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Volleyball continues to truck through the AAC

Courtesy Rice Athletics The Rice women’s volleyball team celebrates after scoring. Volleyball swept UTSA twice over the weekend, pushing their win streak to seven with an 11-4 overall record.

By Landry Wood     10/4/23 12:23am

Going into last Friday’s match against the University of Texas at San Antonio, Rice Volleyball had won 15 of their last 19 sets. At the end of their victorious home stand against the Roadrunners, the Owls had improved that to 21 sets out of 25, extending their win streak to seven games and preserving their undefeated status in conference play.

 The first set of the first match began competitively. UTSA and Rice traded kills and errors until the Roadrunners led 7-6; then the Owls got away with the set on the back of a 10-1 run shortly followed by an 8-2 sequence. The game was dominated by senior outside hitter Sahara Maruska, hitting 0.571, and senior libero Nia McCardell, leading all players with 21 digs in the match.

“We have the most digs per set in Division 1 right now,” sophomore setter Darby Harris said. “I think that has been one of the ways we’ve fought through the tough matches that we have. It helps to have a strong and experienced libero [in McCardell] leading our back row to keep balls alive.” 

The Roadrunners kept sets two and three closer, nearly achieving parity at 20-19 and 13-12 respectively, but ultimately lost out to the firepower of senior Danyle Courtley, hitting 0.382 with 16 kills for the match, and graduate student Emilia Weske, hitting 0.478 with 12. Rice outscored UTSA 75-51.

“Our goal this past week was to put more pressure on UTSA’s passing with tough serving and a strong hitting efficiency,” Head Coach Genny Volpe said. “I think we succeeded in both. I’m also happy with our balance of attack.”

The second match began to mirror the first, with UTSA maintaining equality to 5-5 until Rice pulled ahead off a 9-2 run. The Roadrunners stabilized to reach 16-10, before the Owls took the set with another 9-2 sprint. Set two stayed close, with neither team taking a lead of more than six points and UTSA eventually gaining the set point at 25-24. Weske, assisted by Harris, tied the score on a kill, and the Owls won the set on two consecutive Roadrunner errors forced by blocks from Weske, Courtley and junior Kaitlyn Knobbe.

“[Going into the series], we were most focused on our block,” Harris said. “We ended up with seven stuff blocks from the first game and 10 the second day, which was successful for what our goals were. Knobbe and [graduate student] Satasha Kostelecky led the charge at the net with their aggressive block moves and disciplined setup.”

To start set three, Rice allowed a 10-3 UTSA run that put the score at 13-7, the biggest lead the Roadrunners got in the series. The Owls responded with a 9-2 run off eight kills, before Roadrunner resistance tied the set 20-20. A kill from Kostelecky and another from Weske put Rice in the position to trade points until the set’s end, sweeping UTSA out of Tudor Fieldhouse.

When that second match ended, Harris completed another double-double in digs and assists, her fourth consecutive and eighth on the season. According to Volpe, this successful stretch for Rice since its Sept. 11 loss to the University of Texas at Austin has been fueled by consistent defense tactics.

“I think our defense continues to shine,” Volpe said. “Our blocking really took off this weekend, which was good to see.” 

Rice has made the NCAA Tournament and finished either first or second in conference for five consecutive seasons. They have lost only two starters from 2022’s 27-4 squad and are no longer competing in conference against Western Kentucky University, the only other team to win the Conference USA in the last half-decade. But, according to Volpe, complacency is not an option.

“We will face some really tough teams down the stretch, so we need to make sure that we are never allowing ourselves to get complacent,” Volpe said. “We must keep pushing ourselves to get a little better every day and take nothing for granted.”

The Owls will take on a road trip for this weekend’s conference contests, visiting the University of Memphis at 6 p.m. on Friday and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte at noon on Sunday. Both games will be available to watch on ESPN+.

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