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Volleyball extends historic stretch to start season

Courtesy Helen Pu

By Spencer Moffat     9/10/19 9:16pm

The Rice volleyball team completed a three-game sweep of two opponents last weekend during the Rice Adidas Invitational at Tudor Fieldhouse with two 3-1 victories over Loyola Marymount University on Friday and Saturday, capping  the invitational with a 3-0 victory over Abilene Christian University. On Tuesday evening, the Owls continued their hot streak by defeating Houston Baptist University 3-0. Rice improved to 7-0 on the season and is off to the program’s best start since 1998.

The Owls opened the invitational with their first match against LMU. After losing the first set to the Lions by four points, Rice held their opponents to just 13 points in the second set before finishing off LMU with victories in the last two sets. Five different Owls totaled at least three blocks, led by a match-high five rejections from senior middle blocker Grace Morgan.  

Head coach Genny Volpe said the balanced attack was a key point of emphasis for the team. 

“We’re showing that we have a lot of balance and a lot of options,” Volpe said. “I’m loving the progress of our offense.” 

Rice’s second match against LMU on Saturday afternoon had a similar storyline. The Owls dropped the first set and then went on to win two sets in a row. Rice came within one point of securing the win in the fourth set after holding LMU to 19 points, but then the Lions made four consecutive kills. In response, sophomore middle blocker Anota Adekunle made her career-high 18th kill to give the Owls the win. 

Volpe said she was confident even during LMU’s comeback. 

“As a coach you have to prepare for any situation, but we were definitely intent on taking care of business in four [sets],” Volpe said. “I can’t say enough about how each player on the team is committed to being prepared.”

On Saturday night, Rice faced off against ACU in its third and final weekend match. After winning the first two sets, the Owls and Wildcats found themselves knotted at 23 points apiece in the third set. But the Owls promptly finished off Abilene Christian with two consecutive, hard-hitting kills from junior outside hitter Nicole Lennon to finish the weekend with their fourth straight-set victory of the year.

In the process of working to help her team win against ACU, Lennon left a permanent mark in the Rice history books, becoming the 17th player in program history to surpass 1,000 career kills. According to Lennon, her teammates should receive some of the credit for the achievement. 

“I don’t think I could have done it without them,” Lennon said. “Our setters do a good job of spreading out our offense so I don’t have too much on my back.”

On Monday, Lennon was also named the Conference USA Co-Offensive Player of the Week, her second such award in the last two weeks. Volpe said Lennon’s willingness to confront challenges has allowed her to maintain a high level of play, even with increased attention. 

“People are starting to key in on [Lennon] and she is really responding to every challenge that is put in front of her,” Volpe said.

Though Lennon stole the headlines with her career milestone, two other players from Rice also made the Adidas Invitational All-Tournament Team, with Adekunle earning tournament MVP honors. According to Volpe, Adekunle has demonstrated improvement from last season. 

“[Adekunle] is a special player,” Volpe said. “Her transition game has gotten a lot better.” 

Lennon and senior libero Lee Ann Cunningham, who totaled 55 digs in the tournament, were the other two Owls selected to the All-Tournament Team.

Tuesday’s game against Houston Baptist University was never close. Rice took the first two sets (25-12, 25-14) before putting the hammer down in the third set with a blowout 25-7 victory — the lowest point total in a set the Owls have allowed to an opponent this year. 

Rice will look to continue its hot pace before the team begins conference play. The Owls open C-USA action at Tudor Fieldhouse on Sept. 27 against the University of Texas, El Paso. In the meantime, the Owls will prepare for several challenging non-conference opponents, including the University of Texas, Austin and Texas Christian University, in the coming weeks. 

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