Sports Volleyball

For UH volleyball, redemption after last year’s snub

Ending its final season in the AAC as conference co-champions, UH volleyball is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

Ending its final season in the AAC as conference co-champions, UH volleyball is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

The sting that UH volleyball coach David Rehr felt after the Cougars were snubbed from the NCAA Tournament in 2021 has stuck with him for the past year.

While Houston’s name was called during the selection show, it was not in the group that Rehr had hoped: UH was one of the first four teams to just miss out on a tournament berth.

“I have a picture still on my phone of our logo and being named (one of the) first four out,” Rehr said. “That’s not the consolation prize you want.”

The pain of that November night a year ago lit a fire within the UH program.

The team vowed that its final season in the American Athletic Conference would have a much different ending.

“Last year, being one of the first four teams out of the tournament stung a lot,” said libero Kate Georgiades. “We took that. We used it as motivation this whole year (starting) in the spring and July and August when the work isn’t really noticed. We just used that as fuel to make sure we accomplished what we set out to do this year.”

Learning from the best

If anyone at UH knows how to win, it’s men’s basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson.

Prior to the start of the season, Rehr brought Sampson in to talk with his team.

Instead of giving some spiel wishing the Cougars good luck, Sampson sat down in front of the team and broke down each of UH’s matches in 2021.

“He was like, ‘So how did we lose to SMU twice?’” said outside hitter Abbie Jackson. “He was just dissecting our entire season last year.”

The bottom line was that UH lost the games it was supposed to win. That was why the Cougars were one of the first four teams out instead of playing in the NCAA Tournament.

Sampson’s message resonated with the team, and it showed as they fully jumped into the culture Rehr was trying to build at UH.

“This is a group that’s totally bought in,” Rehr said. “If I want them to do something, they’ll do it. That’s the culture pieces that we were missing.”

Turning point

Down 2-0 in a hostile environment against Mississippi State in early September, Rehr didn’t see the panic that would be expected from a team on the verge of losing.

Instead, the Cougars displayed a calmness like it was just any other day. 

Looking back, Rehr pinpointed this as the moment when things started to click. 

“The moment was at Mississippi State going down 0-2 and finding the team just relaxed,” Rehr said. “Once they start having fun, that’s when you stop having to pull teeth and you’re just pushing it down the hill and it will start going down the hill on its own. That’s the first that I realized they could do.”

Once the third set began, everything changed. A match that was about to be penciled in as a loss turned into a five-set win as the calm-mannered Cougars took three straight sets to complete the comeback.

Taylor McColskey, who joined the UH program as an assistant coach in the offseason after spending three years at Mississippi State, saw the same thing Rehr did — UH was at its best when it just went out and had fun on the court. 

“When we play with joy and we have fun, we’re a very, very tough group to beat, and our team does that more than any team I’ve been on,” McColskey said.

Unprecedented streak

While it may seem counterintuitive, a mid-September loss to No. 1 Texas gave UH another confidence boost heading into conference play.

The Cougars didn’t leave Austin dejected but rather encouraged.  

UH took the first set against the Longhorns, marking the second time in program history that the Cougars have won a set against the top team in the country. This sent a message that was loud and clear.

“When we walked in there and took that first set from them, that was a huge confidence boost for all of us,” said middle blocker Kellen Morin. “I think that carried into our season like, ‘Hey, we hung with the No. 1 team in the nation. We can do this. We are really good.’”

Domination ensued from that point on. 

Starting with a Sept. 18 victory over High Point, UH rode a program-record 20 straight wins, 11 of which were sweeps, to its first conference championship since 1999.

The UH volleyball team hoists their conference title trophy in their locker room. | Courtesy of UH athletics

The UH volleyball team hoists their conference title trophy in their locker room. | Courtesy of UH athletics

In years past, a streak like this would have been unheard of because of how much the Cougars’ success depended on Jackson. Rehr knew that if Jackson didn’t play well, UH would likely lose.

This year, the Cougars’ weapons were abundant.

Whether it was veterans like Isabel Theut, Kennedy Warren and Rachel Tullos elevating their games to the next level or the key additions of Morin and setter Morgan Janda filling the team’s gaps, a weight was taken off of Jackson’s shoulders.

Wins followed.

“One thing that’s really dangerous about us is every night it can be somebody different,” McColskey said. “We’ve got the ability to spread the floor. Wherever you’re going to block us or you’re going to send a trap, we’re going to go the other way and we can score there too.”

Not settling

Days after winning a share of the conference title, UH clinched the AAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning two sets in its regular-season finale loss to UCF.

A year and a day after the night that caused him to lose sleep, Rehr — knowing that his team was in — calmly watched this year’s selection show inside TDECU Stadium’s Cougar Club

“It doesn’t make you as mad because you knew that our name was going to get called,” Rehr said. “We didn’t have to hold our breath and pray. It just gave that stamp of approval, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Applause erupted from everyone at the team’s watch party as UH’s name popped up as a fifth seed.

But making the NCAA Tournament isn’t enough. UH has bigger goals in mind.

“We’re not going there hoping we win the first round,” Rehr said. “We’re going into this trying to get to the Sweet 16.”

Georgiades reiterated this point.

“It’s great being a part of the tournament but that’s a box checked,” Georgiades said. “We want to do more.”

There is no holding back.

Fresher than most teams due to the recent string of sweeps, Rehr knows now is the time for the Cougars to empty the tank.

“I still think we have another gear,” Rehr said. “I still think there’s another part where we know it’s do-or-die. You keep something in the reserve tank (during the regular season) if you needed it. There’s no reserve tank anymore.”

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