Volleyball optimistic for season
Photo Courtesy Joe Buvid - Rice Athletics
Head Coach Genny Volpe enters her 20th year leading the Rice Volleyball team as they start a new chapter in program history.
The 2022 season was full of firsts for the Rice volleyball team. The Owls lost just four matches the entire season on a run that saw them ranked in the top-20 in the nation for the first time in program history. Their wonder season ended at the hands of No. 17 Baylor in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Waco.
This year, the Owls return a majority of their roster in what they hope to be a year that sees them maintain their form. According to head coach Genny Volpe, the team’s core and newcomers are all making their own impacts within the team.
“We know that even with the loss of some key players from last year’s team, we still have a very solid foundation in place,” Volpe said. “Newcomers to the program and returners filling those spots and making their own impressions in those roles are what we are looking for.”
In preparation for the season, the Owls played exhibition matches in Brazil against local clubs and national teams. According to senior setter Izzy Rawlings, this trip greatly benefitted the team, introducing the new team members to Rice volleyball and honing the team’s overall skills and familiarity.
“Having the opportunity to travel and play in Brazil this past June was a huge asset to the team,” Rawlings said. “Our freshmen and graduate transfer, Emilia [Weske], were able to come to Rice in late May, allowing us all to train together with the coaches. Without Brazil, this wouldn’t have happened. We also spent almost every day in the gym this summer, working through things, bonding off the court and continuing the culture we have established.”
Weske, a right-side hitter who transferred to Rice from the University of Southern California, earned a Pac-12 All-Conference honorable mention last season and made it to the post season, losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite moving to a different state and joining a new team, Weske feels as if her integration has gone smoothly.
“Rice is heavily influenced by [Volpe’s] 20-year-long experience as a head coach,” Weske said. “It seems to me that the program is building off of tradition and pride. At USC, there is lots of glamor and constant media attention which makes you feel special, but it comes with a certain expectation and can fluctuate easily. It’s the Southern hospitality and friendliness of the people here in Texas that makes you feel recognized and valued in the Rice community.”
A big change coming this year for the Owls is its introduction into the American Athletic Conference. This step up in conference, coupled with the expectation to build upon last year’s success, could rattle any team. According to Rawlings, though, that change is coupled with anticipation.
“I think it’s all excitement, to be honest,” Rawlings said. “Change can be scary, but this is a huge step forward for the university and our program.
When asked about any changes to the team in response to the conference change, Volpe emphasized that the team’s goals remained the same, doubling-down on her expectations for her squad.
“We plan to compete for a championship, put ourselves in the best position to make the postseason and advance as far as we can,” Volpe said. “The main difference this year for us is that there is no conference tournament that earns the automatic qualifier.”
The team starts their season off against some of the country’s best teams, including No. 1 Texas, No. 3 Stanford, No. 15 Baylor and No. 22 USC, Weske’s former school.
According to Volpe, these matches will benefit the team, regardless of the outcomes and odds.
"For us, we want the challenge,” Volpe said. “We want the opportunity to compete against the best in the country. Either way, win or lose, we are making ourselves better. We have never backed down from this type of schedule and I think it makes us stronger.”
Rice comes in as No. 23 in the nation, a feat that, according to Rawlings, is representative of the work they have put in for the past few months.
“I think this is proof that buying into the process pays off,” Rawlings said. “This team is unreal, every single player is unreal and our coaching staff is unreal. We have high goals and standards as a team and, for us, that looks like being better than the day before.”
The Owls kick off their season with three straight home games. First, they host the University of Southern Mississippi on Friday, Aug. 25 at 6 p.m. before taking on No. 22 USC on Saturday, Aug. 26 at 6 p.m.. The Owls end their home stretch against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on Tuesday, Aug. 29 at 6 p.m.
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