Home, sweet home: No. 21 volleyball happy to be back in Houston after month on the road
When the UH volleyball team walked into the Fertitta Center for its Thursday practice last week, players and coaches alike enjoyed a very welcome change.
For the first time in over a month, the Cougars weren’t spending Thursday in an airport or on a bus.
“It’s refreshing,” said head coach David Rehr. “Normally every Thursday is when we’re going on the road. So it’s kind of nice that we get to do what we need to do next door and have as long of a practice as we want.”
After rattling off three impressive home wins to begin the season — including a historic four-set win over No. 22 USC — UH played its next nine games (39 days to be exact, Rehr pointed out) in unfamiliar or hostile territory.
The Cougars dropped their first game of the season in San Marcos, Texas against the home team Texas State Bobcats. They would bounce back winning three of their next four including a win over 7-2 Texas A&M in front of its home crowd. However, once the Big 12 schedule began the days of constant travel and unfriendly crowds began to take their toll on a veteran team.
“It’s definitely not comfortable having to get on a plane every single weekend,” said senior libero, Kate Georgiades, one of eleven upperclassmen on the team. “Our team is pretty old in general, it’s hard on the body. It’s also hard mentally.”
In the Cougars’ Big 12 opener at No. 10 BYU, UH was able to fight their way to a 24-23 set point to begin the match. But two errors allowed BYU to come back and take a crucial first set in front of its home crowd of 3,700. The wheels fell off in the next set, as eight UH errors aided in a 12-0 run that clinched the second set for BYU before closing out the sweep.
Against No. 19 Kansas in front of a sellout crowd, Houston once again was on the verge of victory after grinding out a 2-1 lead entering the fourth set. Once again, the home team took control as the Jayhawks used two 4-0 runs in the fourth and fifth sets that wrested momentum and the win away from UH, who was unable to overcome the crowd’s energy.
“We kind of say, when you’re on the road you’re going to be more than two points better,” Rehr said. “But I think their home crowd is that much different.”
Tired and feeling the effects of increasingly hostile crowds, the Cougars exited Lawrence 7-5, but were ecstatic to finally be able to go back home, sleep in their beds, and play in their own facilities.
It had been so long since UH played in Fertitta, that a second operations meeting was held before the team’s Big 12 home opener against West Virginia to ensure things ran smoothly.
“(We’re) thrilled, more than you ever know,” Rehr said, “I said this jokingly, but I don’t care if we get fans, but I just know there won’t be fans for West Virginia in the building.”
As for the on-court lulls that the team experienced on the road, Rehr believes that being able to play and practice at home will allow UH to work out the consistency issues, as the team has just three more road trips left in the season, both of which are in-state.
“We have to be more engaged longer,” Rehr said. “We just have to start trusting ourselves and then maybe playing in that building (Fertitta Center) will help us.”
So far, it has.
After dominating the first set against West Virginia at home, UH found itself on the wrong end of an 8-0 run to begin set two. But unlike previous games, the Cougars recovered and eventually pulled away with a 6-1 to close out the set, eventually completing the sweep for the team’s first-ever Big 12 win.
Another sweep over WVU later, and UH is back on track with a date against defending national champions No. 7 Texas in the Fertitta Center, where reportedly over 5,000 tickets have been sold so far. The previous UH volleyball attendance record was 1,904, set in the season-opening win over USC.
“I think it’s a really good reset for us to come home,” said graduate outside hitter Nena Mbonu.”We didn’t really, truly appreciate how much of an impact being at home has.”
UH has just four more road trips left for the rest of the season, two of which are in-state. For players like Georgiades, being able to recuperate as needed and playing in front of familiar faces will be a crucial boost for a team looking to make a statement in a new, tougher conference.
“I think we’re all just excited to play in front of our family again, and our friends,” Georgiades said. “we can really take advantage of our training room and really make sure that we’re all staying healthy.”