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Junior libero Tracey Lam had no desire to turn her return to the Bay Area into a triumphant procession. Given everything she had accomplished in two successful seasons at Rice, Lam deserved a gaudy celebration, something akin to Commodus' entering of Rome in Gladiator.

She wanted no part of the spotlight. But sensing the moment, Owls volleyball coach Genny Volpe presented Lam with the first serve last Friday against San Diego State at the USF/Asics Challenge in San Francisco. When Lam, a 2007 graduate of Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco, took note of the friends, extended family, past teammates and former coaches in the stands who were breathless with anticipation, she felt the nerves tingling up her spine.

"This was the first time my grandpa and my aunt and uncle had ever seen me play," Lam said. "All of my cousins, they've never watched a real game of volleyball before. I think it's the first game my brother has seen me play as well.

"I was really nervous. Genny made me the first server so I started the game, and I missed my serve. I was really, really nervous because the freshmen, JV and varsity teams from my high school all came to watch. All my high school coaches, my club coaches, my brother's teammates, the boys I used to manage for - pretty much everyone came to watch, and I was really nervous."

Lam could only smile at the memory. The former walk-on turned 2008 Conference USA Libero of the Year, along with Oakland native and senior middle blocker Natalie Bogan, helped lead the Owls to a sweep of the tournament field that extended their winning streak to six games. As they typically are, Lam and Bogan were integral to the Owls' success, and that they had the chance to shine at home was no coincidence. In fact, it was a product of design by Volpe.

"It really has made me happy to be able to take those players back to their hometown," Volpe said. "Hopefully next year we'll be able to do that for someone like Meredith Schamun - she's from Southern California (Murrieta). It's fun to see the support in the stands; we had so many people at that match supporting Tracey and Natalie and even the Southern California girls.

"It's so much fun to play great competition in a meaningful place. We're not just traveling anywhere to play a team from the Midwest. We're trying to go to competitive places where our players are from, and we're going to continue that as much as we can."

Lam is the quintessential underdog-turned-superstar story. She walked on in 2007 and was named the Owls' Newcomer of the Year after pacing the squad with 499 digs, the second-highest single-season total in program history. As a sophomore she matched the school record of 569 digs set by Yvette Kirk in 2006 en route to claiming the league's top honor at her position, and she began this season with 1,068 digs and well within range of setting a new career standard at Rice. Fittingly, Lam was placed on scholarship prior to this season.

Her return home validated her perseverance. The honors are a reward for her steadfastness.

"I've gotten a lot of praise for working hard and for being brave enough to go for it," Lam said. "I know a lot of people I used to play with in high school aren't playing anymore because, like me, they weren't big enough to get recruited. But they chose to give volleyball up instead of continuing to pursue it like I did, and I've gotten a lot of praise for that, for being brave enough to continue to go for something that I love and not being afraid to get rejected for it."
Bogan initiated her assault on the Rice record book in 2006, earning C-USA All-Freshman Team and Rice Newcomer of the Year honors before garnering All-C-USA second team recognition as a sophomore after leading the Owls with 432 points. The ascension continued in '08 when Bogan paced the team and finished fifth in C-USA in hitting percentage while being named first team All-C-USA. She has amassed 1,014 kills and needs roughly half of the 311 kills she posted as a junior to move into the top 10 on the Owls' career list in that category.

Like Lam, Bogan had a number of friends and extended family in attendance last weekend. She managed her jitters well enough to secure a place on the All-USF/Asics Challenge team.

Thomas Wolfe, it seems, was wrong.

"I was really grateful to Genny and the coaches to schedule that tournament," Bogan said. "At first I was nervous because they had never seen me play and I wanted to make a good impression, but once we started playing I kind of forgot who was watching. But afterward, just hearing them say, 'You did a good job,' that meant a lot to me. Yeah, it was (very gratifying)."

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That's a ton of pressure to be standing out there with the first serve and basically everyone you know watching with anticipation. It's great to be able to schedule opponents with more in mind than just another game on the calender.

What are the prospects for the team in conference and post-season? They're off to a great start.

Owl-88: Without the benefit of a preseason C-USA coaches' poll, it's impossible to validate the notion that the Owls are the favorite to win the league. But from what I heard, that's what many in the know believe they are. For a fact, Volpe and the players have their eyes on claiming both the regular-season and conference title, and advancing in the NCAA Tournament. Those seem like attainable goals. - MK

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