New approach might make volleyball more dangerous
The idea that losing a key player can make a team better – often called “addition by subtraction” – has been at the center of many a hot take over the years. At first glance, the Rice volleyball team would appear to have a case of addition by subtraction on their hands this season. After losing their all-time kills leader, outside hitter Nicole Lennon, the team has somehow gotten better this season. Two games into their conference schedule, they’re 12-1 on the year and ranked No. 22 in the NCAA after beating then-No. 17 Creighton University. At this point last season, they were 8-5 — albeit against a slightly stronger non-conference schedule. In the past, head coach Genny Volpe’s teams have struggled against difficult non-conference schedules before fixing their flaws against overmatched conference opponents and hitting their stride at the end of the year. If this team is still a ways off of their peak, which is a big if, it would be the best team Volpe has had in years.
The strange part about the Owls’ success this year is that they’re doing it without a clear replacement for Lennon. Where Lennon contributed 4.44 kills per set last year, no Owl on this year’s team has a figure above three. Instead, they’ve taken a collective approach at replacing her production. While last year’s team had only two players above the 2.5 kills per set threshold, four players have reached it this year. Fifth-year senior middle blocker Anota Adekunle has taken on some extra responsibility, chipping in an extra 0.3 kills per set compared to last year, while outside hitters Ellie Bichelmeyer, Danyle Courtley and Sahara Maruska are all on pace for career highs in kills. This has made the Owls offense far less predictable and keeps opposing defenses constantly guessing — their four primary attack options have almost identical kills-per-set numbers and no Owl had led the team in kills in consecutive games until Adekunle accomplished the feat just over a week ago. That unpredictability has helped the Owls limit the damage of losing one of the best players in program history, but it hasn’t completely replaced her production. Their 13.67 kills per set as a team is almost but not quite on par with their 13.85 figure from non-conference play last year.
The real root of the Owls’ improvement this year has been their defense. They’re averaging 1.2 more digs per set than last year, while they’re holding opponents to 1.2 fewer kills per set than last year – and all of those figures should only improve as they play more conference games. Leading the charge has been junior libero Nia McCardell, who’s averaging nearly two more digs per set than last season’s team high at 5.35, and opened the year with three straight Conference USA defensive player of the week awards.
However that isn’t the entire story behind their improvement. While their new offensive approach isn’t quite as potent on a per-set basis, it’s given them flexibility that they didn’t have a year ago. Last season, the Owls’ first choice was to get the ball to Lennon, and their second choice was to use her as a decoy for one of their other attackers, with the ultra-efficient Adekunle contributing kills as well but on relatively few attempts. If teams were able to stifle that, Rice had little else to turn to. When they lost the first set last year, they went on to win just two of eight matches. This year, they’re 3-0 in those games, including comebacks against Louisiana State University and Texas Tech University where their offense looked completely overmatched in the first set, and a reverse sweep of Kansas State University. They can’t be expected to keep that 100% rate up over the course of an entire season, but so far their versatility on offense has allowed them to seamlessly pivot when Plan A isn’t working. That’s not a result of losing Lennon — if she was still around it would give them yet another option in attack and make the offense even more versatile — it’s the result of three Owl outside hitters enjoying breakout seasons at the same time. But when the postseason comes around and they have to play tougher opponents, their ability to pivot might prove to be a secret weapon. Just don’t call it addition by subtraction.
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In 2019, the Rice volleyball team took on Western Kentucky University in the Conference USA final only to lose in a five-set heartbreaker. They got another shot at the Hilltoppers in the following year’s title game, and again in 2021, but both times WKU came out on top. Just ten days earlier, while not in the conference tournament, the Hilltoppers beat the Owls in a fifth-set tiebreaker to secure the C-USA regular season title. Sunday, though, the result was different. The No. 22 Owls finally made it past their conference rival, on the No. 20 Hilltoppers’ home court no less, to secure a conference title for the first time since 2018. After the match, head coach Genny Volpe said that she was thrilled to see her team rewarded for their efforts all year.
Like clockwork, death, taxes, and whatever other cliché you want to use to describe mind-bending consistency, No. 22 Rice volleyball will face No. 20 Western Kentucky University in the Conference USA final yet again. The Owls secured a finals spot against the top-seeded Hilltoppers for the fourth consecutive year with a sweep of the University of Texas at El Paso in Saturday’s semifinal. According to head coach Genny Volpe, the Owls executed their game plan almost perfectly to punch their ticket to the final.
Rice volleyball took care of business in the first round of the Conference USA tournament, sweeping the No.7 seed Florida International University (26-24, 25-22, 25-18). With the win, the No. 2 seed Owls advanced to the semifinals where they will face University of Texas at El-Paso. After the win, head coach Genny Volpe was happy with the sweep and moving on to the semifinals.