HOUSTON, Texas — Until Friday, there were two teams in the American Athletic Conference with unblemished conference records: Houston and Cincinnati.
Now both teams enter the 10th week of the 2019 NCAA women’s volleyball season 7-1 in the AAC.
Cincinnati (15-5 overall) fell first, unexpectedly losing — in straight sets no less — at Tulane on Friday night. Then the Cougars (13-10 overall) lost the head-to-head meeting between the two teams as Cincinnati escaped the UH Fertitta Center with a 25-23, 25-21, 25-19, 18-25, 15-9 victory on Sunday.
What’s more, UCF (14-6, 7-1) won at Tulsa, creating a three-way tie at the top of the AAC.
Cincinnati’s incomparable outside hitter Jordan Thompson, who spent the summer with the USA national team and was a key member of the squad as it qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, had a lot to do with the Bearcats’ results this week, good and bad.
Against Tulane, she had season lows of eight kills and hit .067 as she had six hitting errors. Two days later, however, she matched her season-high with 37 kills on 86 swings. She also had 18 hitting errors, a significant portion of which were blocks by Houston, but more on that later.
Maybe getting pushed around by Tulane gave the Bearcats a bit of extra determination in Sunday’s match, determination they definitely needed to grind out the five-set win. Houston played a smart and scrappy defensive match and did a great job of making UC’s hitters work extra hard for every kill. That effort started with four-year starting libero Katie Karbo, who ranks second in Division I with 471 digs — well, make that 485 after she scooped 14 against the Bearcats — and leads all active DI players with 2,190 career digs.
And of course there was the aforementioned blocking bit.
Houston — playing its 10th five-set match of the season — finished with 20 team blocks, and freshman middle Rachel Tullos had a hand in 17 of those blocks (five solo), making for an AAC record and the most by a single player in a Division I match this year. She blocked Thompson seven times.
“My coaches have always said focus on our training, and for me to stay disciplined on the block helps the defense and if they swing in my block, I try my best to block it,” Tullos said. “I just try to play disciplined and remember what I’ve been trained.
“She’s an Olympian, first off,” the freshman from Columbus, Texas, said of Thompson, “so I was like, I’m just going to reach as hard as I can, close the block as fast as I can and hope for the best.”
Thompson’s not actually an Olympian, yet, but Tullos’ mistake does a good job of showing just how big the redshirt senior’s presence was felt heading into and throughout Sunday’s match.
“This team was one of the best teams in the conference, and for us to take them to five was a really big thing for us,” Tullos added. “It sucks to lose and everything, but for us to play with them and be with that team is a great thing for us.”
Indeed, what a difference a year makes for Houston.
The Cougars barely managed to hover above .500 in 2018, going 17-16 and 4-14 in conference. The athletic department fired former head coach Kaddie Platt in February and brought on David Rehr, previously of Arkansas State, the following month. The 7-0 start to league play is a best for the program since 2000 and marks a sharp turnaround from going 6-9 in nonconference play to start the season.
Of the match versus Cincinnati, Rehr said the obvious goal was to slow down Thompson.
“She can score at will and she got bored for a little while and just hit over us, but it’s just play really good defense and go back to what we do well,” he said. “I’m proud of the effort, I just don’t know why we ebb and flow as bad as we do.
“To do what we did in set four and set one and then totally forget how to play volleyball in set three, it’s just frustrating. But I’ve got to remember that they’re either new to the program or learning a new system and learning a new style and they’re not used to being in these situations.”
Senior outside hitter Megan Duncan led Houston with 11 kills, but had six errors in 46 attacks to hit just .109. Her fellow senior and outside hitter Claire Karsten started in place of freshman Abbie Jackson, who is the Cougars’ leading attacker but sat out the match with an injury, and racked up nine kills. Sophomore Isabel Theut, a transfer from Arkansas State, also had nine kills.
“(Not having one star player) helps us because you can’t key on one kid,” Rehr said. “Hurts us because we don’t know which kid that is yet either, and sometimes when we need a kill, we don’t know who to go to. … Megan Duncan is our go-to at times, but it’s just it’s not all the time — and I’m not knocking Megan because she does a fabulous job for us — but once again, it’s hit and miss and it’s frustrating a little bit when you can’t just go, ‘Hey, we need you now,’ and for someone to click the switch.”
