First-seeded Rice will face eighth-seeded University of North Carolina, Charlotte in the opening game of the Conference USA Volleyball Championship Tournament, beginning on Friday, Nov. 16th in Huntington, West Virginia.
The C-USA Championship bracket, released Sunday, also features (2) Florida Atlantic University v. (7) University of North Texas, (3) Western Kentucky University v. (6) Southern Mississippi University and (4) University of Texas, San Antonio v. (5) Florida International University in the quarterfinals matchups.
Rice stands atop C-USA with a 12-2 C-USA record, one game ahead of four teams tied at 11-3. Charlotte posted a losing record (6-8) in C-USA play this season. In the two teams’ lone regular season matchup, Rice defeated the 49ers at home, 3-0.
Last season, Western Kentucky defeated North Texas in the C-USA Championship in a battle of C-USA’s top-seeded teams. If chalk holds again this year, Rice will challenge Florida Atlantic in the tournament final.
FAU ended the Owls’ team-record 15-game win streak last Thursday by winning a hard fought five-set match in Boca Raton, Florida. In that match, Rice dropped the first two sets before battling back to force the race-to-15 tiebreaker. Owls head coach Genny Volpe said fighting against C-USA’s elite is a tall task late in the season.
“[It] was a battle from start to finish,” Volpe said. “We got our backs up against the wall and then our team really rallied. We just need to clean up the little things against a solid team like FAU or they will make you pay.”
In the short-term, Rice would be remiss to overlook Charlotte.
Despite the 49ers’ lowest-ranked C-USA Tournament seeding and after averaging only 10 wins from 2012 to 2016, Charlotte has won 19 games in 2017 and 16 games so far in 2018 and earned consecutive C-USA Tournament appearances. Nonetheless, Rice has a substantial advantage in head coaching experience: 49ers head coach Karen Weatherington is in only her fourth year as Charlotte’s head coach; Volpe is in her 15th season with Rice.
During Volpe’s tenure, the Owls have qualified to the NCAA Tournament twice by at-large bid (2004, 2008) and once by automatic bid (2009, Rice’s only C-USA Championship victory). In 2016, Rice made it all the way to the C-USA Tournament final before falling to Western Kentucky.
This edition of Rice volleyball excels on the defensive end. The Owls are ranked fifth in the nation in digs per set (18.3), led by junior libero Lee Ann Cunningham, who has been named C-USA’s Defensive Player of the Week three times. In passing, freshman setter Carly Graham and junior setter Adria Martinez have each notched over 560 assists on the season. Rice is also exceptional in attacking: Volpe’s squad is NCAA’s eighth most efficient hitting team (14.49 kills per set).
Rice appears even more dominant compared to C-USA opponents. In C-USA, Rice is ranked first in opponent hitting percentage, opponent service aces and digs. The Owls also stand in C-USA’s top five in blocks, opponent blocks, kills, opponent kills, assists, opponent assists and hitting percentage.
By rattling off a 15-game win streak, Rice placed itself in fortuitous company; Western Kentucky, which has won the C-USA Tournament the past two seasons, posted regular-season win streaks of 18 and 23 games in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Last year, the Hilltoppers’ win streak ended on the final game before the C-USA Tournament. WKU redeemed that loss by defeating the same opponent, North Texas, in the final.
Rice lost its final two regular-season games this season. On Saturday, the Owls lost to Florida International, 3-1. If Rice defeats Charlotte, FIU potentially looms as a semifinal opponent. However, according to Volpe, her team will not fear Floridian opponents.
“We knew this weekend was going to be tough,” Volpe said. “Both FAU and FIU have solid teams and executed well against us. We had too slow of a start and once again had to battle back. However, we’re not going to be defeated after this, only stronger and more focused heading into the C-USA Tournament.”