HOUSTON – It's been busy in Houston with the Astros making it to the World Series, the Texans maintaining a winning record and basketball in full swing. So you might not know about one of Houston's most successful teams: the Rice University Owls volleyball team.
The Owls are the real deal. They're undefeated in conference play and 22-1 overall.
"This is a very competitive group of young women," said head coach Genny Volpe. "They're very dedicated and determined. They do a lot of studying of our opponents on their own."
This team is one of the best in school history, built on the foundation of six seniors.
"We have strong leadership, and we're fun," said senior setter Adria Martinez. "We have a lot of composure, which I think is really important."
Arguably their biggest win of the season came early on in September as they defeated the Texas Longhorns, currently ranked No. 1 in the country.
"It was a defining moment in our season," said Lee Ann Cunningham, the team's senior libero. 'We were blessed that it came early. For a lot of girls who are from Texas, that's their role models."
A lot of teams shy away from front-loading their schedules, but the Owls embraced the challenge. Their preseason included a trip to Italy to take on the junior national team.
"Part of that schedule was by design," said Volpe. "I felt like this team was ready for that."
And that trip to Italy proved beneficial on and off the court, as the girls spent 10 days bonding. Volpe mentioned that the seniors intentionally picked different underclassmen to bond with each day.
"We're super thankful to our donors for that. We spent 10 days competing and just kind of embracing, and it taught us a lot about each other," said Martinez.
Now, this close-knit group prepares for a Sunday matchup against Western Kentucky. It will be the first top 25 game held at Tudor Fieldhouse in any sport.
"That's part of the reason we're up at 6 a.m. in the heat of the Houston summer, running, lifting and doing all of those things," said Cunningham. "It's so that it pays off, and we're ready for those moments."
Sunday also serves as Senior Day.
"We're so blessed because we have an awesome coach and an awesome program that makes us love the sport, and we don't want it to end," said Cunningham.
AFTER SUNDAY'S MATCHUP AGAINST WESTERN KENTUCKY
The conference tournament will be held at Rice, and should the Owls advance to the NCAA tournament, there's a chance a round of that would be held in Houston as well.
Rice's female athletes are tied with Stanford University as having the highest graduation rate, currently at 97%.