Volleyball wins three matches in two days early in the season

Photo courtesy Rice Athletics

By Daniel Schrager 8/30/22 11:19 PM

The Rice volleyball team didn’t let a doubleheader on Friday or a terrible first set on Saturday get them going as they started their season with three straight wins over the weekend at the State University of Louisiana in Baton Rouge. The team opened the tournament with a pair of sweeps before battling to a 3-2 win over LSU to close out the weekend. According to coach Genny Volpe, while their offense is still a work in progress, the team was strong in all other aspects of the game.

“We’re still working on our offensive tempo, but I was very pleased with our defense and our serving 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 over 250 miles to face off 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 would get all night to securing a set. Rice won the second set 25-18 behind five kills from fifth-year senior middle blocker Anota Adekunle. The Owls repeated the trick in the third set behind five more kills from Adekunle and 15 assists from fifth-year senior Carly Graham to seal the victory – the 350th of Volpe’s career.

The Owls took the court just three hours later against Samford University. Whatever fatigue the team may have had from the quick turnaround certainly didn’t show as they jumped out to a 10-1 lead and won the first set 25-15. According to Adekunle, the team had prepared for the brace and managed to avoid its worst effects.

“It wasn’t as tiring as I expected it to be,” Adekunle said. “I felt really good physically after playing our last game on Friday. I think the training we did in practice prepared us for that.”

The Bulldogs kept the second set close, jumping out to a 17-12 lead at one point, but the Owls were able to come back behind a flurry of late kills from sophomore outside/right 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, host LSU gave Rice an upset when they won Saturday’s first set 25-13. According to Adekunle, the Owls were caught off guard by LSU’s fast start, but once they settled into the game, they were able to regain the momentum.

“The game of volleyball is often a game of momentum,” Adekunle said. “LSU came out with so much fire, it only took us a minute to adjust to it. 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 tie gave the Owls their third win in three tries. After the comeback win, Volpe said the turnaround was more a result of the team’s composure than any tactical change.

“[We made] there’s really no adjustments,” Volpe said. “The team started out smooth and so we just stayed committed to ourselves and believed we were going to make it, which we did. The team stayed composed and settled into our game serving and passing, which made a big difference.”

On the weekend, junior outside hitter Sahara Maruska led the Owls in kills with 34, while Adekunle was a close second with 29. Graham, the team’s leading player, contributed 102 assists while junior libero Nia McCardell earned defensive player of the week honors in Conference USA. for her 46 digs in the three matches. According to Maruska, this season she is taking a more active role both in attack and defense.

“Last year my role on the team was to come into the game and get as many kills as I could while I was in,” Maruska said. “This year I am playing defense in the back row and will continue to be a presence in the net in attack.”

Next, the team heads to Eugene, Ore. for a pair of games – a Friday afternoon game against the University of California, Davis and a Saturday night game against the University of No. 18 of Oregon. As the season begins, 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 faith in this team,” said Maruska. “I think we have a very strong season ahead of us, knowing that everyone will be firing on all cylinders in every game.”

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