With a 10-4 conference record heading into the Conference USA tournament, North Texas (16-10) is ranked third, behind Western Kentucky (28-1, 14-0 C-USA) and Rice (24-2, 13-1 C-USA). The Rice-hosted tournament will be played in Houston this weekend (Nov. 22-24).
The Mean Green have high expectations for this tournament despite their injuries.
“We are going in with a few players missing but that is no excuse for us,” junior middle blocker Miranda Youmans said. “We are all on the same page here and we are all working for the same goal.”
North Texas will open play against the No. 6 Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners on Friday. The winner of this game will advance to play the winner of No. 2 Rice and No. 7 Texas-El Paso on Saturday. The matchup against the Roadrunners (15-12, 8-6 C-USA) will be a quick rematch, as the Mean Green ended their regular season with a 3-2 victory over Texas-San Antonio.
“Our minds are refreshed of their [Texas-San Antonio] game play and how they play as a team,” junior outside hitter Valerie Valerian said. “I feel like we can use that to our advantage as well just know their [Texas-San Antonio] overall game play.”
The players for the Roadrunners that the Mean Green need to contain in this match would be senior outside hitter Brianna McCulloch and sophomore outside hitter Hannah Lopez. McCulloch had 17 kills and two digs and Lopez had 13 kills and five digs in the match.
“We have to adjust to a couple of things that [Texas-San Antonio] adjusted to,” head coach Andrew Palileo said. “It is pretty hard to hide anything.”
Assuming the Mean Green won that matchup, their game against Rice or Texas-El Paso (13-14, 6-8 C-USA) would give them a chance to make it to the finals. North Texas played the Owls on Sept. 29 in Denton and lost in a clean sweep. Rice outside hitter Nicole Lennon was named C-USA Player of the Year in 2018 and is predicted to repeat that title in 2019. Lennon got 22 kills and 16 digs.
“Everybody is familiar with everybody,” Palileo said. “We talk about Rice but right now I am just getting them to worry about [the Roadrunners].”
The Mean Green also faced off against Texas-El Paso earlier this season, coming out of El Paso with a 1-3 loss on Nov. 10.
“We need to fall back on our culture and the standard that we have been able to set,” Valerian said. “Palileo always says it is not when it is good it is when it is hard that we are able to go back and fall on our culture and be able to push forward.”
The Mean Green currently have two to four regular season starters that will not be able to play due to season ending injuries for sophomore middle block Sarah Haeussler and junior setter Kaliegh Skopal. Skopal is still in Florida after she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that affects muscle strength and the body’s ability to feel sensations, including pain. Junior outside hitter Barbara Teakell and freshman defensive specialist Jordan Burks might also be missing.
“I always love conference tournament weekend,” Valerian said. ‘It’s a chance to compete and go hard.”
Valerian is currently in eigth place in kills (1,035) in North Texas’ history and recently was named to the C-USA All-Academic Team.
The Mean Green believe they have some roster advantages that includes how strong their outside hitters are.
“I think we kind of have an advantage in the middle,” Youmans said. “I feel like no one really game plans against us [in the middle] because we have really strong outsides.”
Sophomore setter Kailyn O’Neal and sophomore defense specialist Kasey Bortnem have been sharing the position of setter in the last few matches. When North Texas played Western Kentucky, O’Neal had 25 assists and eight digs. Bortnem had seven assists and six digs. O’Neal had a season high assist with 49 against Florida Atlantic and Florida International. Bortnem received her season high in assists against Texas-San Antonio with 10 assists and a kill.
“We feel pretty good about where we are at,” Palileo said. “We have just got to get everyone healthy and make sure that we kind of play with that desire that we had against [Texas-San Antonio in the regular season].”
Featured Image: Junior middle blocker Miranda Youmans and sophomore outside hitter Rhett Robinson celebrate a rally win against Texas-San Antonio on Nov. 16, 2019. Image by Isabel Anes