Last year’s Rice volleyball season ended in heartbreak in the conference tournament. The Owls lost in five sets to Western Kentucky University, nearly pulling off an improbable run the conference championship as the No. 6 seed. This year, the No. 3 seeded Owls are looking to redeem themselves. They open the Conference USA tournament on Friday against the University of Southern Mississippi in Bowling Green, Kentucky. According to head coach Genny Volpe, the team is prepared for a battle.
“It’s a tournament where you focus on surviving and advancing,” Volpe said. “Each round, especially the first round, is very challenging. Our conference has a lot of parity, so you have to be focused and ready to execute from day one.”
The Owls head into the tournament having won three of their past four matches. However, they are underdogs. The No. 1 seed, the University of North Texas, and the No. 2 seed, Western Kentucky, shared the regular season conference title. They have each beaten the Owls once this year and each received votes in this week’s top 25. Volpe said she believes Rice has a chance against the favorites.
“We might be the underdog, but we have the tools to win,” Volpe said.
Sophomore Grace Morgan and senior Portia Okafor led the Owls with 117 and 102 blocks, respectively, in the regular season. Rice ranked second in the conference and 36th in the nation in blocks per set. Rice also ranked first in the conference in opponent hitting percentage. According to Volpe, the Owls must use their defense to their advantage against teams like Western Kentucky and North Texas.
“They don’t make a lot of mistakes,” Volpe said. “We will need to put pressure on them with our serving and our block. Our block can be the best on any given day in the league, [so] we need to use that to our advantage.”
Despite finishing with its best regular season record since 2008, the Owls have seldom won easily. Just four of their 21 wins were sweeps, and nine of their victories were in winner-take-all fifth sets. That includes Saturday’s regular-season ending 3-2 win over the University of Texas, San Antonio. Volpe said the team’s ability to perform well in tight matches has been encouraging.
“It’s tough to be in that situation,” Volpe said. “To be 9-1 in those matches says a lot about [the team’s] grit.”
The Owls will have to show that grit if they are to advance through the tournament and play three matches in three days. Two of those matches would likely be against the top two teams in the conference. Despite the road ahead, Volpe said she is excited for the postseason.
“I like to think that we are very prepared and can allow all of our hard work to pay off and watch our team blossom,” Volpe said. “I want to play as long as we can, and it is definitely enjoyable to see them excel after a long season.”
The Owls will begin their tournament run on Friday against Southern Miss at 2 p.m. If they were to win, they would advance to Saturday’s semifinal against the winner of Western Kentucky and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The conference championship match is scheduled for Sunday.