If you’re a fan of college volleyball you would know that Rice upset the current No. 1 team in the country, Texas, on September 18. You would also likely know that it was the first time Rice had ever beaten Texas in volleyball and that the Owls remain one of just two teams to have knocked off the Longhorns so far this year.
But you may not know all the other firsts achieved and records set by the 2019 Rice Owls, who are 21-1 overall, 10-0 in Conference USA, and winners of 12 matches in a row. They play host to Florida Atlantic on Friday, and — assuming both teams win — are home Sunday against Western Kentucky, the other team tied for the league lead.
Rice, which lost to another state-of-Texas team, Stephen F. Austin in five on September 14, came back and stunned Texas, then ranked No. 3, 25-22, 25-18, 13-25, 14-25, 15-13.
The next week, Rice moved into the AVCA Top 25 and currently holds its highest ranking ever at No. 17. What’s more, Rice set an attendance record when 3,012 showed up for the Texas match.
“I definitely knew we had a special group because of all the returning players and the leadership from last year carrying over, plus a talented group of newcomers too,” Rice coach Genny Volpe said. “I knew we were going to be a pretty darn good team — unless I messed it up.”
Volpe, who is in her 16th season at Rice, has certainly not messed it up. Instead, under the leadership of the reigning Conference USA Coach of the Year, last month won her 300th victory at Rice.
On the court, any discussion of Rice’s immense talent starts with junior outside hitter Nicole Lennon. The Conference USA Freshman of the Year in 2017 and Player of the Year in 2018, Lennon currently leads the league (and ranks sixth nationally) with 5.04 kills per set, a team-high season total of 358 kills, and she’s been named C-USA offensive player of the week seven times already this season.
“Nicole just keeps improving,” Volpe said. “She’s fast on the ball. She’s got a wicked last two steps, so even if the set is not right there, she can still attack the ball with such force because she does such a good job of getting her feet there. She’s got a very quick arm.”
Lennon, Volpe continued, also plays with immense joy, something that is a characteristic of the Rice team as a whole.
“If (Nicole) gets a big block, she jumps up and down like a little kid and celebrates. You’ll catch her dancing on the court and sometimes people think that that’s a bad thing, not being serious and what not, but the whole team really does know, and the coaching staff, they need to have fun, this is a fun game. Let’s let them enjoy themselves, have a good time, and then when it’s time to get serious, they really do a good job with that.”
Plenty of credit for Rice’s success, which puts it tied for first place in the Conference USA standings with WKU, goes to its setters Adria Martinez and Carly Graham, middle Anote Adekunle, and libero Lee Ann Cunningham.
With Martinez and Graham at the controls, Rice has the 14th-best team hitting percentage in the country (.275). Volpe describes the senior Martinez as fiery and competitive. She also puts up a consistent set and has built a great connection with Lennon. Graham has a fast release on the ball, can be incredibly deceptive, and loves to go over on two and score points on her own. The sophomore has 27 kills.
Adekunle, also a sophomore, touches 10-8 and ranks second on the team behind Lennon with 244 kills to go with a .435 hitting percentage and 52 blocks.
“Super fast off the floor, super quick arm,” Volpe said of Adekunle. “She can hit the ball on the 8-foot line, she can hit deep corners, and now she’s even mixing in shots and tips. She’s been a huge part of success.”
Cunningham, for her part, has 349 digs (4.72 per set) and a whopping 2,014 for her career to date, which puts her second all-time in the Rice record books.
“(Cunningham is) probably one of the most underrated liberos out there,” Volpe said. “I think she’s one of the best in the country. Super consistent in serve receive; she studies her opponent, she’s on volleymetrics all the time watching her opponent. She reads really well, so she’s in the right place a lot of the time. To me, it’s not just how many digs per set a kid has, it’s the quality of the digs that she’s putting up at the net.”
