Volleyball set for run at trip to NCAA tournament
While the volleyball team has found itself near the top of the conference standings due to their conference record, their subpar overall record has given the other top Conference USA teams reason to doubt the Owls legitimacy. With conference leaders the University of Tulsa (25-5, 16-1 C-USA) and rival Southern Methodist University (13-16, 9-8 C-USA) in town for the last Rice home stand of the season, the seniors had their chance to prove they deserved some recognition in conference. However, the Golden Hurricane swept into Houston and took care of the Owls to end all dreams of winning the conference. The team still sent the seniors off with a bang as they beat SMU for the second consecutive time this season on Senior Day.
On Friday, the Owls hosted Tulsa in what was going to be one of the toughest home matches of the season. Rice knew they could not fall in a hole against Tulsa or else the match would be over in a hurry. The Owls could not use the raucous crowd to their advantage early as Tulsa dominated the first set with a score of 25-19. In the second set, again it looked like it was all Tulsa as they cruised to a 24-18 lead, just one point away from a deadly 2-0 lead. The Owls would not fold as they reeled off an unbelievable six straight points to tie the match at 24-24. Rice was determined to win the set as they fought off another set point en route to a 28-26 second set win, which tied the match at 1-1.
With momentum on their side, it looked like the Owls would have a chance to do the unthinkable and upset Tulsa at home. The Golden Hurricane had other plans, as they did not let the heartbreaking loss of the second set linger. Tulsa and Rice were neck and neck in the third set before Tulsa reeled off five straight points to pull away with a 25-22 set victory. Down 2-1, the Owls knew they had an uphill climb, but they would not give up as they took Tulsa to the brink of a fifth set as the fourth set was tied at 23-23. Tulsa showed why they are the best team in conference after they reeled off two straight points to win the set, 25-23 and win the match, 3-1. On the attack, junior middle blocker Nancy Cole led the team with 12 kills while freshman outside hitter Lizzy Bache had 10. Sophomore setter Megan Murphy notched 38 assists while freshman defensive specialist Daniela Arenas had 16 digs to lead all Rice players.
On Sunday, the Owls hoped they could put the heartbreaking loss from Tulsa aside and go on to win against SMU for the seniors in their last home game. Rice had beaten the Mustangs earlier in the season, so they were confident they could do it again. Rice started off stronger than they did against Tulsa as they edged out the Mustangs for a 25-21 set victory. In the second set, the Owls kept asserting their dominance by easily holding off SMU for a 25-17 set victory. Rice would not let SMU even dream they had a puncher's chance in the match as they put them away, 25-18 in the third set for a sweep. Cole again dominated as she had a team-high 14 kills. Murphy had 41 assists, while junior outside hitter Laurie McNamara got 15 digs. Senior defensive specialist Megan White had seven digs as she said goodbye to Tudor Fieldhouse for the last time.
With the split over the weekend, the Owls are now 16-12 on the season with an 11-6 conference record, good enough to tie the University of Alabama-Birmingham for second place. The Owls finished the regular season with a respectable 10-5 record at home. Head Coach Genny Volpe was very pleased with Rice's play at home this season, but she felt that there is no difference between road and home games for the Owls.
"To tell you the truth, I don't see a big difference between the way we play at home and the way we play on the road," Volpe said. "We are not playing on the road like we have a disadvantage. We just play."
Sunday's game against SMU was the last time that senior outside hitter Jordan Meredith and White will don the white home jersey for the Owls. Murphy said that the team is going to miss the seniors and that hopefully their presence will be filled in the future.
"We are definitely going to miss the seniors a lot," Murphy said. "They have been impact players for the past couple of years so we are going to miss them a lot, but we have great players coming in so we should be alright."
The Owls want to continue their quest for second place in conference as they head to the southeast to take on the University of Southern Mississippi (15-14, 9-8 C-USA) tonight and Tulane University (9-19, 4-13 C-USA) on Sunday. Earlier this season, Rice beat both teams at home, Southern Miss in five grueling sets and Tulane in four tough sets. Volpe knows how crucial these two matches are going to be in terms of finishing strong in conference and getting a NCAA tournament berth since USM and Tulane are going to be giving it their all to upset the Owls.
"Southern Miss is an extremely scrappy team as they are aggressive offensively," Volpe said. "We know we are going to have our hands full. Tulane has been struggling lately so we are going to try to exploit their defense to pull out the win. Both teams are worthy opponents and they always compete well against us."
The Owls' final home game will be Wednesday, Nov. 23 against the University of Houston (17-10, 10-7 C-USA). The Cougars came into Tudor Fieldhouse and swept the Owls 3-0 on Sept. 20 in both teams' first conference matchup, so the Owls will be out for revenge on Cullen Boulevard as both teams look to put themselves in the discussion for an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament.
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