SAN ANTONIO – The Rice volleyball team jumped out to a solid opening set, but Southern Miss rallied to claim each of the next three on the way to a 17-25, 25-15, 25-18, 25-19 match win over the Owls in the opening round of the Conference USA Championship tournament Friday afternoon in San Antonio, Texas.
The Owls’ season has come to an end in the league’s single-elimination postseason tournament. Rice has concluded the year with a 21-10 overall record, the fifth 20+ win season for the Blue & Gray under 12th year head coach Genny Volpe. The head coach had the Owls rolling to a 25-17 victory in the first set where the team collected 11 kills with a .276 hitting percentage to go along with four blocks.
A talented Southern Miss squad, which entered the contest with 23 wins and looking to avenge a 3-0 sweep by Rice a few weeks ago in Tudor Fieldhouse, would not go away so easily this time.
“We were very prepared, we had a great game-plan, and executed it well in the first set,” coach Volpe said. “In set two Southern Miss was able to eliminate their mistakes and began serving us tougher. Then we got a little frustrated when they started making digs. We got a little bit out of rhythm, and that can happen in this sport.
“What was so very uncharacteristic for us,” she explained, “was we could not get that rhythm back. It’s so disappointing on our side because we had high expectations for this tournament.”
Southern Miss proceeded to build on the momentum from the 10-point win in the second set to a 25-18 win in the third and a 25-19 final in the fourth. For the match the Golden Eagles held a 56-39 advantage in kills, a .189 to .152 lead in the final attack percentage and a 63-54 margin in digs.
“Give Southern Miss credit for playing great,” the head coach said. “We also did our share of giving away points and at times making it a little too easy. Individually I thought (junior outside hitter) Leah Mikesky played well. She shared the match lead with 14 kills, had 13 digs and some blocks. She has been extremely consistent for us all year.
“One of the toughest parts is that our seniors had to end their college careers on that kind of a loss,” Volpe added. “My heart goes out to them. We’ve had such a class act of seniors. Their contributions, both on and off the court, have been outstanding. They’ve set the bar high."
Even on an emotional end to the season, coach Volpe was able to stay focused on the positives.
“Our younger players have the luxury of moving-on and learning from today,” she said. “We’re going to work harder than ever now to build on our achievements from this year. Absolute, 100-percent, we’ll use this fuel for fire next year. “