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Bring out the brooms: Rice sweeps No. 22 USC, jumps to No. 18

Kathleen Ortiz / Thresher Sophomore setter Darby Harris celebrates winning a point. The Rice Owls swept the University of Southern California, ranked No. 22 in the nation, Saturday night.

By Cadan Hanson     8/30/23 12:33am

Sophomore setter Darby Harris celebrates winning a point. The Rice Owls swept the University of Southern California, ranked No. 22 in the nation, Saturday night. 

Volleyball rose to the occasion last weekend, sweeping the No. 22 University of Southern California in straight sets 25-21, 25-22 and 25-18. 

After the game, head coach Genny Volpe said she was pleased with the play of the Owls and grateful for the home-court advantage. 

“First of all, I was so impressed with the turnout by the student body and community,” Volpe said. “It was a great environment for our players and really helped create a true home court advantage. I was pleased with many areas of our game, especially our serving and our serve receive.”

The turnout for the highly anticipated top-25 matchup was strong as 1,393 fans packed Tudor Fieldhouse. The first set lived up to the pre-game hype with neither team taking more than a three-point lead until Rice extended their lead late in the set to four thanks to two kills and a block by senior outside hitter Danyle Courtley. The Trojans made a late push but two service errors and a final kill by Courtley ended the comeback hopes and secured the first set advantage to Rice.

“Danyle [Courtley] has the ability to terminate at a high level and it’s great to see her confidence continue to grow,” Volpe said. “She adds so much fire and energy to the team. She not only produces at the net, but she provides a great deal of spirit on the court that we need.”

Graduate transfer right side Emilia Weske led the Owls’ first set win with six kills. Weske, who transferred from USC this year, took the court opposite her old team for the first time, and she gave her old teammates a taste of her own medicine with 11 kills, three aces and 13 digs. Her performance helped her earn her American Conference Honor Roll awards in the Owls’ first week in the new conference. Weske said that facing off against her old team was a weird feeling.

“It was the weirdest feeling ever seeing my friends and old teammates on the other side of the net,” Weske said. “At times I wanted to start small-talking through the net but we had to keep it professional, and obviously, I wanted to win for Rice and my decision to come here. I was really happy to see the USC girls, coaches and parents, though. After all, I owe much of my progress as a player and person to USC, and the support and respect the program still shows towards me makes me proud to be a Trojan.”

The second set was again evenly paced with Rice maintaining a small lead until the Trojans embarked on a 5-0 run in the middle of the set to take a one point lead at 14-13. Ultimately, in the second set, errors fell in Rice’s favor, with the Trojans committing a total of eight attack errors and three service errors, allowing Rice to take the set 25-22. 

In the third set the Owls came out swinging, taking an early 3-0 lead. The Owls never relinquished their lead and went on a 6-0 run. Offensively, Courtley led the Owls with six of her team-leading 14 kills coming in the third set, helping outpace the Trojans in team kills. Junior middle blocker Kaityln Knobbe added three kills in the third set, part of her six kill, two block and 0.500 hitting percentage performance. Freshman outside hitter Cindy Tchouanga hammered the final nail into the coffin with a cross-court kill, sealing the third set 25-16 and completing the sweep. After the game, Weske was pleased with how the Owls stepped up to the challenge.

“I think we have grown in the belief that we can tap into new levels as a team,” Weske said. “We saw multiple players step up their game defensively and offensively and learned to lean on each other more in the tough moments. I’m excited for the new challenges and opportunities to play Rice volleyball.”

Offensively, the Owls out-killed the Trojans 40-33 and out-served them, with five aces to the Trojans’ one. Defensively, Nia McCardell picked up where she left off last year, earning the AAC Defensive Player of the Week thanks to her 18 dig performance on Saturday and her 16 dig performance in Rice’s 3-1 win against the University of Southern Mississippi on Friday. Volpe was pleased with the Owls’ performance on both sides of the ball, especially by the veteran libero McCardell.

“I thought Nia [McCardell] showed why she’s one of the best liberos in the country tonight,” Volpe said. “[The team] really stepped up and found their offensive rhythm, too.”

The Owls, who entered the weekend ranked No. 23 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association, earned a promotion following the 2-0 start to the season and a big ranked-matchup win, jumping to the No. 18 spot. The Owls now look ahead to the rest of their difficult non-conference schedule, including a pair of top-10 opponents: No. 7 University of Texas and No. 2 Stanford University. Following their home matchup against Louisiana University on Tuesday, the Owls will travel to Waco to take on No. 15 Baylor University in another highly anticipated ranked match up.

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