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New conference, same results: Volleyball opens AAC play with perfect record

Courtesy Rice Athletics Senior libero Nia McCardell hits the ball in a game over the weekend. Rice Volleyball is currently on a five-game winning streak, including three road wins last weekend.

By Diego Palos Rodriguez     9/27/23 12:18am

Rice Volleyball defeated the University of Alabama at Birmingham at home and the University of Tulsa on the road twice last week to open their first-ever American Athletic Conference season, moving the Owls to 9-4 on the season. This streak also brings the Owls to five consecutive unbeaten games since a Sept. 11 loss to No. 10 University of Texas at Austin. 

Despite defeats to nationally-ranked teams like the Longhorns and No. 3 Stanford University in the preseason, graduate transfer right-side hitter Emilia Weske believes that the Owls continue to perfect their craft the more games they play.

“Preseason definitely challenged us and the transition to a new conference still holds many unknowns, but we are continuing to grow stronger as a team and finding our groove,” Weske said. 

Rice’s AAC debut set nearly got off on the wrong foot, however. After opening 3-0, the Owls gave up streaks of points throughout the first set, and they trailed 19-15 to UAB at one point. The Owls went on a 5-1 streak of their own and were eventually able to cap off the set after a kill by junior right-side hitter Lola Foord.

The Owls went on to dominate the second and third sets with scores of 25-12 and 25-20, respectively. According to head coach Genny Volpe, the offensive quality seen from Rice is a testament to the team’s preseason efforts.

“Our offense [improved over preseason],” Volpe said. “We are still working through consistency, but it has been good to see different people step up and score more points.”

The Owls then traveled to Tulsa, Okla. for a weekend double-header against the Golden Hurricane. Almost as a preview for the game that was to follow, the first set saw Rice and Tulsa tightly matched with the Owls winning the first set 28-26, with neither team leading by more than four points throughout the set. Tulsa took the next two sets in similar fashion, leaving Rice with the burden of a comeback.

The fourth set was even closer than the first three. After trailing 20-14, Rice went on a 9-3 streak to come back and warded off three match points before two consecutive kills by senior outside hitter Danyle Courtley awarded Rice the set. The momentum propelled the Owls to a quick start in the tiebreaker set, defeating the Golden Hurricane 15-19 and sealing their comeback victory.

A large contributor to the victory was senior libero Nia McCardell’s 33 digs, tying her season high and leading her to winning AAC Defensive Player of the Week.

Following the victory, Volpe explained that the team was able to gain new confidence after fending off Tusla and completing the comeback.

“Our team gained a ton of confidence in how we came back multiple times after being down, and found a way to win,” Volpe said. “I think overcoming that type of adversity will definitely pay off down the road.”

The Owls continued to be challenged in the first set of Sunday’s bout, coming out with a 30-28 victory to start the game. The next two sets, however, were easily taken care of by Rice, capping off a perfect road trip and beginning to the AAC season. 

According to Weske, as the conference season gets running, the greater regularity in the team’s schedule will help the squad maintain their quality.

“I’m looking forward to the routine and consistency that the regular season schedule brings,” Weske said. “This will be a good foundation for us to find consistency in our game, too.”

Volpe echoed this, emphasizing that these results can grow with time.

“We have started out well,” Volpe said. “I think our numbers are climbing in terms of statistics offensively, and defensively, we are one of the best in the country. I’m sure we will need to make adjustments, but for now we are taking it one day at a time with the main goal of getting better each time we hit the floor to compete.”

Volpe’s assessment of her squad’s top defensive ranking is further substantiated by the statistic that Rice women’s volleyball ranks first out of 332 Division 1 teams in digs per set, forcing 19.38. McCardell said that this team strength shone this weekend and hopes the team can continue to embrace this strength in the future. 

“After playing UAB and Tulsa, our defense has continued to show how strong it is and we’re just going to continue to keep digging balls so we can create more play opportunities for the front row,” McCardell said. “We’re really excited to continue fluidity amongst all aspects of our game and dominate.”

The Owls will hope to extend this win streak when they return to Tudor Fieldhouse for a Texas bout against the University of Texas at San Antonio Friday, Sept. 29 at 6 p.m. and Saturday, Sept. 30 at 1 p.m. Both games will be streamed on ESPN+.

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