On Sunday, Rice volleyball broke the team’s all-time record win streak with its 13th consecutive win of the season, defeating Conference USA foe University of Texas, El Paso in a come-from-behind five-set victory.
Earlier in the weekend, the Owls also defeated the University of Texas, San Antonio. By defeating the two teams, Rice improved to 10-0 against C-USA opponents.
Rice head coach Genny Volpe said the key to dominance in conference play is determination.
“There are two things that are most expected every day: be focused and give maximum effort,” Volpe said. “If there is any lapse in that, the team is really good about checking it and keeping each other accountable.”
Rice is 19-4 overall and ranks in the NCAA’s top 10 in assist percentage, kill percentage and dig percentage. In Volpe’s 15-year coaching career at Rice, the Owls’ highest season win total is 23 (2009, 2014). This team still has four regular season games and the C-USA Tournament to match that total.
According to Volpe, this Owls’ squad stands out above many.
“I feel confident in this team because I think they are trying to grow and be better,” Volpe said. “We have very high standards and very little room for lack of effort or lack of focus.”
One reason to be confident is Volpe’s recent success in recruiting. This season, Rice brought in middle blocker Anota Adekunle, setter Carly Graham, libero Tia Grippo and libero Isabel Wiatt as freshman recruits.
Graham and Adekunle have risen to the top of Rice’s freshmen. Graham leads this year’s team in assists with 524, and Adekunle has played in all 23 games while starting 22 of them.
Adekunle said she has benefited from the team’s senior leadership.
“[Fellow middle blocker] McKay Kyle has been a big encouragement in this season and in my life,” Adekunle said. “She is always encouraging me, telling me where to hit and just giving me advice. She is a great mentor.”
Rice’s 2018 recruiting class was granted Honorable Mention Honors by PrepVolleyball.com, placing it just below the top 30 teams in the nation. By comparison, volleyball’s recruiting class ranked ahead of football (111 in FBS, 247Sports.com), men’s basketball (80 in NCAA, 247Sports.com) and baseball (89 in NCAA, PerfectGame.org).
According to Volpe, the Owls’ consistent year-to-year performance, with at least 20 wins in each of their last four seasons, has been a boon for recruiting when combined with Rice’s academic prestige.
“I think we can recruit the best of the best,” Volpe said.
In 2016, Volpe hired Ariel Apolinario as an assistant coach focused on recruiting. In the same year, Volpe convinced current senior Tori Woogk to transfer to Rice from Clemson University, where the outside hitter experienced a coaching change after her freshman year with the Tigers. Woogk said she is thankful to be learning from the Owls’ coaching staff.
“My journey here was long. I wish I could have gotten here sooner,” Woogk said. “It was a big factor in my decision that [Volpe] has been here for so long. That’s just been a cherry on top of all of it.”
In 2016, Volpe and Apolinario also recruited current juniors Lee Ann Cunningham and Adria Martinez. Cunningham, a libero, leads the Owls this season in digs with 424. Martinez, a setter, trails only Graham in assists, with 492 on the season.
Rice has four more games left: home games against the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and away games against Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University.
Directly below Rice in the C-USA standings are FAU (8-2), UTSA (8-3), Western Kentucky University (8-3), the University of North Texas (8-3) and FIU (6-4). The Owls have four conference games left before the conference tournament. If the Owls win the conference tournament, they will qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.
Woogk said the pressure of knowing that every win is necessary drives her motivation.
“We have nothing holding us back at this point,” Woogk said. “We are on top [of Conference USA], but we have to fight like underdogs.”
This article has been updated to remove a team member originally listed as part of the freshman class.