Rice volleyball opened the Conference USA Tournament as the host and the sixth seed, an underdog in its first match against Marshall University. After a hard-fought run through the bracket, the team’s season came to an end with a five-set loss to No. 20 Western Kentucky University in the Conference USA championship game.
The Owls began the tournament with a matchup against third-seeded Marshall, a team they swept during the regular season. Rice repeated that feat by sweeping the Herd again (26-24, 25-23, 25-20) to advance to the tournament’s semifinals. Senior Chelsey Harris led the team with 21 kills and junior Madison McDaniel added 39 assists and 12 digs.
In the semifinals, Rice faced off against the No. 2 seed, the University of Southern Mississippi. Earlier this year, the Golden Eagles rallied from a two-set deficit to beat the Owls in five sets. For a while, it appeared that Southern Miss would do it again. After the Owls won the first two sets of the match, the Golden Eagles rallied back. Conference USA freshman of the year Catherine Repsher and senior Stephany Purdue helped Southern Miss win sets three and four to set up a deciding fifth set. The fifth set, however, went to the Owls this time. Rice won the set 15-5 to wrap up the win and advance to the championship game.
The title game was a rematch of the 2014 Conference USA championship, which Western Kentucky won in five sets. The winner would advance to the NCAA Tournament to represent the conference. The Owls were the lowest seed to ever advance to the conference title match, and the Hilltoppers were ranked No. 20 in the country. For the first two sets, Western Kentucky lived up to its ranking. The Hilltoppers rallied from a 20-15 deficit to win the first set, and they held a lead for the duration of the second set in a 25-20 victory.
According to head coach Genny Volpe, the Owls could easily have given up when down two sets.
“[The team] could have taken the easy route and caved, but they didn't,” Volpe said. “They came out of the locker room with a new sense of purpose and had the attitude of this not being their last game.”
Buoyed by the support of the home crowd, Rice rallied to win the third and fourth sets. The Owls hit .500 in the third set to win 25-19 and took the fourth set by the same score. With the match tied at two sets apiece, the championship went to a deciding set. Unfortunately for the Owls, they could not carry momentum from the third and fourth sets into the final set. The Hilltoppers never trailed in a 15-7 fifth-set victory to win their third straight conference championship.
McDaniel recorded a double-double for the 21st time this season in the loss, and Harris led the Owls with 20 kills in her final collegiate match.
According to Volpe, the loss was difficult but not disappointing.
“I'm an extremely proud coach today," Volpe said. "They left it all out on the floor, every single one of them. Every player on the bench was ready to go and everyone on the court was giving it their all. The way this team evolved this year has made me extremely proud."
The match was the final one for six Rice seniors. Seniors Andi Bawcum, Harris, Madi Holman, Leah Mikesky, Meghan Patterson and Miranda Rogers will graduate this year. Current juniors Portia Okafor, McDaniel and Shelby Livingstone will take over as the team’s senior leaders next season. The Owls will be looking to make a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.