Rice got robbed.
“Unfinished business,” coach Genny Volpe said.
Now the Owls have another chance, albeit back at Texas.
Rice is 19-6 this season, which included going 12-0 in Conference USA. The Owls had won 14 in a row before falling to Western Kentucky in the C-USA tournament title match. Now they’re headed to Texas and play San Diego of the West Coast Conference (20-7) on Thursday, with the winner getting the winner of No. 2 Texas vs, Sacred Heart of the Northeast Conference.
That’s this season.
Go back to the spring of 2021. Rice went 16-5, again 12-0 in the league, finishing the regular season with a five-set non-conference upset of then No. 2 Texas. Then in the C-USA Tournament, just like this fall, the Owls lost to WKU in the final and got an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Rice headed to Omaha and was scheduled to play North Carolina A&T in the first round.
But it never happened.
“We were close to playing the game,” Volpe said. “We went to our practice in the morning, got our third COVID test, we were getting COVID tested every single day.”
One Rice test was positive. The player, vaccinated, was asymptomatic.
“We went back to the hotel and were planning to play without her. Now we were wondering if anyone else was going to be out. But we’re thinking we’re gonna play. But then they were like, ‘There are too many question marks about the contact tracing to let you guys play.’ And that was really frustrating to me.”
Volpe said the situation wasn’t well defined by the NCAA. She said the entire team tested again and there was one positive but it turned out to be incorrect.
“The team was dressed, in knee pads, ready to go and thinking none of us have this and we’re all fine and ready to play,” Volpe said.
But an NCAA rep told her the Owls couldn’t play. She, in turn, had to tell her team.
“It was literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a coach,” Volpe said. “It was gut-wrenching. As it was coming out of my mouth they were falling down, crying.”
Volpe said she told her team, “You guys are amazing and you’ve had such a great year and we know what we could have accomplished and we’re not going to get to do it. We’re going to have to wait until the fall.”
Volpe said she was buoyed by the fact that everyone would be back, including the team’s star, 6-foot-2 fifth-year outside Nicole Lennon.
“If that had been it for Nicole …,” Volpe said, her voice trailing off.
But it wasn’t, and Lennon has taken advantage.
“She’s one of the players who’s improved the most from her freshman year to her senior year. And she’s played with a lot of joy,” Volpe said.
“That’s one of the coolest things about her, is she’s always trying to have fun. She doesn’t like to focus on negativity. She gets mad sometimes, I’m sure, but she doesn’t show anger or frustration often. She’s a really good teammate and one of the most positive people I’ve ever met.”
Lennon has 380 kills this season, 4.47/set. The next closest Owl is 5-11 senior middle Anota Adekunle, who has 217 and is hitting .407.
“We’ve been going for almost a year straight now in season, and these post-season runs are the culmination of all that work,” Lennon said. “Everyone on the team is eager to prove what we can do.”
Rice knows post-season runs and it knows going to Texas. In 2018, the Owls went to Texas and lost in four to Texas State as Lennon had 19 kills and Adekunle had 10 blocks.
In 2019, they got sent to Texas A&M and lost in four to the Aggies as Lennon had 15 kills and five blocks and Adekunle had 11 kills and eight blocks.
And then there was last year. It ended suddenly, but Rice turned its attention to this fall and its brutal schedule.
The Owls opened the season at South Carolina by losing in five, 16-14 in the fifth, to Pittsburgh, now the No. 3 seed in the tournament. The next day they lost in four to South Carolina, also in the NCAA Tournament.
The next weekend, at home, Rice lost in four to Oregon (also in the tournament) before beating SMU in four. And then the Owls swept LSU and Sam Houston before going to Baylor (the No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament). They got swept by Baylor and swept McNeese before heading home for the last match of the preseason against then-No. 1 Texas. The Longhorns crushed Rice, 21-14 in each set.
Rice’s Nicole Lennon hits against the Texas block when they played in September/Maria Lysaker photo
The good news is the Conference USA began and the Owls cruised, losing only six sets along the way before beating Charlotte in four in the first round of the C-USA tourney. They swept Middle Tennessee and then lost the final in four to No. 18 Western Kentucky. Lennon had 17 kills, an assist, a block, and 15 digs against WKU.
Volpe said Rice started recruiting Lennon when she a sophomore in high school.
“She was really thin — she’s still thin, obviously, but she was super skinny and super explosive and just a good athlete. And a little raw. But we went after her pretty hard. Luckily we got her.”
In 2017, the product of Katy, Texas, and Cinco Ranch High School was the Conference USA freshman of the year. In 2018, she was the C-USA player of the year. In 2019 and again last spring, she was a VolleyballMag.com second-team All-American.
“She elevated the program,” Volpe said.
Lennon is fifth in Conference USA at 4.36 kills/set. Adenkule has 90 blocks, 18 solo. Junior outside Ellie Bichelmeyer had 194 kills and is second with 53 blocks, sophomore outside Sahara Maruska has 187 kills and 27 blocks, and freshman middle Shaylee Shore has 107 kills and 46 blocks, eight solo.
The setter is Carly Graham, a 6-foot product of Katy, Texas, and Oak Ridge High School, is the best setter you haven’t seen this season and a classic example of don’t judge a book (or athlete) by its cover. Graham is deceptively quick, blocks well (27 this season) and averages .87 kills/set while hitting .295.
“It feels so incredible. With the devastation of what happened at last year’s tournament, we are so thankful to get to compete in it once again,” Graham said. “It gives us the mindset to take advantage and enjoy these big moments of being able to compete. We are all super excited for this tournament.”
Graham, at 11.05 assists per set, is second only to WKU’s Nadia Dieudonne (11.22). She also leads Rice with 24 aces and averages 2.83 digs/set.
“She was always on our radar,” Volpe said. “A lot of people overlooked that kid. I’m a setter and I could see how good that kid could be and how much value she could bring. And like my associate head coach Zheng Xiang said, ‘The girl can dish the rock.’ And she’s also like the best teammate. She maximizes every part of her being. She gives 110 percent, she watches films, she meets with teammates to try to figure stuff out. She’s gonna be a coach. Volleyball is her life.
“We got a steal because a lot of people probably overlooked her.”
Senior Elizabeth LaBue leads with 321 digs (3.69/set), and Lennon has 275 and sophomore Nia McCardell 264.
Genny Volpe coaching during a Rice timeout
This will be Rice’s fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in a row and seventh overall under Volpe.
“There’s nothing like this,” Volpe said. “We look forward to this every single year. It’s such an honor to compete in the NCAA Tournament. It was really dramatic this time because we were like the third or fourth last team called.
“We feel very blessed and we’re definitely excited to compete. I think after what happened last season it just brings to light even more that you never take opportunities for granted and we’re definitely excited to get back out there and compete in such an amazing event and represent Rice.”
Rice, 1-5 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, played San Diego once, winning in 1987. The Owls are 2-37 against Texas. This will be the Owls fifth appearance in Austin at the NCAA Tournament (2004, ’08, ’09, ’18).
“We are so excited to be in this position again, and we are definitely not taking it for granted,” Lennon said. “Time to finish this unfinished business.”