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AUSTIN - TCU coach Prentice Lewis sat at the dais with an overwhelmingly prideful smile and didn't hesitate pinpointing the moment when momentum swung the Horned Frogs' way earlier on Thursday at Gregory Gymnasium. TCU and Rice wobbled to open their first-round NCAA Tournament match before Owls coach Genny Volpe signaled for a timeout to settle her team, at which time Lewis reminded her team they might want to enjoy their first NCAA appearance.

Their emotional restrictions lifted, the Horned Frogs played footloose and fancy free. The Owls? Their burdens were too heavy, and the pressure to win their first Tournament match in their third Tournament appearance pressed on their shoulders like the largest of boulders and did not relent until the Horned Frogs completed an unexpected 26-24, 25-13, 27-25 sweep.

"Just knowing that this match meant so much to us kind of shook us up a little bit because we wanted it so badly," said senior middle blocker Natalie Bogan, who registered a team-high 12 kills in her final match. "We were never able to get into the rhythm that we wanted to get into."

That much was obvious, even to the untrained eye. For the Owls to play so masterfully during their nine-match winning streak only to give way to self-induced tension proved gravely disappointing for such an inspirational group of student-athletes. They had done everything right in crafting their tale of revival, providing the technical savvy with the emotional punch needed to sweep through the Conference USA tournament at Tudor Fieldhouse before throttling No. 17 LSU mere days after a riveting upset of Tulsa in the C-USA title match. Their story featured guts and grit and gumption, and with their performances a byproduct of pluck as much as proficiency, the idea of the Owls flinching in this shining moment seemed improbable.

Someone altered the script. From the very beginning the Owls seemed fidgety, and worse still they never appeared able to swipe momentum long enough to catch their breath. Despite being roundly outplayed in Set 1 the Owls served for the set at 24-23. TCU then won the final three points, and seemingly dazed by their stumble, the Owls were blistered in Set 2. Pushed into a corner by the threat of a sweep, the Owls showed their trademark fight and twice built three-point leads in Set 3. But this time, it was their opponent which would not be denied.

"We didn't want it to end where we weren't fighting," Bogan said.

But end it did after the Owls twice staved off match point. TCU was, on this day, more deserving. The Horned Frogs played with the confidence of a program that had been in this setting despite this being their maiden voyage. They imposed their will, put stress on the Owls' defense, and executed their middle attack at a level the Owls expected but failed to match. The roles were reversed, with the experienced Owls staggering about waiting for that perfect moment where everything would fall into place, where they could conjure something magical and rally in a manner befitting their talent and togetherness. That moment never arrived.

"What we've got to work on is relaxing when we play in this situation," Volpe said. "This is the third time that we've been here, and every team that I've coached that has been here has wanted it extremely badly. And it takes us a while to get in rhythm, and by that time it's too late. We've got to learn to settle down and understand that we're a great team and we got here for a reason. We've got to play the game a little more relaxed, and TCU played relaxed.

"This team felt like they needed to and they had to win today. That's OK, but if we had just approached it the same way we had approached a match like LSU or the conference championship match versus Tulsa, we played those point for point and without a lot of stress."

This sour finish doesn't spoil a fabulous season, one where the Owls won 20 games for a second consecutive campaign, and one that included that nine-match winning streak and the program's first C-USA title. A victory over TCU would have been the icing on the cake, but there is no doubt that the foundation has been laid for stellar underclassmen Meredith Schamun, Tracey Lam, Ashleigh McCord and Nancy Cole to finish with icing in 2010.

"It's just going to keep getting better," said Bogan, who will depart along with Jen McClean, Channing Grigsby and Jessie Boulavsky. "I just expect it to keep getting better from here."

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2 Comments

Great season, and clearly a strong program is emerging here. It's great to see.
Maybe yesterday's Chronicle articles were slanted by the writer's perogative to selectively use quotes, but if you read those articles, the mentions attributed to Rice players were almost exclusively about facing Texas not TCU. One could have the impression that we were overlooking TCU. I hope that was not the case!
Regardless, Rice appears to have a continuingly bright future in Volleyball. That's clearly thanks to the leadership of Genne Volpe.

We'll definitely miss Natalie. I think we bring in a couple outside hitters for next season, so hopefully we can improve a little around the net in 2010. Great season ladies, with a terrific home finish. Congrats.

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