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Rice Volleyball 2009

By Paul Fitzgerald     8/27/09 7:00pm

With their season abruptly snuffed out by Wichita State University last year, the volleyball squad may have hung its head, dragged its feet and kept a frown as the offseason began. Instead, the team saw its loss, which came in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, as the end to an unabashed success. Not only did the team finish third in Conference USA, but they also made it to the Big Dance, their first appearance in four years.

Now, if all goes according to plan, the team's abrupt finish should provide it with all the motivation it will need to get even deeper this year.

"Our goals this year are to win the conference, win the conference tournament and make the second round of the NCAA Tournament, which would all be firsts for our program," Head Coach Genny Volpe said. "They understand that we've got a very strong squad this year."

Those goals will be difficult, as the Owls graduated three seniors last year: Ekaette Shammah, Karyn Morgan and Jessica Holderness (Hanszen '09). The latter two provided the Owls with a heady dose of offense, and their presence will be sorely missed.

"The pair of outside hitters [Holderness and Morgan] generated 39 percent of our offense last year, so they're going to be tough to replace," Volpe said. "We're going to need players on the court last year to put up bigger numbers, or have someone from the bench step up."

Returning sophomore Ashleigh McCord noted that the seniors left big holes to fill.

"We definitely lost two huge players," McCord said. "They kept their cool and were very collected through everything. Our seniors this year have huge shoes to fill."

Senior outside hitter Jennifer McClean, who was second on the team last year in service aces, will contribute for the Owls this season as one of the 2009 team captains. The other captain, senior middle blocker Natalie Bogan, will serve as the team's quiet leader.

In addition, two newcomers will hope to replace some of the production from last year's losses. Nancy Cole, a 6'3" middle blocker from Pasadena, Texas, comes in as the tallest player on the Rice roster. Cole was named first-team All-District three consecutive years and MVP of the USAV Junior Olympic National Division. Her height should provide a presence for the Rice lineup this year.

Rice's other newcomer this year is Megan Murphy, a setter from Plano, Texas. Murphy, who was named to the 2008 5A All-State team, will learn from one of the best returning setters in the country, junior Meredith Schamun.

Volpe has been very impressed by Murphy's court presence thus far.

"Megan is very experienced, as she has set at a high level with her high school and club team," Volpe said. "The words I'd use to describe her are cool, calm and collected, and she's very similar to [libero] Tracey [Lam] in that respect."

McCord only had positive things to say about the progress of the incoming players.

"The freshmen are doing really well," McCord said. "They came in and fit in really well with everyone. They kept right up along with the fast pace of the play and everything right from the start."

As Volpe alluded, the newcomers will have their mentors front and center to learn from. Lam, a junior, was named the C-USA Libero of the Year last fall, and looks to build on that performance this coming season.

On the other side of the ball, Schamun runs the show. The junior was named First-Team All-C-USA last season, and the coaches also voted her preseason Co-Player of the Year, the first time that has happened in the volleyball program's history, and an especially rare honor for a setter.

Schamun was joined on the preseason All-C-USA team by three of her teammates Bogan, Lam and McCord, an outside hitter.

McCord was the named the C-USA Newcomer of the Year in 2008, and the Owls have big expectations for her following her time this summer with the U.S. Women's National Junior Team.

Meanwhile, the Owls' defense will be fortified by junior middle blocker Caroline Gill, whose impressive sophomore campaign followed off-season foot surgery. The Owls expect big things from the fully-healthy junior.

"I would go as far to say that Caroline is probably our most underrated player," Volpe said. "She's worked hard all summer and is at the top of her game right now."

Senior setter Channing Grigsby, senior outside hitter Jessie Boulavsky and junior outside hitter Justyna Brewczyk will also be expected to provide invaluable experience for the team this year.

The team's depth will be tested early at the Mizuno Invitational, the team's season-opening tournament held at Tudor Fieldhouse. The Owls play Nicholls State University and the University of Oklahoma tomorrow, and the University of Central Arkansas and Houston Baptist University on August 29.

Rice certainly has the talent to achieve all of their goals. While C-USA did not conduct a preseason poll, the Owls' four preseason All-C-USA members indicate the respect opposing coaches will have for the Owls this year.

But respect means little in terms of wins and losses, so the Owls will strive for consistency in their success.

"We can't afford to be great one game and poor the next," Volpe said. "We're very good at certain aspects of the game and we've got to be consistent. We've got some new personnel this year, and we've been stressing consistency to them all preseason.

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