This Rice volleyball season has had no shortage of drama, and the Owls are coming in clutch. The Owls won their eighth five-set match of the year on Sunday at Tudor Fieldhouse, this time over the University of Texas at El Paso. With the win, the team extended its streak to eight in a row.
Near the end of the final set against UTEP, junior Stephanie Mendivil subbed in with Rice up 13-12. Mendivil got the final kill for Rice as the Owls took a 14-12 lead, after which they sealed the victory on a UTEP service error. According to head coach Genny Volpe, the team was fortunate to come out on top.
“I definitely feel like we escaped with a win today,” Volpe said. “We have a lot of respect for a UTEP team that has been struggling to get wins.”
The Owls’ only conference loss came to UTEP in the team’s first Conference USA contest of the season. Since that loss, Rice has won eight consecutive conference matches to start 8-1 in C-USA. The Owls are currently second in the standings, behind only undefeated Western Kentucky University.
Much of Rice’s success has come in close matches. Since their five-set match against the University of the Incarnate Word, the Owls have won eight of their nine five-setters. Sophomore Grace Morgan said the team is enjoying the exciting 3-2 wins.
“We really like to put on a show,” Morgan said. “We’re experts in nail biters. We’re definitely going to work on getting it done faster.”
Volpe said the comebacks are a sign of the Owls’ resilience.
“They are showing that they are going to battle and they want to compete,” Volpe said.
When asked about what has been going well for the team in its eight-match winning streak, Volpe said that the team has been working on its fundamentals.
“I think that our serving has improved,” Volpe said. “I think that our defense has improved in general but we still have a ways to go to get where we want to go as a team.”
One of the keys for Rice’s success this year has been the performance of its freshmen. Coming into their match against UTEP on Oct. 22, freshman Nicole Lennon was leading C-USA in kills. According to Volpe, Lennon has been one of Rice’s most important players.
“Nicole has been a huge force for us,” Volpe said. “She’s playing six rotations. She’s taking on a lot of responsibility.”
Lennon is not the only young contributor. Freshman setter Lauren Lee, who stands at just 5-foot-1, is second on the team in digs. According to Volpe, she too has impressed.
“Lauren has been a mainstay in our back row,” Volpe said. “She’s been playing solid defense.”
While youth has helped the Owls, seniors have led the way. Senior setter Madison McDaniel recently eclipsed the 3,000 career assists mark and has been a mainstay in the Owls’ rotation the past three years. According to Volpe, she is indispensable.
“Madison has definitely proven herself as one of the strongest setters in our league and one of the strongest competitors,” Volpe said.
Rice is now 18-5 with the No. 88 RPI in the nation. The team is looking to rebound from a five-set loss in the conference championship game last year that ended the Owls season just short of the NCAA tournament. According to Morgan, the team’s main goal is to rebound from that loss.
“We want to win the conference tournament,” Morgan said.
The Owls will look to continue their exhilarating season with five more conference matches in the regular season before they begin the C-USA tournament on Nov. 17 in Bowling Green, Kentucky.