Lady Toppers roll to fourth-straight conference title

WKU’s Lady Topper Volleyball team hold up the trophy as they celebrate their win of first place in the Conference USA tournament. 

Clay Manlove

Fueled by 921 of the Hilltopper faithful in the stands, the Lady Topper volleyball team rolled to a 3-1 win (25-15, 25-17, 20-25, 25- 21) over North Texas to claim their fourth-straight conference title on Sunday afternoon at Diddle Arena.

Just one week and three days after falling to North Texas on the road, WKU used a blazing hot start and a nearly impenetrable defense to stun the Mean Green from the first serve and earn an automatic bid in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament.

“Looking up in the crowd, you did not expect Diddle Arena to be that packed for a volleyball game,” senior Alyssa Cavanaugh said. “You create relationships with so many people that you wouldn’t expect, and to have them come up to you and congratulate you after the game is awesome.”

The Lady Toppers (30-3) played ahead for most of the match, starting out the first two sets with 8-2 and 8-3 leads, respectively.

“If we can come out and make that statement and be the aggressor from the beginning, it usually goes well from there,” senior Jessica Lucas said. “We try to be the first team to get to 10 points first because the teams that do that are usually the teams that win that match.”

Along with the fast starts, the Lady Toppers held a North Texas team with an average .298 hitting percentage on the season to just a .137 collective mark on the match while racking up 15 team blocks.

 “The players have been really sick of me talking about defending all year long, because we are one of the elite offensive teams in the country,” WKU head coach Travis Hudson said. “Championships are won by defending, and to hold [North Texas] to a .137 and to have 15 blocks, we won today because we defended at a high level.”

Helping the Lady Toppers jump out to a 12-8 lead in the first set, Rachel Anderson had four kills and block. The junior middle blocker finished with a team-leading 15 kills and a .462 hitting percentage.

“Rachel has been a counter all year long,” Cavanaugh said. “When we go to the locker room, we talk about comments and her name doesn’t even turn up when she’s hitting .500 with 15 kills. We’re really proud of her and we love to have her on our team.”

After losses of 25-15 and 25-17 losses in the first two sets, the Mean Green were able to avoid the sweep in the third set with a 25-20 win despite a furious WKU rally.

“Western came out ready to play and you can tell that they’ve been in this moment before,” North Texas head coach Andrew Palileo said. “It’s draining when you have to claw back like that, and then when you catch them, you’re a little dead.”

The Lady Toppers were able to escape from their third-set hiccup to take a 25-21 victory in the fourth set to secure their fourth-straight conference title and their 53rd straight home victory against conference opponents.

“We couldn’t get out of our own way in the third set,” Hudson said. “I think we really benefited from our experience in those moments because we’ve been here a lot. In that third set when things turned south for us, there was never a panic by our kids.”

Anderson was named Conference USA Championship MVP for the second-straight season after accumulating a team-leading 44 kills on a .455 hitting percentage along with a team-high 16 blocks over the weekend.

Cavanaugh finished with 10 kills while Taylor Dellinger added nine on Sunday. Lucas racked up 39 assists while also grabbing a team-high 13 digs on defense.

Valarie Valerian and Holly Milam each had twelve kills to lead the Mean Green (28-3) while Alexis Wright added 10. Valerian and Henrianna Ibarra each tallied 16 digs on defense.

The Lady Toppers will release more information later in the week on a community watch party for the NCAA Volleyball Tournament Selection Show, which will take place on Sunday, Nov. 26 at 8 pm.

“We’re built for [the NCAA Tournament],” Hudson said. “We’re physical, we’re experienced and we’re determined, so I hope that we can go and represent ourselves. We didn’t like how we finished last year, so we’ve all had a quiet mission in our locker room to get back to this moment.”

Reporter Clay Manlove can be reached at 270-724-9620 or at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ctmanlove58.