No. 19 WKU erases disappointing 2018 season with C-USA crown

The WKU volleyball team huddles before the senior day game against the UAB Blazers at E.A. Diddle Arena on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. WKU swept UAB 3-0 to finish the regular season with a record of 28 wins and one loss.

Kaden Gaylord

The WKU volleyball team didn’t vacate the Conference USA throne for long.

Just over one year ago, the second-seeded Lady Toppers fell in the opening round of the C-USA Tournament to seventh-seeded Southern Mississippi after blowing a 2-0 lead and allowing the Golden Eagles to steal a five-set quarterfinal match win on Nov. 16, 2018.

The Lady Toppers finished the 2018 campaign with a 20-10 record, the program’s 19th 20-win season in a row. But a first-round exit in the conference tournament, which hadn’t happened since 2013, made head coach Travis Hudson and his players eager for a shot at redemption.

Exactly one year after suffering heartbreak, the Lady Toppers (28-1, 14-0 C-USA) clinched the 2019 C-USA regular season title outright on Saturday, and the WKU volleyball team added yet another trophy to its extensive collection with a Senior Day victory.

Hudson said he takes “tremendous pride” in his program’s most recent championship because the team “owned” a 2018 season that “felt like rock bottom” and worked to change its fate.

“We decided we were going to lean on each other and we were going to get dedicated to the things that had always made this place special,” Hudson said. “That was a process that truly, literally started back in late January, and to see it come full circle now is a lesson for me.

“It’s reinforcement to me as a coach, but I think it’s a lesson for these kids that life isn’t about results. It’s about doing things the right way day in, day out and all of a sudden things start falling in your favor a little bit.”

WKU is ranked No. 19 in the latest AVCA Division I Coaches Poll, but the Lady Toppers are also ranked No. 1 out of 335 Division I volleyball programs in wins with 28, winning percentage at .966, consecutive wins with 24 and clean 3-0 sweeps with 20.

Hudson and the Lady Toppers didn’t regain national prominence by chance — they started off their redemption tour with the additions of junior Logan Kael from West Florida and junior Nadia Dieudonne from Xavier, two key transfers who were expected to make a massive impact.

Dieudonne made her mark instantly, posting 54 assists in her first game. The Louisville native continued to rack up impressive performances all season, and she’s now ranked second in C-USA and 26th in the nation for assists per set and total assists.

Kael doesn’t have flashy stats in the record book, but the defensive specialist is an anchor for WKU. She leads the team in digs and is ranked 14th in C-USA with 3.25 digs per set.

Freshman Paige Briggs was added to the 2019 roster just days before the 2018 season ended, and the Ortonville, Michigan, native has added a well-balanced attack in her debut campaign.

Briggs was second on the team in kills, second in digs and led WKU in double-doubles with 14.

The new additions joined a team that had multiple key returners, including sophomore Lauren Matthews, sophomore Katie Isenbarger, junior Hallie Shelton and junior Kayland Jackson.

Matthews missed a month of her freshman year due to injury, but she broke out during her sophomore campaign by leading the team in kills, leading the entire nation with a .454 hitting percentage and bringing her signature intensity whenever the team needed it most.

Isenbarger posted 142 kills and Shelton ranked fourth in C-USA with 35 aces, while Jackson has bounced back from a hand injury and posted 161 kills with a .240 hitting percentage.

But the turnaround wouldn’t have been complete without the experience and leadership provided by seniors Emma Kowalkowski and Sophia Cerino throughout the season.

Kowalkowski has been through many ups and downs throughout her four-year career, and she showcased her durability by playing in all 99 sets for the Lady Toppers this season. The Lake Orion, Michigan, native is also just 11 digs shy of 1,000 total digs for her career.

“The thing I’m most proud of is our comeback from last year,” Kowalkowski said. “Sophia and I, as well as the entire team, put in a lot of work in the spring and the offseason trying to go back to our culture and go back to who we are as a team and I’m really proud of us personally, and of the entire team, for regaining that status.”

Cerino has been an all-around threat for WKU this season — she’s third on the team in kills and has been the best player in the country at the service line this year. She set the single-season school record for aces with 73, surpassing the 64 aces posted by Cindy Bradley in 1991.

“This is what we’ve been working for since the spring and since the end of last season,” Cerino said. “It just kind of left a bad taste in all of our mouths. This group really came together and in the spring we worked really hard on our culture, we worked really hard just to get better every day and to set our eyes on this championship, just to get it back in our hands.”

Following the regular season, the Lady Toppers will look to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning the C-USA Tournament, which is set for Nov. 22-24 in Houston.

The 2019 C-USA Tournament will be hosted by No. 21 Rice (24-2, 13-1 C-USA), meaning it will be held in Tudor Fieldhouse, the site of WKU’s first win over a ranked team since 2017.

First-seeded WKU will meet eighth-seeded Middle Tennessee State (13-16, 6-8 C-USA) for the third time in 2019 this weekend. WKU is 2-0 against MTSU this season, dropping just one set.

The Lady Toppers will take on the Blue Raiders in the quarterfinals on Friday at noon. All seven games of the C-USA Tournament will be streamed live for ESPN+ subscribers.

Reporter Kaden Gaylord can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Kaden on Twitter at @_KLG3.