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Volleyball downs SMU and McNeese State in three sets, falls to Tulsa in five

By Paul Fitzgerald     10/9/08 7:00pm

For the second weekend in a row, the volleyball team entered the weekend with high expectations only to emerge with a split, earning a victory over Southern Methodist University but taking a difficult loss to a strong University of Tulsa team. Rice rebounded with a three-set sweep of McNeese State University Tuesday night. The Owls hit the road again as conference play continues on Friday night against the University of Marshall. The match will be at 6 p.m. in Huntington, W. Va. From there, Rice travels to Greenville, N.C., to take on East Carolina at 11 a.m. on Sunday. East Carolina and Marshall, both with 1-4 records, are the 11th and 12th place teams in Conference USA, respectively. Rice lost to Marshall 3-1 the only time the two squads faced off in 2007. The Owls will be looking for revenge against East Carolina, which also defeated Rice in 2007.

Despite her team's better standing in conference, head coach Genny Volpe said the Owls should avoid overlooking either of their upcoming opponents.

"Both teams are good ball clubs, despite their records," Volpe said. "Marshall has dominated the conference the past few years, so they have a ton of experience. East Carolina is a scrappy team, so we have to come out and play as if we have nothing to lose."

The rest of the team also expects strong competition out of both opponents this weekend.

"Marshall is the defending conference champion, so we know they're going to come out swinging against us," sophomore libero Tracey Lam said. "We expect the same from East Carolina. We just have to play sound, good defense if we want to win both matches."

Rice opened last weekend by defeating SMU on Friday night at Fox Gymnasium, winning in three sets (25-22, 25-15, 25-19). The Owls were down for much of the first set and fell behind 21-17. After that, however, the Owls went on an 8-1 run punctuated by a service ace by Lam, this week's C-USA co-defensive player of the week.

The Owls continued their strong play in the second set, jumping ahead 5-1 and never letting SMU get within three points. Sophomore setter Meredith Schamun, last week's C-USA's setter of the week, recorded 14 assists in the second set. Freshman outside hitter Ashleigh McCord also helped the Owls in the second set, as she recorded four kills.

Volpe has been particularly impressed by McCord's improvement.

"Ashleigh has really come on as the season has progressed," Volpe said. "She's our most powerful attacker and hits a hard ... heavy ball and is very aggressive for us."

The third set went back and forth before the Owls went on a 10-4 run that ended with a kill by junior middle blocker Natalie Bogan. The Owls were able to hold on to their 19-12 lead, eventually winning the third set 25-19 after a block by senior outside hitter and captain Jessica Holderness. Holderness recorded 18 digs, 6 kills and 4 blocks for the Owls.

This win was the Owls' second consecutive sweep of SMU. Volpe cited the team's serving as a key to the victory Friday night.

"I thought that we served very well against SMU," Volpe said. "If we serve tough, it makes our whole game that much easier, and it really contributed to our victory Friday."

Schamun credited several aspects of the team's play for the victory.

"We played a very quick offense, spread the ball around, and we made SMU think a lot," Schamun said.

Rice squared off Sunday at home against Tulsa, with a heartbreaking result. The Golden Hurricane downed the Owls in five sets (25-19, 25-13, 21- 25, 35-37, 15-12). Last season, Rice lost to Tulsa both times, which made the loss even worse for the squad.

The Owls fell behind 10-2 early in the first set, before climbing back to 21-19 following a block by sophomore middle blocker Caroline Gill. However, the Golden Hurricane followed up with a 4-0 run to close out the first set.

The second set ended with a similar result for the Owls. After a kill by Bogan that pulled Rice to within one, 7-6, Tulsa went on a 9-2 run from which Rice would never recover, losing the set 25-13. Down 2-0, the Owls rebounded strongly in the third set. However, they never led by more than four and only put Tulsa away with a kill by Bogan off of Schamun's assist.

The fourth set went back and forth, with no team leading by more than four points. After Tulsa evened the score at 20, neither team was able to take a lead of more than a point. With no team winning after the 25th point, the two teams played until one team took a lead of more than two points. After Bogan's block gave Rice a 36-35 lead, Rice finally won the set on an attack error by Tulsa.

The Golden Hurricanes jumped out early in the deciding fifth set, taking a 5-3 lead. After trading points, Tulsa took an 8-7 lead that they would never relinquish. Needing only 15 total points to win the match, Tulsa recorded a kill to finally put away the Owls, winning 15-12. The result was crushing for a team that hoped to prove themselves against the defending C-USA tournament champions. However, Volpe sees a positive side to the loss.

"I think this loss will help us down the road," Volpe said. "It was an extremely emotional loss that should not have happened at home. We're one of the best teams in the conference, and other schools are going to come after us. We need to be prepared for them and play consistently if we want to advance in the NCAA Tournament."

Coming off the five-set loss, Rice quickly rebounded Tuesday night against McNeese State. Senior outside hitter Karyn Morgan led the Owls with a double-double, posting 13 kills and 10 digs. Rice defeated McNeese 25-25, 25-19 and 25-20. The sweep improves the Owls' overall record to 11-4 on the season.

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