Lennon, Martinez, Graham, Adekunle, and Cunningham are all returning starters who played key roles on the 2018 squad which went 24-7, won the CUSA tournament, set new program bests for conference record (12-2) and longest winning streak (15 matches), and went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. Add to that list middle Grace Morgan, who has a team-high 60 blocks, and opposites Kassidy Muse and Tori Woogk.
The only starter missing from last year’s squad is outside hitter Shelby Livingstone, who graduated and is now a volunteer assistant at No. 3 Baylor. To fill that hole, Volpe brought in grad-transfer Tabitha Brown. Brown played at Alabama her freshman season and then three years at Wichita State. She was granted a waiver that gives her an additional season of eligibility, because her freshman year, she sustained a season-ending injury just three matches past the typical cutoff to apply for a medical redshirt.
“(Brown) doesn’t put up a lot of attack numbers, but her serve receive is impeccable,” Volpe said. “And I think Tabitha had 28 digs against Texas. She was incredible. She read every swing, and they weren’t just popping up in the air, she was putting them on target.”
Freshman outside hitter Ellie Bichelmeyer has also earned significant playing time and currently ranks third on the team with 120 kills.
Chemistry, energy, and joy have the secret ingredient that turned a collection of individually talented players into a dangerous team. Rice doesn’t have team captains, instead, there are five pods of responsibility — equipment, fashion, food, locker room, and social media — into which the players are divided. Instead of freshmen carting the equipment to every match or seniors making the decisions on what the team wears on travel days or what they eat for dinner, the Owls do things more democratically and pod assignments change each semester.
“(Not having captains) makes each person on the team feel equally as important as any other person,” Lennon said. “Every person on the team is equally as important, even the girls who are on the bench cheering us on. I think we have the best bench in the country. We have so many cheers and great energy, and it makes those of us on the court feel extra special and extra hyped.”
“We really work on developing leadership within the team, no matter whether you’re a freshman or a sophomore or a junior or senior,” Volpe said. “Leaders emerge naturally and organically I think, and sometimes you just can’t force someone to do that by sticking a captain title on them.”
The Owls benefitted from a summer trip to Italy, which allowed them a few extra practices and scrimmages, as well as plenty of time for bonding. Even when they’re at home in Houston, the Rice players engage in all kinds of team bonding activities, highlights of which have included karaoke, a ropes course, and paintball.
As any coach of a highly touted sports team will tell you, the challenge is to keep out the noise and avoid stagnation, complacency and satisfaction. Although they’re undefeated in conference play and have lost just one set in league play so far, Rice faces two tough tests this weekend.
First, Florida Atlantic (13-8, 7-3), the No. 4 team in the C-USA standings, and a team that Rice lost to almost exactly a year ago.
“FAU has an incredible offense, and our team has an incredible defense,” Lennon said, “so I think it will be a really great matchup.”
Speaking of that FAU offense, take note of Massiel Matos. The native of Higuey, Dominican Republic, played two seasons at Miami Dade Community College, where she was a two-time NJCAA Tournament MVP and two-time AVCA National Junior College Player of the Year, before transferring to FAU in 2018. As a team, FAU has four players averaging more than 2.00 kills per set.
Western Kentucky (24-1, 10-0) suffered its only loss to Louisville the second week of the season. Middle Lauren Matthews leads the Hilltoppers with an impressive 4.02 kills per set, hitting .461.
“(WKU is) a pretty young team, so I think they’re pretty fearless. They’ve had a lot of success and so the confidence level for them is really high right now,” Volpe said. “I think it’s going to be a great matchup between two teams that are athletic and confident. Definitely both programs have a lot of expectations going into the match and the conference tournament and then postseason.”
As Lennon said, “We’re always trying to be better than we were before,” which for this Rice team that has already knocked down so many firsts, means getting two wins this weekend, two more on the road next weekend, and storming through the C-USA tournament to the national postseason and then setting their sights on the program’s first ever NCAA Tournament victory.
“(Going to the NCAA Tournament) was so fun to go and just be one of those teams, just the big teams in the NCAA, something that we had never done before,” Lennon said. “It made us want to go back there again and do even better.”