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Horns Down: Volleyball to face No. 3 Texas

Courtesy Helen Pu

By Michael Byrnes     9/17/19 9:52pm

Today, Rice volleyball faces its toughest test of the season so far: a match against No. 3-ranked University of Texas, Austin. Rice enters the contest with a 9-1 record on the season.

On Saturday, the Owls suffered their first loss of the season, dropping a five-set match to Stephen F. Austin State University. It was the first time Rice had faced a fifth set all season, and only the third set deficit the team had encountered on the season.  Head coach Genny Volpe said the team can take away some lessons from its defeat.

“There were a few instances where we just didn’t take care of the ball, and seize an opportunity when we had it,” Volpe said. “But it was a battle, it was a dogfight, and this team [showed] that they are definitely a team that fights and grinds and is resilient, so I’m expecting them to bounce back from that tough loss.” 

Like Rice, Texas enters this matchup with just one loss this season: the Longhorns’ loss was a five-set nail-biter against then-top-ranked Stanford University. UT’s greatest strength lies in its offense, driven by two of the top outside hitters in the country, senior Micaya White and sophomore Logan Eggleston. The two have combined for 111 kills in the Longhorns’ last three matches, and White was the 2018 Big 12 Player of the Year. Overall, Texas’s offense has the No. 5 hitting percentage in the country. According to Volpe, Rice must work to maintain defensive consistency when dealing with an offense as potent as UT’s.

“[Texas] will get their kills,” Volpe said. “When they have an opening ... and they take a good swing and they get a kill, [we can’t] worry too much about it. [We have to] take care of the little things. We’re trying to be [really] disciplined with our defense. Our block has to be disciplined; we talked about how our block [against SFA] wasn’t as strong as it normally is ... but it’s been there before, so we know we just have to execute.”

Rice’s defense has been stout. On the year, the Owls are ranked No. 6 nationally in lowest opponents’ hitting percentage. According to Volpe, this dynamic will likely result in a tough, hard-fought contest.

“I look at these two teams and I think that we’re probably going to see a lot of rallies,” Volpe said. “We’ve been scoring at a pretty high rate, but so have they, and we’ve also been defending well. I think athletically, we match up pretty well ... it’s going to be really high-level volleyball, not a lot of sloppy play. I think it’s going to be tons of defense [and] lots of long rallies.” 

UT isn’t the only team in the contest with a powerful outside presence. Rice’s Nicole Lennon, a junior outside hitter, has started the season ranked No. 6 in the country in total kills and No. 11 in total points. On Monday, Lennon was named C-USA Offensive Player of the Week alongside Lauren Matthews of Western Kentucky University; this is the third straight week that Lennon has received such an honor. Lennon said much of her prowess is made possible by her supportive team.

“Everything that I do, I couldn’t do without my teammates,” Lennon said. “They are the backbone of the team, and they always support me in everything that I do. So their support and their performance makes me the player that I am.”

Volpe also said that she thinks the game will hinge on two aspects of the game that don’t always get featured on the highlight reel.

“Honestly, I think in the end it’s going to come down to serving and passing,” Volpe said. “I think that’s going to be the key; [to] serve tough and get them out of [rhythm]. But on the flip side they are a tough-serving team ... so we need to be strong on the receiving side [too].”

The attendance record for a volleyball game at Tudor Fieldhouse is 1,429, according to a tweet from the official Rice University Twitter account. In anticipation of the game, the school has been campaigning on social media to try and break this mark. According to sophomore middle blocker Anota Adekunle, helping break the record will be well worth students’ time.

“[Students] need to come for sure,” Adekunle said. “We need as much support here as we can. It’ll be a good game, we promise.”

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