With the Conference USA tournament rapidly approaching, the Rice University women's volleyball team has hit their stride with three consecutive victories over conference opponents.
The Owls defeated University of Texas, El Paso, the University of North Texas and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte over the span of eight days. Rice is now 17-9 on the season and 9-2 in conference play, good for second place in C-USA behind only Western Kentucky University.
Head coach Genny Volpe said her team played impressively in Friday's hard fought four-set victory over University of North Texas.
“It's always our serving and our passing game,” Volpe said. “If we have that pretty solid, we always do a good job of taking care of the ball. Our hitting percentage all year has been solid. The beauty of our team is that we have so many pieces and they work well together.”
Three games remain on the Owls’ regular season schedule, all against opponents with overall and conference records above .500. According to Volpe, the rest of the schedule poses a difficult challenge for the team.
“The entire conference, every night, is a threat,” Volpe said.
The last marquee matchup of the Owls season comes against No. 21 Western Kentucky University. Last year, Rice beat the Hilltoppers, who were ranked at the time, in a five set thriller at Tudor Fieldhouse. This year, the Owls will be on the road as they look to take down a top 25 team for the first time this season.
Once the Owls finish their season against the University of Texas, San Antonio on Nov. 12, they will gear up for the C-USA championship, held at Tudor Fieldhouse, starting on Nov. 18. The C-USA championship pits the top eight teams in the conference against each other in single elimination format, with the top four seeds receiving byes. The winner of the tournament receives an automatic bid into the NCAA Championship.
During Volpe's tenure as Rice head coach, the Owls have earned berths in the NCAA Tournament in 2004, 2008 and 2009. According to Volpe, this year’s team resembles the 2009 squad that won the C-USA tournament.
“We have some similarities to the ’09 team, within our rotations,” Volpe said. “We have some defensive specialists who play similar. Talent wise, we definitely have what it takes to win. Each of our teams has had grit. I see that in this year's team. I tell my girls, each team that has had success has not always been pretty. We don't have to go undefeated all season. We just have to go on a run at the right time.”
The Owls will rely on the play of junior setter Madison McDaniel to make a late season push into the postseason. During the game against University of North Texas, McDaniel registered her 2,000th assist, becoming only the 10th player in Rice history to do so. According to McDaniel, the team’s recent stretch is indicative of the success it can have moving forward.
“It was nice to come back with a win,” McDaniel said. “Hopefully we can keep this roll going, all the way to the conference tournament, giving us a little bit of momentum.”
Moving forward, the Owls are unlikely to make any significant changes. According to Volpe, the team will succeed as long as it remains confident and consistent.
“I don't know if there is anything we need to fix,” Volpe said. “I think we have the pieces. We have 16 players who are ready to play. We just need to get more consistency. That is the key to a championship run.”