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Volleyball team feels effect of Kalagoglu's departure
by Chris Larson
thresher editorial staff

rob gaddi/thresher
Junior outside hitter Leigh Leman puts up a set in Saturday's loss to the University of Hawaii. Leman and freshman outside hitter Rebekah Neal have filled in the gap at setter for the Owls.

It's been a long two weeks for the Rice volleyball team.

In that time, the Owls emerged winless out of a Metroplex road trip they had hoped to sweep. They lost one of their anchors in senior setter Nil Kalagoglu, sending their offense back to square one.

And finally, their post-Kalagoglu conference schedule pitted them first against the University of Nevada, a team that overwhelmed Rice earlier this season, and then against second-ranked University of Hawaii. The Owls lost both matches.

It all added up to a five-match losing streak, forcing Rice's once-lofty season goals to be toned down. But the Owls say that things are getting better despite their struggles.

"They've done very well," head coach Julio Morales said. "Obviously, it's a big change, but they've been eager to work on the change. They've been positive about it, and they know they have to deal with it. They've stepped up and tried to do the best they can."

Trouble started for the Owls even before Kalagoglu's departure, when they dropped matches at Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University Oct. 13-14.

"SMU played very well - they didn't even let us start to play," Morales said. "They came out storming."

"Against TCU we were sluggish. We shot ourselves in the foot, and in the fifth game they outplayed us."

in focus: volleyball

Record: 14-10
WAC record: 3-6 (6th)
Most recently: Suffered a five-match losing skid, including four conference losses.
What made the difference: Rice was unable to slow a charged-up Southern Methodist University attack and made key errors in a loss at Texas Christian University. The Owls then faced the challenge of adjusting to a new offensive setup after the loss of senior setter Nil Kalagoglu. A solid performance Saturday against second-ranked University of Hawaii, however, indicated the Owls are headed back in the right direction.
Up next: Tomorrow, the Owls travel to the University of Tulsa (15-7, 1-7 WAC) to try to sweep the season series against the Golden Hurricane.

In between the two sets of Western Athletic Conference matches came a non-conference contest against Southwest Texas State University. It was Rice's first match without Kalagoglu, and though sophomore setter Mariel Davenport Pollock stepped in at the last minute, the Bobcats swept the Owls.

But just a few days later, the Owls showed marked improvements in their next two matches. They switched to a two-setter setup, with junior outside hitter Leigh Leman and freshman outside hitter Rebekah Neal playing opposite each other and setting when playing back row.

"They've both done an extremely good job setting, and both are hitting the ball very well," Morales said.

As odd as it may sound, the most promising event in the past two weeks was Saturday's three-game loss to Hawaii. Rice appeared completely overwhelmed at the outset as the second-ranked Wahine jumped out to a 12-1 lead. But the Owls pulled their game together to close to 12-8 before losing. They then trailed just 13-12 in the second game before letting it slip away.

Importantly, Rice was able to present a solid attacking front with its new lineup against the imposing Hawaii defense. Leman contributed 16 kills and the Owls hit a respectable .196 for the game - better than any other WAC opponent has hit against Hawaii this season.

"Considering the fact that we just started doing [the new setting arrangement], we're doing well," Zelinka said. "It's definitely hard on everybody adjusting to a new setter. We're still out of sync and have made a lot of errors. We just have to finish strong."

"The game against Hawaii showed us what we're capable of now that we have the people on the court who want to be there," Leman said. "We should go out there and be able to beat everyone else in the conference."

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