Rice University, volleyball, Nicole Lennon, Cinco Ranch High School, Cougars, Houston Sports Awards, College Athlete of the Year, NCAA, Katy ISD

BEST OF THE BEST

Former Cinco Ranch star Lennon nominated for College Athlete of the Year

By DENNIS SILVA II, Times Sports Editor
Posted 1/1/19

After making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 in 2018, Rice volleyball took it up a notch in 2019, totaling its second-most wins in a season with 27, winning its first NCAA tournament game with a sweep of Oklahoma, and ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 for the first time.

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Rice University, volleyball, Nicole Lennon, Cinco Ranch High School, Cougars, Houston Sports Awards, College Athlete of the Year, NCAA, Katy ISD

BEST OF THE BEST

Former Cinco Ranch star Lennon nominated for College Athlete of the Year

Posted

After making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 in 2018, Rice volleyball took it up a notch in 2019, totaling its second-most wins in a season with 27, winning its first NCAA tournament game with a sweep of Oklahoma, and ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 for the first time.

A big reason for that success was junior outside hitter and former Cinco Ranch star Nicole Lennon. Lennon recorded 505 kills (good for fourth all-time in a Rice single season) and 362 digs, totaling 20 double-doubles and 20 or more kills in eight matches.

For that, Lennon is one of four nominees for the 2020 Houston Sports Awards’ College Athlete of the Year. The awards show, created by the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, recognizes the most accomplished athletes, coaches, teams, contributors and moments in Houston sports.

The show will be held Jan. 21 at the Hilton Americas.

Along with Lennon, fellow Rice star Erica Ogwumike (women’s basketball), Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma football), and Corey Davis (University of Houston men’s basketball) are nominees for College Athlete of the Year. Rice coach Tina Langley is a nominee for Coach of the Year.

“My coach texted me and said, ‘Congrats on being nominated!’ I was like, ‘What award?’ She sent it to me and that’s how I found out,” Lennon said. “She was really happy for me. I’ve never been nominated for a city-wide award or non-conference-related award. I was just really honored to be noticed.

“Obviously, that’s thanks to my team and how well we did this season. It was really flattering.”

Lennon was an AVCA All-Region selection and AVCA All-America honorable mention choice. She established a Conference USA record with seven Offensive Player of the Week awards and ranked 11th in the NCAA in kills per set (4.78).

Lennon compiled her 1,000th career kill in a Sept. 7 sweep of Abilene Christian and posted 23 kills in Rice’s upset over then-No. 3 Texas on Sept. 18.

“It takes a lot, especially for women’s sports, for them to really see you,” Lennon said. “Basketball and football, they get a lot of exposure. It’s easy to hear about one of those guys. But for me and one of the basketball players at my school to be noticed, it’s even more of an honor, in my opinion.”

Lennon recently talked with The Katy Times about her 2019 breakout season.

Q: Rice volleyball had a tremendous season, going 27-4. What do you credit for that success?

A: “I think the reason we were so successful this year was the relationships between the girls. We’re all best friends. We have great chemistry. We have so much fun. Whenever you’re getting along and having fun on the court, it shows in the level of play.”

Q: Did you have a feeling coming into this year that y’all could have the year you did have? Or was it unexpected?

A: “My sophomore year (2018), we had a really great season. We only lost a couple people from that team, so we had a good starting point. We worked so hard in the spring. We worked on all of our weaknesses and got better at the stuff we were already good at, so we knew this season would be great. It exceeded my expectations, even so.”

Q: As a team, what were some of those weaknesses that were addressed?

A: “Playing out of system. Whenever you get a bad pass and the setter is running around, you have to find a way to attack it still, aggressively, so you can still finish the play. We’d always been great working with the perfect pass, but we worked a lot in the spring on being great with a not-perfect pass. You’re out of system a lot in the game of volleyball, so being good at that gives you an edge over other teams. Coaches put us in crazy scenarios of running down balls, diving and throwing up balls to finish the play; learning to improv and figuring out how to better the ball.”

Q: Coming into this year, you were third in Rice history in kills per set. You averaged 4.78 kills per set this year. Did you see yourself better in that aspect compared to last year?

A: “I did. Last year, my biggest improvement was freshman year to sophomore year when I got better at making fewer errors. Last spring, I just built off that. I know my team is counting on me, and when they set me in pressure situations, that’s when I know they trust me. That happened more this year than it did last year. The results came with that.”

Q: In your attack and hitting, is there anything you found you really particularly improved in?

A: “I was a lot smarter in what I was doing. Freshman year, I was swinging at every ball as hard as I could. As the years have gone on and now, I threw in a lot more shots and tips and rolls. It keeps the other team on their toes. Teams will sit back deep on me because they know I’m going to swing, so whenever you throw in a tip or two they’re caught off guard.”

Q: Is there a difference when you have that responsibility of being a go-to hitter in high school compared to college?

A: “It’s very different. College is already bottle-necking from high school. Fewer than 10 percent of the girls you play in high school play in college. To have recognition in college is a way higher honor. I was always happy about being recognized in high school, because that’s your world at the moment. But I was nervous about college and how I’d end up. But with a lot of hard work, I was able to make myself known. The college level is so high, I’m really proud of myself and the team for being at that level.”

Q: Was there anything else you worked on in the spring offseason to get ready for this year?

A: “I’m always working on all facets of my game. As a six-rotation player, I have to hit, block, serve, pass, dig. I’m always trying to become better so I can be an asset for my team in every one of those areas.”

Q: Going into next season, what expectations do you have for yourself and what more can the team do to take that next step?

A: “I’ll be the only senior, so I’ll have to take a huge leadership role. That will be new for me, because I’ve always been on a team with girls older than me. I’ll have to step up and experience something new. As a team, we already are good in most aspects of the game, but we want to be great, especially in ball-control. We want to work a lot on serve-receive and stay known for our defense.”

Q: Have you thought about how you want to become the leader and what your approach will be in that regard?

A: “I’ll be able to get there with the help of my coach. If I ever need advice, I can ask her. But what helps is I have really good relationships with my teammates, and I think they’ll respect the fact that I have a lot of experience and that I know a lot about college volleyball. I think that will make it easier for me.”

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