Still Peaking

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Genny Volpe spoke of focus and determination and confidence in describing the Owls in advance of the Conference USA volleyball tournament, and those attributes were put to a stern test by No. 2 seed Tulsa in Set 2 of the tourney final at Tudor Fieldhouse on Sunday.

The fourth-seeded Owls had eked out a gritty 25-23 win in Set 1, but Tulsa responded like a team that had won 16 of its past 17 matches, including both between the programs this season. The Golden Hurricane built a commanding 19-9 lead and appeared poised to square the match and swipe the C-USA title and corresponding automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

What Tulsa soon learned was that the Owls would not relent. Not on this afternoon of destiny.

"This group has just been so focused and so determined," Volpe said. "A lot of people thought that we were going to (finish) first (during the regular season), and when it turned out that we weren't going to win the regular-season (title) this team decided that they were going to get it done anyway. They were going to find a way into the NCAA Tournament, and we knew that this was really the only way we could for sure get in. I think I'm still in the glow of the win."

The Owls didn't just rally to win that second set 25-23, the got off the mat after blowing match point in the third set, taking Set 4 by the identical 25-23 score to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth, their third under Volpe. The win was their eighth in succession, a streak that began following a loss at Tulsa on Oct. 25 that forced the Owls to reevaluate their goals and season.

After the Hurricane kicked around Rice in that 3-1 win, the Owls shifted their focus to finishing the regular season with a flourish and away from claiming the regular-season title. They won five consecutive matches in advance of the C-USA tournament, positioning themselves to revisit one of their stated preseason goals - a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. They swept aside Marshall in the quarterfinals, took apart top-seeded Southern Miss in the semis and set a date opposite the one team they seemed unable to solve thus far.

That's when the confidence kicked in. To a woman, the Owls were intent on a trend reversal.

"The first two times we played Tulsa we were frantic, we panicked a lot, we didn't really execute, we played our game with them but lost on stupid little points," Owls junior libéro Tracey Lam said. "Coming into this we really just wanted to rip their throats out and just stomp on them and kill them and tear them to pieces. And we knew that for us to do that we had to take care of all the little things in our game and really execute. Take them out of system and follow the game plan, because we know this team so well now. We scouted them so well."

Accomplishing that murderous plot was easier said than done. Paced by a breathtaking performance from freshman outside hitter Tyler Henderson (match-high 26 kills), the Hurricane staved off match point at 25-24 in the third set and rallied for a 27-25 victory. The teams followed with a back-and-forth thriller in Set 4, with momentum shifting sides with every serve. But when the Owls needed it, their depth of talent rose to the challenge. Lam started digging, Meredeth Schamun began racking up assists, and Ashleigh McCord, Natalie Bogan and Jenn McClean collectively registered the kills the Owls needed to keep Tulsa at bay. It was heart-pounding, hair-raising, white-knuckle action, but the Owls weren't undone by the tension.

This was the moment they longed for all season long, a moment lost when the flu ravaged their roster during the Mizuno Invitational II and cost them RPI-boosting matches against Middle Tennessee and Washington a week later in San Antonio. This moment offered the Owls their only path to redemption after consecutive home losses to Tulane and Tulsa, and this moment presented a final opportunity to deliver on a season that overflowed with promise.

Given everything it represented, was there any doubt exactly how these Owls would respond?

"It just shows that we have a ton of heart," said Schamun, the tournament MVP with a match-high 49 assists. "We fight like nothing else in the world. We've heard from other coaches and our own coaches that we are a fighting team, and it just goes to show that when you put your mind to something this team definitely wants to get out there and fight. And we don't give up and we don't give in, and that's something that we definitely pride ourselves on."

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LOL - Tracy Lam is now my new favorite athlete at Rice...

"Coming into this we really just wanted to rip their throats out and just stomp on them and kill them and tear them to pieces."

Mark: It took roughly one conversation earlier this season for Lam to become one of my favorite interview subjects. She is thoughtful and passionate, a rare combo. - MK

What a great effort by the Owls today. It was a tougher road than expected for this team but they're going back to the tournament.

Tracy would tear them to pieces and then be the first person to help put them back together again.

It's a shame more people haven't discovered this sport as an awesome spectator sport.

David: That was one intense match, especially the second and fourth sets. Sweaty palms, heart palpitations, and lots of fidgeting. And I think I will see Tyler Henderson spiking balls in my sleep. She was absolutely brilliant in a losing effort. - MK

Amazing grasp of holding the intensity level for those four exciting power-packed games. As complete an effort as I've ever seen in Autry-Tudor gym and I've been watching games held there since 1954!! Hats off to great coaching too.
signed, "timberjock".

What? No McCord on the all tournament team?

Hutz: I found that odd as well. - MK

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