Volleyball drops home matches to C-USA leaders
In volleyball, ephemeral hope is all too common. One moment a team can be celebrating a critical kill and then seconds later can feel frustration at a ball that fell to the floor just out of reach. The same could be said for the Owls' regular season conference championship hopes, as their optimism came crashing down this weekend. With losses to Southern Methodist University (17-5, 9-2 C-USA) and the University of Tulsa (21-2, 11-0 C-USA) over the weekend, Rice is now 12-11 overall and 7-4 in conference, leaving them four games behind Tulsa for the conference lead. On Friday night, the Owls lost to SMU by a score of 3-1. The Mustangs barely squeezed past the Owls in the first set 25-23 after nearly blowing a 8-2 lead. Rice stayed even with the Mustangs throughout the first half of the second set before breaking away to a 25-19 victory on a pivotal kill by freshman outside hitter Mariah Riddlesprigger. However, the Mustangs' lauded defense proved their mettle, as SMU broke the Owls' momentum by taking the next two sets 25-21 and 25-16 to win the match. Despite a variety of attacks from Rice during the last two sets, they were unable to maintain any type of momentum against the Mustangs. For the match, senior middle back Nancy Cole had 18 kills, while sophomore outside hitter Laurie McNamara added 12. Senior setter Meredith Schamun had 48 assists and senior libero Tracey Lam added 24 digs.
On Sunday afternoon, Rice hosted Tulsa in a thrilling match that ended with a disappointing result, with the Golden Hurricane sweeping the Owls 3-0. Tulsa dominated the Owls in the first set by winning 25-15. However, Rice never quit, as the team pushed Tulsa to the limit in the next two sets. Although Rice had set points in both sets, the Owls could not fend off the Golden Hurricane, who eventually went on to win both the second and third sets with scores of 30-28 to continue their 20-match win streak, the longest in the nation. For the match, junior outside hitter Ashleigh McCord had 18 kills and Cole had 12. Schamun had 39 assists while Lam had 20 digs and junior outside hitter Megan White added 15 digs.
After last week's brutal weekend, the Owls head out on the road to play East Carolina University (1- 21, 0-10) today and Marshall University (9-13, 3-7) on Sunday. In the past five seasons, the Owls have been 3-3 against Marshall and 2-3 against East Carolina. In the past two seasons, however, Rice has been a combined 5-0 against East Carolina and Marshall, including a victory over Marshall in the Conference USA tournament quarterfinals last year.
Although the Owls have dug themselves in a hole in terms of the conference chase, injured senior middle blocker Caroline Gill is still positive on what the team can do with the rest of the season.
"I think the team mentality is positive," Gill said. "We still have a shot at winning conference, so people have their hopes up. Yeah, it hurts losing this weekend, but I think that we are staying positive."
Head Coach Genny Volpe feels that while the team has no control over what happens with Tulsa and SMU for the rest of the season, much can still be salvaged as the Owls reach the final stretch.
"Our focus is to hopefully be undefeated for the rest of the season, get our 20-win season and then let the chips fall where they may for the rest of the teams in conference," Volpe said. "We did a really good job shaking off the Tulsa and SMU losses and moving forward in practice."
In preparation for road matches against East Carolina and Marshall this weekend, Volpe is making sure the team knows that a sub-par effort could spell a long weekend on the road. Despite the fact that East Carolina and Marshall have combined for just two conference wins, Volpe expects the Owls to not take the Pirates or Thundering Herd lightly.
"What we need to do and what we expect to do is to treat East Carolina exactly as we treated Tulsa," Volpe said. "The only way that we are going to dominate a team is if we come out and perform our A-game every single day, whether it is East Carolina, Tulsa or anyone."
With only three matches separating the third- and ninth-place teams, the Owls will need to take advantage of the weaker opponents ahead to break away from the pack in order to better position themselves for a conference tournament championship - most likely Rice's only opportunity for a third-consecutive bid to the NCAA Tournament.
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