Houston drew praise from Cincinnati coach Molly Alvey.
“They’re a team that never gives up and you can see that all season with the amount of five-set matches they have,” Alvey said. “They definitely never give up, so that’s challenging, especially when you’re an attacker and you’re trying to find ways to score and they’re constantly touching balls and picking them up. You have to kind of ride out the frustration and stick with the game plan.”
Cincinnati, which finished the match with 77 kills to Houston’s 46, and hit .223 despite the Cougars’ sizable blocks total, got a career-high 24 kills from springy outside hitter Maria Mallon. Standing just 5-foot-9, the product of Chesterfield, Michigan, has every shot in the book, can absolutely smash a two-ball out of the middle, and tools the block at will. Add her name to the list of talented players on the Cincinnati roster that only starts with Jordan Thompson.
“A lot gets missed when you have a player like Jordan, but due credit to Jordan, she’s one of the best players in the country. How can you not recognize her and she deserves every accolade that she gets,” Alvey said.
After spending the summer with the national team, including leading the team in points during the Olympic Qualification Tournament where USA punched its ticket to Tokyo, Thompson has brought an even more impressive game into the UC gym. Alvey says her blocking has improved, as has her middle-back defense.
“She’s done a lot better at developing a four-to-four shot, and her line attack won the match for us in my opinion, so those shots have become a lot more comfortable for her,” Alvey said. “She’s a lot more dynamic out of the back row than in the past, and by far her passing is way more comfortable than it’s been in the past. So there’s a lot of aspects of her game that have gotten better.”
Thompson has already been named the AAC Offensive Player of the Week four times in 2019. She became Cincinnati’s all-time career kills leader last month and currently leads all players in Division I with 6.20 kills per set.
But Alvey added that in addition to Thompson, her starting seven is made up of five sophomores — Mallon, setter Armania Heckenmueller, middle and Clemson transfer Adria Oliver, middle Damjana Cabarkapa, and libero Mackenzie Conner — and a freshman, opposite Karolina Fauske.
“Armania gets missed a lot because of her size,” Alvey said of her setter who currently leads all DI players with 11.69 assists per set. “Adria Oliver has added a little different dimension for us in the middle with her athleticism. Damjana is a sophomore that when she’s on offensively, she does a really great job for us.
Then onto the pins.
“Fauske knows how to score, but she plays the other parts of the game smart. She’s a good blocker, she’s a smart defender, she’s just kind of that stable body on the court that doesn’t get recognized a lot for all the consistency she brings. Maria is such a dynamic outside and from freshman year to this year, she’s really created some different offensive looks for herself and the defense that she’s playing this season is really incredible.”
And how about that libero, Conner, a transfer from Cleveland State who scurried all over the court versus Houston, finishing the night with a match-high 24 digs, including one off her face when her blockers left her high and dry?
“Kenzie’s overall consistency has earned her the spot, she really makes some great reads and she’s a really athletic little player, so she does a really nice job for us,” Alvey said.
Sunday’s loss meant the end of a seven-match conference-opening win streak for Houston, but the Cougars are far from discouraged. Rehr, for one, has many goals, big and small for the squad he inherited just seven months ago.
“I coached at a junior college about two hours from here and Houston was a beacon of volleyball,” Rehr said. “I think it’s my job is to bring it back to where it’s supposed to be. It’s too good of a location, too good of a place, too good of a school to not be the champion of the league.”
The smaller goal is to win the West Division of the AAC, and that mission continues when Houston plays UCF, the third 7-1 AAC team, in Orlando on Friday. Cincinnati is home for five AAC matches in a row, starting with Memphis.
“Our goal was to get to the conference tournament. Win our side, get to the conference tournament,” Rehr said. “But I’m just taking it as we go. Honestly, there’s not this magic formula of what the next goal is. It’s how is this team going to prepare itself for the next game, how are we going to get them right, and then how are we not going to go five.”