Rice, atop C-USA, on an 11-match win streak as it faces second-place UTSA

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Nicole Lennon of Rice hits against South Carolina earlier this season/Rice photo

When your team wins 11 matches in a row, a certain amount of swagger and confidence deservedly grows in the locker room.

However, there’s always a humbling moment lurking around the corner in college volleyball, and the question a week or so ago for the Rice University program involved how the Owls might cope when an opponent seized the upper hand.

That moment came October 12 when Rice fell behind two sets to none at home against Marshall. The Owls had to claw from the brink just to win third set 27-25. The gritty rally continued, and Rice’s hot streak lived on with a five-set triumph, the kind of dream result that teaches lessons, clarifies goals and doesn’t nick the W-L record. 

Now Rice (17-4 overall, 8-0 in Conference USA) is preparing to play Friday at second-place UTSA (16-5, 8-1), which has won six in a row. UTSA’s lone league loss was in four sets at Rice almost a month ago.

Rice, ranked No. 18 in the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC, and stands at No. 34 in the NCAA RPI, which gives you reason to think the Owls could be in contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if they don’t win the C-USA title.

Speaking of the NCAA Tournament, Rice — a young team with just two seniors — hasn’t been since 2009.

“The Marshall win was really important. Marshall came in and executed at a high level, and our team was very confident going in. Marshall had control early and wouldn’t back down, and we were always playing catch-up and hadn’t been in that position in a while,” said Rice coach Genny Volpe, who is in her 15th year at the school. “We are usually in decent control of our side of the net, and in that match, we were not. The composure of our team was really important and pivotal in the outcome, because we could have really panicked.

“Sometimes players don’t make adjustments, because they are too emotional or they don’t slow down enough to ask, are we following the game plan, or are we just playing volleyball? They did a good job going back to what we’d talked about in the scouting session, get back to basics, control the ball better. We were very fortunate to be on the winning side of that wake-up call. We’d had success, teams will be ready to play us and give us their best, and we have to be able to match that.”

Rice
Rice has had plenty to celebrate in 2018/Rice photo

The leader has been sophomore outside Nicole Lennon, who leads the team with 314 kills (3.93/set) and is hitting a crisp .273. Another anchor is junior middle Grace Morgan, who has 212 kills (2.75/set) and is hitting .385. She leads with 79 blocks, 10 solo.

A freshman Carly Graham (477 assists, 5.96/set) and a junior Adria Martinez (451 assists, 5.71) handle the setting.

“The team has been on a long winning streak. We’ve put in a lot of hard work for that. In that (Marshall) situation, our mindset was we weren’t going to let that hard work go to waste,” Lennon said.

“Our team has great chemistry, and we’re great friends with each other. Our strategy was to lean on each other, depend on each other and make sure everyone knew their job. We managed to bring it back together because of that chemistry.”

Lennon was an effective hammer as a freshman as well, but 2018 has seen a major transformation in terms of accuracy and wisdom in the choices and chances she takes. She’s become a full-rotation player, and at 6-foot-2 is able to eat up a lot of territory with her anticipation and savvy.

“Before every single match, we say let’s treat this as if it’s for the national championship,” Lennon said. “We get on the court and say, ‘this is the natty, this is the natty!’ The next one is the most important, and you can’t get to the natty unless you win this one.”

Volpe appreciates that about Lennon.

“(Nicole) a special athlete. She is aggressive and explosive. She’s really worked from her freshman year to now on her consistency,” Volpe said. “Her choices as an outside hitter, where she sees a lot of different sets and deals with out of system balls, that’s where she’s taken her game to a higher level. Her percentage is so much better; that’s been her biggest leap. She’s also a six-rotation player, so she’s getting served at … she’s a solid defender, is long, and can take up a lot of space in the back row. She’s a fun kid, too, with a smile on her face. She has a good time and loves the game.

“All spring we worked on weaknesses, and a big one was out of system hitting. We worked on that like crazy,” Lennon added. “Our setters have done a great job, and it’s taken a load off what I have to do. It’s definitely more calm (for me), and my team has helped me in that whenever we make a mistake, we bounce back way faster. We don’t get in a hole or let the other team go on a long run.”

Volpe guided Rice to the NCAA Tournament on three occasions about a decade ago and had close calls for repeat trips in 2014 and 2016. She’s tried to work in a more difficult pre-conference schedule to boost the RPI, knowing that mid-major programs may have to do more to elevate their profiles. Rice has a win over the SEC’s South Carolina and five-set losses to Texas Tech of the Big 12 and Sun Belt-leading Texas State, and the Owls lost to Southland-leader SFA and beat Ohio Valley-leader Austin Peay. 

“There are times we’ve been really close; it has weighed on us a little bit, but at the same time mid-major teams have to show a lot of perseverance in the preseason scheduling and perform well in the preseason,” Volpe said.

“We have responsibilities shared among the entire team. We don’t have a captain in charge of delegating. It’s more about all being invested in what we’re trying to do. The juniors in particular have talked about what didn’t work in the past and what could we do to change and be a better unit. We have freshmen who have what we call “ben-energy” (bench energy), who are always coming up with cheers and nicknames) This is the most spirited team I think I’ve ever coached.”

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