Victories keep volleyball in thick of hunt for first place
Going into this week, the Owls had been soaring through conference play, compiling a 6-1 record. After picking up two victories against Tulane University (5-15, 2-6 C-USA) on Oct. 8 and 9 in which they dropped only one game over the two matches, Rice vaulted themselves near the top of Conference USA. However, the Owls' flight isn't as strong at the moment, as they have put themselves in a small hole in the race for the regular season conference championship.The team suffered a tough loss last Friday at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (5-15, 2-6 C-USA), which had only one conference win coming into the match. The Owls lost 3-2 as they dropped a hard-fought fifth set 15-12. Freshman outside hitter Mariah Riddlesprigger led the team with 16 kills while sophomore middle blocker Nancy Cole added 14. Senior setter Meredith Schamun had 49 assists while senior libero Tracey Lam had 32 digs. Junior outside hitter Ashleigh McCord only played briefly in the first set as she suffered some stiffness in her legs and had to sit out for the rest of the match.
Rice rebounded, however, to win 3-1 at the University of Memphis (12-8, 3-5 C-USA) on Sunday, salvaging a 1-1 record for the weekend. Rice lost the first set 25-23 and looked to be on its way to a disappointing weekend, but the Owls rebounded to get a convincing road win in the last three sets. Cole again had 14 kills while McCord played the entire match and recorded 13 kills. Schamun had 37 assists while Lam had 26 digs.
This weekend leaves the Owls at 12-9 overall with a 7-2 record in conference putting them in third place. The University of Tulsa (19-2, 9-0 C-USA) is ahead by two games with an unblemished 9-0 record in conference with Southern Methodist University (16-4, 8-1 C-USA) in second with a 8-1 record. Rice gets a chance to catch up with SMU and Tulsa as they play both at home today and Sunday, respectively.
In the past five seasons against SMU, Rice has posted a respectable 6-3 record, but they are only 2-8 against Tulsa over the same span. However, the last win against Tulsa came in a grueling match in the C-USA title game last year, which Rice won 3-1. Tulsa has won 19 straight matches with their last loss coming against the University of St. Louis (11-9, 4-2 A-10) on Aug. 28.
Regarding SMU, Head Coach Genny Volpe is worried about the Mustangs' solid defense, which has so far been very impressive through conference play.
"They are the best defensive team in the conference right now," Volpe said. "They are second in blocks and first in digs. It is pretty tough to lead the conference in digs and blocks, so our focus right now is on SMU. I think our focus is to basically take SMU's defense away from them."
For Tulsa, Volpe is concerned about their sophomore outside hitter, Tyler Henderson, whom she values as one of the best outside hitters in the country. Volpe added that Henderson's talent is motivating the Owls even more for this match.
"The competition is going to be great, so I know the team is really looking forward to it, specifically playing against the best hitter in the country, Tyler Henderson," Volpe said. "She is leading the country in kills per game. It's going to be really good and we are excited about it."
Riddlesprigger agreed that she felt tremendous respect for the Golden Hurricanes' sophomore and realized that to get a win, everyone has to bring their A game.
"The Tulsa match is going to be that much more important because they have one of the best outsides in the conference," Riddlesprigger said, "She's a sophomore with 1,000 kills already. She's amazing. All 14 players have to be ready at all times and we should take care of business."
For Rice, this weekend will play a major role in deciding whether or not the Owls will factor into the conference title race at all. A pair of Rice losses this weekend would make it difficult for the Owls to catch Tulsa or SMU in the standings before the regular season ends. Volpe knows that the Owls will be slightly nervous, but she also thinks they will reach a higher level considering the high stakes associated with the matches.
"We are going to fight and we are going to play hard and we are going to lay it all out on the floor because we know we need to win Conference USA," Volpe said. "It's obvious that all of these matches are important. We are just really ready and anxious to play them.
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