Photo courtesy of Rice Athletics
Photo courtesy of Rice Athletics
By Daniel Schrager 8/30/22 11:19 PM
Rice’s volleyball team didn’t let a double header on Friday or an abysmal first set on Saturday get to them as they began their season with three straight wins over the weekend at the Tiger Classic at Louisiana State University in Baton. Rouge. The team opened the tournament with a pair of sweeps before fighting back to a 3-2 victory over LSU to close out the weekend. According to head coach Genny Volpe, while their offense is still a work in progress, the team was strong in every other facet of the game.
“We’re still working on our offensive rhythm, but I’m very pleased with our defense and our service reception for the most part,” Volpe said.
The Owls’ first game, against the University of Houston, was something of a logistical question mark as the two teams, normally less than four miles apart, traveled more than 250 miles to meet at the Maravich Assembly Center. The first set was close throughout, as Rice never led by more than five points, but the Owls managed to win it 25-22. That would be the closest the Cougars came all night to clinching a set. Rice won the second set 25-18 thanks to five kills by fifth-year senior middle blocker Anota Adekunle. The Owls repeated the trick in the third set behind another five spikes from Adekunle and 15 assists from fifth-year student Carly Graham to seal the victory, Volpe’s 350th career.
The Owls took the floor just three hours later against Samford University. Whatever fatigue the team may have gotten from the quick turnaround certainly didn’t show as they took a 10-1 lead and won the first set 25-15. According to Adekunle, the team had prepared for the doubleheader and managed to avoid its worst effects.
“It wasn’t as strenuous as I expected,” Adekunle said. “I felt very good physically after playing our last game on Friday. I think the training we did in practice prepared us for that.”
The Bulldogs held the second set close, rallying to a 17-12 lead at one point, but the Owls managed to come back behind a series of late kills by second-year outside hitter/right back Lola Foord. A dominant third set saw the Owls complete their second sweep of the day.
After winning their first six sets of the weekend, hosts LSU somewhat surprised Rice when they won Saturday’s first set 25-13. According to Adekunle, the Owls were surprised by LSU’s quick start, but once they settled into the game, they were able to regain momentum.
“The volleyball game is often a momentum game,” Adekunle said. “LSU came out with so much fire, it only took us a minute to adjust. Bad sets happen all the time and unfortunately we were on that side of things.”
However, the Owls’ deficit did not last long. Rice won the next two sets by 7 and 9 points respectively to take a 2-1 lead. The Tigers managed to force a fifth set, but three unanswered points from a 12-12 draw gave the Owls their third victory in three attempts. After the comeback, Volpe said the change was more the result of the team’s composure than any tactical change.
“[We made] there are no adjustments really,” Volpe said. “The team started out flat, so we stayed committed to ourselves and confident that we would pull through, which we did. The team stayed calm and adapted to our service and passing game, which made a big difference.”
Over the weekend, junior outside hitter Sahara Maruska led the Owls in kills with 34 while Adekunle came in second with 29. Graham, the team’s top setter, contributed 102 assists, while junior libero Nia McCardell she earned Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week honors for her 46 digs in all three games. According to Maruska, this season he is taking a more active role on both offense and defense.
“Last year my role on the team was to get into the game and get as many kills as I could while I was in it,” Maruska said. “This year I’m playing defense on the back line and I’m still present at the net on offense.”
Next, the team heads to Eugene, Oregon for a pair of games: a Friday afternoon game against the University of California, Davis and a Saturday night game against No. 18 University of Oregon. . As the season progresses, Maruska said she is confident the Owls, who received the 30th most votes in this week’s American Volleyball Coaches Association rankings, will find their groove.
“I have a lot of confidence in this team,” Maruska said. “I think we have a very strong season ahead of us knowing that everyone will be working flat out every game.”