What a resume Rice has put together. The Owls, 26-3, with wins over fellow NCAA Tournament participants Houston, Samford, LSU and Creighton — and a five-set loss to Oregon — went 13-1 in Conference USA.
The loss? At Western Kentucky, the Owl’s fifth loss in a row to their C-USA nemisis.
Ten days later Rice beat WKU, topping the Toppers on their home floor 22-25, 25-22, 22-25, 28-26, 15-11 last Sunday in the Conference USA Championship. Now the Owls play Colorado in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, with the winner facing the winner between Stephen F. Austin and the fourth seed in the region, host Baylor.
Rice, like any team, has overcome its share of obstacles. And perhaps no player has overcome more than fifth-year setter Carly Graham.
The “engine,” to use 19th-year coach Genny Volpe’s term, who drives the Rice machine, Graham is a 2021 Volleyball Magazine second-team All-American and two-time C-USA Setter of the Year. She is averaging 10.45 assists per set and earned first-team all-conference honors.
And Volpe believes Graham is underrated on the national level.
“She can do it all, and she can dish that ball around pretty much from anywhere on the court,” Volpe said. “She’s got a great sense of her hitters. She’s constantly trying to learn how to work with her hitters, and if there isn’t a connection happening, she’s going to find out why.
“But also, she takes risks. And that’s what I love about her is she’s not afraid to take a risk. We wouldn’t be where we are today without her.”
And she does it while battling Type 1 diabetes.
Graham, a 6-footer from Spring, Texas, was diagnosed three years ago, just before preseason workouts for her sophomore season. She spent two nights in the ICU after the diagnosis but returned to the court shortly thereafter and hasn’t missed a beat.
She admitted, however, that managing her condition is an ongoing challenge.
“Every day can affect my (glucose) levels differently,” Graham said. “The weather can. Games … due to adrenaline, can spike glucose levels. So typically during games, I’m pretty amped, so it’s kind of a learning curve.
“But during games I don’t think about it much at all, and I don’t feel the effects of that. Postgame, of course, but during the game it’s not really a factor.
“It’s been very difficult but very much manageable and still able to compete.”
Graham said she hopes to be an inspiration for others with Type 1 diabetes, and to help that cause, she is part of “Dexcom U.” Initiated by the company that produces her glucose monitor, Dexcom U comprises 14 college athletes from across the country to serve as role models and advocates for others with Type 1 diabetes.
“It’s super cool and awesome what they’re doing,” Graham said. “I know when I was first diagnosed, I was on the search for anybody anywhere that could kind of relate to my story and I could gather insight from or inspiration from. I would love to be that for anybody. A single person would be awesome.”
Graham already has done plenty to inspire her teammates of which there are only a few. Rice has a mere 13 players on its roster, and few will blow away stat geeks with eye-bulging numbers.
“That’s the beauty of our team,” Volpe said. “We’re not real deep in terms of numbers … but we have solid depth … we could put one player in the middle and we can put another player on the right, another one on the left. I think it’s our X-factor.”
Graham is averaging 10.45 assists per set, has 102 kills, 22 aces, is averaging 2.22 digs/set and has 29 blocks.
She has a lot of setting options, but one that was quite the surprise was Lola Foord. The sophomore outside from South Pasadena, California, had a total of nine kills in her previous four matches. Against WKU, Volpe brought her into the lineup in the fourth set and she responded with 11 kills over the final two sets, hitting .474.
Danyle Courtley, a junior OH/RS from Katy, Texas, has been the hot hand of late. A second-team All-Conference USA selection, she had a team-leading 17 kills (.302) in the title match.
Anota Adekunle and Satasha Kostelecky give the Owls two solid options in the middle.
Adekunle, a 6-foot-1 fifth-year from Humble, Texas, posted a team-best 3.15 kills per set and leads the conference in hitting (.421), numbers that made her first-team all-C-USA.
Kostelecky, a 6-4 product of Decatur, Texas, ranks third in the conference in hitting (.387), and together, the pair averages nearly 1.70 blocks per set.
Senior Ellie Bichelmeyer, from Mission Hills, Kansas, ranks second in kills per set (2.75) and was a second-team all-conference pick. Sahara Maruska, a junior outside from Houston, plays all six rotations and posted 13 kills and 17 digs in the conference title match. And she’s only 5-8.
Two freshmen also have played key roles: Gaby Mansfield, a libero/defensive specialist from Houston, has played every match and comes in to play middle-back; and Darby Harris (Wheaton, Illinois), who is listed as a setter but plays right back on defense.
Volpe calls Harris one of the team’s most underrated players. Not only has she proven to be an adept passer, but she can move up and set when the Owls get out of system.
“I think a lot of people kind of pick on her a little bit because they know she’s a setter,” Volpe said. “But if you watch the Western Kentucky game we just played, she’s putting the ball on a dime. She covered several balls at key moments.”
Junior libero Nia McCardell might be the team’s most improved player. Daughter of two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan McCardell, she earned first-team All-Conference USA honors by averaging 4.72 digs per set. She also leads the team with 34 aces.
“She was playing defensive specialist the last couple of years for us, and she’s just really stepped up her game,” Volpe said. “She not only digs, she has such good range. Her accuracy is phenomenal.”
The Owls, who have an NCAA RPI of 15 but didn’t get a top-16 seed, head into the program’s fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament with high hopes. While Volpe said her team needs to clean up its serve receive and be more aggressive with serving, she said the showing against WKU in the conference final can serve as a template for what the Owls are capable of producing.
For her part, Graham is sold on this team being able to make a deep tournament run.
“It’s just a crazy, unique team that everybody just does their job, and it all flows and works together,” she said.
“Every year in the postseason … there’s kind of like a new life brought into everybody. I’m excited to see us continue to fight for each other and just want to keep playing together.”
Colorado (20-10) finished tied with Washington for fifth in the Pac-12 at 12-8. The Buffs have been up and down since starting the season 8-2 in pre-conference. They’ve never won more than three in a row and had a tough mid-season three-match skid. Junior outside Maya Tabron leads a balanced attack with 353 kills, grad-student outside Lexi Hadrych has 341, and grad-student middle Meegan Hart has 272 while hitting .432, eighth in the NCAA. She also leads with 135 blocks and junior middle Alexia Kuehl has 121.