from ,” Volpe said. “Absolute, 100 percent, we’ll use this fuel for fire next year,”
This year, the Owls will have to do it without some of the veterans that led them to an 11-5 conference record. Most notably, last year’s seniors Kimberly Vaio (team leading 375 digs over the course of the season) and Noelle Whitlock (350 digs, 279 kills) will be missed. According to Volpe, the team will be ready to continue without them.
“There is always a bond developed with seniors and a leadership quality that will be missed,” Volpe said. “Luckily for us, it was a small class of seniors, so we’ll return with a lot of experience.”
While experience is certainly a valuable asset for a team aiming for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2009, it was a rookie who stole the show in the BYU Invitational Tournament. Freshman Lee Ann Cunningham recorded a team-high 54 digs over the weekend and earned the Conference USA defensive player of the week while anchoring the Owls’ floor defense.
Despite the individual accolades, Rice finished the invitational 1-2. In the opening game, the Owls simply did not play to their potential, losing a sloppy 3-1 match to the California Polytechnic State University. Junior Madison McDaniel earned her first double-double of the season, recording 38 assists and a team high 19 digs, but Cal Poly outhit Rice 65-50 and held a 70-52 advantage in digs.
In the following game, Rice faced a tall task, competing against No. 13 Brigham Young University and its 27-match home win streak. The back and forth match featured standout performances from McDaniel (48 assists/13 digs), senior Leah Mikesky (16 kills), senior Chelsey Harris (15 kills), freshman Grace Morgan (8 blocks) and Cunningham (28 digs). It was not enough, however, to fend off an unrelenting BYU squad, which beat the Owls 3-2. Despite the loss, Volpe said she was happy with the improvements her team showed.
“When we played BYU, the team was very focused and made some key changes from the Cal Poly match,” Volpe said. “That was very encouraging to me. We put up a great fight but came up a little short of pulling off a big upset,”
Fortunately for the Owls, Rice was able to leave Utah with a win. The Owls swept Utah Valley University to finish the tournament on a high note. Harris and Mikesky led the team with 10 kills apiece. According to Volpe, the team’s focus was impressive during the win over the Wolverines.
“A lot of times in that situation, a team will play down and still be drained from the previous match they just lost,” Volpe said. “We might have done that in the past, but did not this time. I’m inspired by that.”
Despite their current losing record, Volpe said there is a lot to be optimistic about for this resilient team.
“I’m excited to see how this group can continue to improve and grow each and every day,” Volpe said. “We are always striving for that championship. I am very excited about the future, but I am 100 percent focused on the now and 2016. We have a lot of work to do and this team is hungry.”
The volleyball team plays its next game on Friday, Sept. 2 against the University of Utah at the Tiger Invitational in Columbia, Missouri. The Owls will play three games in the tournament before returning to Tudor Fieldhouse for the Rice Adidas Invitational.