For the first time since 2009, Rice volleyball is NCAA Tournament-bound. After their three consecutive match victories in the Conference USA Tournament from Nov. 16 to 18, the Owls secured an automatic berth in the NCAA Championship Tournament. On Sunday, the selection committee revealed that Rice will face off against Texas State University in Thursday’s first-round match, with the winner then playing the victor of the concurrent match between the University of Texas and Stephen F. Austin State University.
After clinching the regular-season C-USA title on Nov. 4 with a win over the University of Alabama, Birmingham — their 15th consecutive victory overall — the Owls proceeded to drop the final two matches of the regular season. Head coach Genny Volpe said the slight setback at the end of the season was an important stepping stone for the team.
“It definitely wasn’t our cleanest weekend,” Volpe said. “I think it was a way for the team to recognize that we need to refocus, stay on task and not let our confidence get rattled.”
Despite what appeared to be a dip in momentum, however, Rice showed no lingering effects in its dominant C-USA Tournament performance. Two of the Owls’ three match victories were three-set sweeps, and the third victory was dispatched in four sets. Freshman middle blocker Anota Adekunle was named the tournament MVP, and a trio of Owls joined her on the C-USA All-Tournament team: freshman setter Carly Graham, sophomore outside hitter Nicole Lennon and junior middle blocker Grace Morgan. Volpe said the team’s approach to the tournament was essential to its success.
“Our team had a really strong mindset from the beginning,” Volpe said. “They wanted to win the whole thing; they didn’t want to leave anything to chance for the NCAA [selection] committee. They played really well and executed at a high level, especially from the service line.”
On Nov. 15, two members of the volleyball program received C-USA Superlative Awards. Volpe was named Coach of the Year, while Lennon was named the regular-season C-USA Player of the Year — the first such honor in program history. According to Lennon, it was the assistance of her teammates that allowed her to play at such a high level throughout the season.
“I can’t do it without my team,” Lennon said. “If I don’t have the amazing passes I get from our liberos, and if I don’t have the amazing sets I get from our setters, I can’t do my job. So really, the credit goes to everyone.”
Rice now turns its attention to Sun Belt conference champion Texas State. On the year, the Bobcats posted a 26-6 record, including an 11-1 conference mark; since Sept. 11, they have lost just one match out of 22 contests. NCAA’s RPI rankings place the Bobcats at No. 22 in the country (the Owls are No. 30). The two teams faced off once earlier this year on Sept. 4 in a five-set victory for Texas State. Volpe said the matchup will be a test of strength for this Rice team.
“[Texas State is] a very consistent team,” Volpe said. “They have a lot of balance to their attack, like us. It’s going to be a really competitive match.”
This year marks just the fourth time that Rice volleyball has reached the NCAA tournament. For some, just playing in college volleyball’s premier competition is a thrill within itself. Lennon said the appearance will finally allow her to fulfill a lifelong aspiration.
“I’ve been dreaming of this since I was little,” Lennon said. “It’s the biggest volleyball really gets. The NCAA Tournament is what every little volleyball player wants to do when they grow up.”
Adekunle said she agreed with Lennon’s sentiment.
“This is a dream come true for me,” Adekunle said.