No. 22 WKU to meet No. 17 Rice in crucial C-USA showdown

Members of the WKU Lady Toppers gets riled up before the WKU vs. UTEP game on Nov. 1st, 2019 at Diddle Arena. WKU win, 3-0.

Kaden Gaylord

The WKU volleyball team (24-1, 10-0 C-USA) will travel to Houston this weekend to take on the Rice Owls (21-1, 10-0 C-USA) in a battle between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the Conference USA standings, and also the two C-USA schools ranked in the AVCA Division I Coaches Poll.

No. 22 WKU and No. 17 Rice have been on a collision course since the beginning of the 2019 season, as both teams dropped only one non-conference matchup before mowing through league foes to remain undefeated in C-USA play through 10 matches this year.

“We’ll be locked in,” head coach Travis Hudson said about playing Rice. “I think it’ll bring the best out of our team next weekend — win or lose.”

The Lady Toppers are currently enjoying the best start in program history, as the WKU volleyball program has become one of two in the nation with a 20-match winning streak this season after the team dropped a single 3-1 decision to then-No. 24 Louisville on Sept. 6.

Since beginning C-USA play against Southern Mississippi on Sept. 29, the Lady Toppers have only given up two total sets. WKU dropped one set against Middle Tennessee State in a 3-1 win on Oct. 4 before losing a single set at FAU in another 3-1 win on Oct. 11.

Rice also started the season strong and won its first nine games before losing 3-2 to Stephen F. Austin in a neutral-site game on Sept. 14. The Owls got back on track by picking up a 3-2 win over then-No. 3 Texas just four days later, and the program hasn’t looked back since. 

Rice is currently on an 12-game winning streak, and the Owls have only given up one set in C-USA play — they yielded a single frame in a 3-1 win over Florida International on Oct. 27. 

Both programs will play games on Friday night before meeting for their long-awaited showdown on Sunday. The Lady Toppers will take on North Texas (15-8, 9-2 C-USA) in Denton, Texas, while the Owls will host Florida Atlantic (13-8, 7-3 C-USA).

Hudson’s squad swept Texas-El Paso (10-12, 3-6 C-USA) Friday night in Diddle Arena, reaching an NCAA-best 18 sweeps this season. With the win, WKU has now swept six opponents in a row and dispatched nine out of its last 11 foes in clean 3-0 sweeps.

Hudson said even though his team is currently on an extended winning streak, he doesn’t expect the Lady Toppers to become complacent during their trip to the Lone Star State.

“We have a bunch of competitors in our locker room,” Hudson said. “It is hard to not look forward to those matches, but as a coach those are the two that are least concerning to me. I know our team as competitors will be ready to play for those, but they’re two really difficult tests for us on the road, and we’re going to have to play very well to get a win at either place.”

WKU leads the nation in wins at 24 and winning percentage at .960, while two Lady Toppers are leaders in individual statistics. Senior Sophia Cerino has an NCAA-best 57 aces and .72 aces per set and sophomore Lauren Matthews boasts an NCAA-best .459 hitting percentage.

Rice sophomore Anota Adekunle is second in the conference in hitting percentage at .431, junior Nicole Lennon is first in the conference in kills with 347 and senior Lee Ann Cunningham is fifth in the conference in digs with 333.

“Some people would probably say we’re the underdog,” Cerino said about playing a ranked team in their home gym. “I love that environment, I love people underestimating us and I feel like that’s when we thrive so I’m excited.”

WKU and Rice are undoubtedly the top two teams in C-USA this season, as the Lady Toppers and Owls are ranked either first or second in nearly every statistical category in the league. 

WKU ranks first in hitting percentage, second in opponent hitting percentage, third in assists, second in kills and first in service aces among C-USA teams, while Rice is second in hitting percentage, first in opponent hitting percentage, first in assists, first in kills and second in digs.

Junior transfer Nadia Dieudonne said the Lady Toppers are looking forward to playing on the road at Rice, which is where the 2019 C-USA Tournament will be held on Nov. 22-24.

“I think our team is seeing next weekend as a practice — a good first round,” Dieudonne said. “Kind of get to feel their gym, the way they play and how we can come out and compete against them. I feel like it’s a really good opportunity for us, so I think we’re all really excited.”

WKU will first face North Texas on Friday at 6 p.m. in the North Texas Volleyball Center before heading to Rice for a Senior Day matchup on Sunday at 1 p.m. in Tudor Fieldhouse.

“I don’t think next weekend can go bad, if that makes sense to you,” Hudson said. “Obviously if we win, we’ll feel good about it. But if we lose, I think it’s a real test going into conference tournament time. We find out where we can be exposed a little bit and have a couple weeks to still make it better. So even though it’s a big weekend per se in terms of standings and all that, it is one that I’m very much looking forward to.”

Reporter Kaden Gaylord can be reached at [email protected] Follow Kaden on Twitter at @_KLG3.