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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Sports

How UH volleyball became the AAC’s new team to beat


With 13 straight victories, UH volleyball is riding the third-longest winning streak in program history. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

With 13 straight victories, UH volleyball is riding the third-longest winning streak in program history. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

Since the 2018 season, the volleyball results in the American Athletic Conference have been repetitive — complete domination by UCF to the point where the Knights have held their conference crown for four consecutive seasons.

While UH volleyball has put together solid seasons since head coach David Rehr took over the program in 2019, the Cougars hadn’t been able to get out of UCF’s shadow.

UH entered the 2022 season determined to flip the script.

“We’ve been here and UCF has won conference every year. It got to a point where we were like ‘Alright, we’re stopping this,’” said UH senior middle blocker Rachel Tullos. “UCF has been rolling over everybody, and we got to the point where we weren’t going to let that happen anymore.”

Adding depth

UH volleyball head coach David Rehr pinpointed the Cougars’ lack of depth as the biggest reason why his team had failed to get over the hump in the previous two seasons.

“In the past, we’ve relied on Abbie Jackson,” Rehr said. “If Abbie didn’t have a great match, we weren’t going to have a great match.”

Rehr knew that relying on one player wasn’t a recipe for success and that UH would need other players to step up and take some of the load off Jackson’s shoulders if the Cougars were to achieve the goals they set out to accomplish in 2022.

The team listened to its head coach and answered the call.

Graduate outside hitters Kennedy Warren and Kortlyn Henderson and graduate middle blocker Isabel Theut have elevated their games to another level, each putting together the best season of their collegiate careers.

“Now with Abbie, with Isabel (Theut), with Kennedy Warren and Kortlyn Henderson, all these people have been stars for us in every match we’ve played,” Rehr said. “We don’t need just one person to carry us.”

Middle blockers Rachel Tullos and Kellen Morin, a transfer from Virginia Tech, have solidified the Cougars at the net defensively.

Sam Houston transfer Morgan Janda has become an assist machine for the Cougars, joining junior Annie Cooke to give UH a dangerous one-two punch at the setter position.

Junior libero Kate Georgiades has taken on a bigger leadership role, becoming a coach on the court for the Cougars while also being amongst the nation’s top individuals in digs.

“We have a ton of weapons,” Georgiades said.

Staying on the same page

UH’s connectivity has been the thing that has stood out most to Rehr about his team.

“I think we’re just assured of what we can do and we trust the person next to us, in front of us and behind us,” Rehr said. “I think that’s the biggest thing with our team now. We’re not worried about having to be the one every night.”

This chemistry starts with the way the team practices.

UH’s veterans each exhibit leadership in different ways, whether it be vocally or by what they do, and the younger players follow. This has created an intense, competitive environment during practices that push the team in ways it hasn’t been pushed before.

Tullos, who has been a member of the UH program since 2019, hasn’t been a part of a team that is as tight-knit as the 2022 Cougars.

“This team this year is probably the most we’ve come together and meshed well together,” Tullos said. “I think that really shows on the court with our success.”

All the talent combined with top-notch chemistry has turned UH into a well-oiled machine in the AAC.

“Everyone is on the same page and we’re all striving towards the same goal,” Georgiades said. “Our team chemistry is the best it’s ever been here. Using that, especially when we’re in tight games, it really comes into play because we all have each other’s backs.”

Reaching new heights

Sitting at No. 23 in the AVCA poll and currently riding a 13-match win streak, UH finds itself in the driver’s seat in the AAC.

Instead of chasing UCF, UH has become the AAC’s team to beat after the Cougars knocked off a then-undefeated, nationally-ranked Knights team in early October for the program’s first ranked win since 2003.

Nearly a month later, UH is a perfect 12-0 in AAC play.

“These teams are going come with their A game against us because we’re the No. 1 team in this conference,” Tullos said. “So, we can’t ever let up.”

Even with all the success, Rehr believes the Cougars can kick it up another notch as they head down the latter half of AAC play and into the postseason.

“What we’re really needing to get better at is being a little bit more competitive and trying to find another gear to get into,” Rehr said. “What we’re doing is good enough but it’s not where we want to be. We don’t want to be just good enough, we want to be better.”

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