The Rice Owls volleyball team (18-11, 10-4) finished its regular season on a high note, sweeping the University of Texas, San Antonio (19-7, 10-4) on Senior Day at Tudor Fieldhouse to avenge a defeat earlier in the season. Despite the victory, a Florida Atlantic University win dropped Rice University to the sixth seed in the upcoming Conference USA Volleyball Tournament, where it will play No. 3 Marshall University (22-7, 11-3) in the first round this Friday.
Although Rice swept Marshall earlier in the season, they certainly won’t be taking the game for granted. Last year, the Owls were eliminated by a University of Southern Mississippi squad they swept during the regular season. Junior captain Madison McDaniel said the team will not make the same mistake again.
“After last year’s loss in the first round against Southern Miss, I learned to not look ahead to future games, but instead focus on what’s in front of us at the time,” McDaniel said, “I really think taking one game at a time is something our team as a whole must focus on.”
McDaniel has been an integral part of Rice’s success this year by anchoring the defense with a conference leading 19 double-doubles (10.66 assists per set, 3.19 digs per set). Junior Portia Okafor leads the team with 1.28 blocks per set and freshman Lee Ann Cunningham leads the team with 4.3 digs per set while playing in every game during her rookie season.
The Owls also have plenty of firepower on offense. Senior Chelsea Harris has recorded a team high 3.45 kills per set, but according to McDaniel, senior captain Leah Mikesky has been the team’s most valuable player so far.
“[Leah] is one of those players that consistently makes clutch plays when they need to be made,” McDaniel said.
Rice will need to go through stiff competition if it wants to claim the championship at the end of the weekend. The tournament features three teams with winning percentages above .750: Marshall, Southern Miss and reigning champion Western Kentucky University, which finished the season with 18 consecutive victories.
Head coach Genny Volpe, however, is unfazed by the competition. According to Volpe, who is in her 13th year at the helm, the team has the mental toughness to be competitive in the postseason.
“What excites me the most about this team is [its] resiliency,” Volpe said. “We have been through some ups and downs but they always come back strong.”
While Volpe said serving and passing are the biggest keys to winning, she said she believes the team doesn’t have to change anything to be successful.
“In all honesty, our team just needs to be themselves and I believe we can win a championship,” Volpe said. “I have believed that all along and I am excited to see them thrive.”
With just days before the tournament begins, the team is making final preparations for their fifth straight playoff appearance. McDaniel said everybody is hoping to bring a championship back to Rice for the first time since 2009.
“I feel like at this point in the season, everyone is so inspired to play,” McDaniel said. “Winning is the only option and I can’t wait to see what we are capable of.”
This year, Rice is hosting the tournament, so Volpe said she expects a big crowd for Friday’s game against the Thundering Herd. According to McDaniel, the team loves playing in front of the home crowd.
“Home court advantage is an awesome thing, and having energy from the crowd makes it even better,” McDaniel said.
Rice will play in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA Tournament on Friday, Nov. 18 at 5 p.m. in Tudor Fieldhouse against Marshall.