Lady Toppers look to take next step in Lexington

WKU head coach Travis Hudson yells instructions to his players during their game against Charlotte in the C-USA tournament Nov. 17. “We did not like how we finished last year and we’ve had a goal to get back to this point” Hudson said after the game.

Clay Manlove

The Lady Toppers have now made it to the NCAA Tournament four seasons in a row, but have only made it past the first round once in those three tries.

Maybe the fourth time will be the charm, and head coach Travis Hudson and his squad like their chances of taking the next step.

In Friday’s first round of the tournament, the Lady Toppers will travel to Lexington to take on Notre Dame at 4 p.m. CT in Memorial Coliseum. The match will pit the nation’s second-ranked offense in WKU against the Fighting Irish’s 12th-ranked defense.

“That’s the storyline of our first round match-up,” Hudson said. “There’s no doubt that [Notre Dame] is going to come in with a game plan to take some of our things away. We pride ourselves on being able to come at you wherever you want us to, so it will be a little bit of cat-and-mouse at the beginning as we figure out each other’s game plans.”

Comparing the schedules of the Lady Toppers to that of the Fighting Irish (22-9), it is easy to see why the Lady Toppers do indeed have a chance to hang around with the ACC opponent.

Notre Dame has faced similar opponents this season, playing conference matches against Louisville and Pittsburgh while also facing a Big Ten opponent in Ohio State.

On Oct. 25, Notre Dame lost a 3-2 squeaker to Louisville on their home court. On Sept. 1, the Cardinals beat WKU, 3-1, in Louisville.

On Oct. 29, Pitt came into South Bend, Indiana, and dropped the Fighting Irish with a 3-0 sweep. The Lady Toppers (30-3) conquered the Panthers, 3-2, in Diddle Arena on Sept. 8.

Notre Dame split a pair of games with Ohio State with a 3-0 loss on Sept. 8 and a 3-1 win on Sept. 10. The Lady Toppers went to Columbus, Ohio, and stomped the (then No. 25) Buckeyes 3-0 on their home court on Sept. 15.

“I’m not sure how much it means that we played similar opponents because different styles match up in different ways,” Hudson said. “From what we see on film, our kids are confident that they will be in this match. That’s what you hope for when you get to this point.”

The red-hot Lady Toppers have played impressive volleyball toward the end of the season despite a 3-2 setback to North Texas to end the regular season.

WKU has again facilitated the second-best offense in the nation behind only top-ranked Penn State. The Lady Toppers are working around an average .335 clip on the season while holding opponents to an average .172 hitting percentage, good for 45th in the nation.

Individually, Rachel Anderson ranks ninth in the nation working around a .425 hitting clip on the season while Alyssa Cavanaugh leads all outside hitters in the nation with a .358 attack percentage.

Cavanaugh leads a group of four seniors that have made it to the NCAA Tournament in all of their four years of play, the first time in school history the Lady Toppers have accomplished such a feat.

“It’s been a pretty magical run for this group of seniors, but it’s not by accident,” Hudson said last Sunday. “They’ve worked hard and gotten better year in and year out. It’s only gotten tougher on us as the years have gone by because there is always a bullseye on us.”

Fellow senior Jessica Lucas ranks 31st in that nation with 1,231 total assists while also ranking 29th in the country with 10.99 assists per set.

Notre Dame hasn’t quite put up the numbers that the Lady Toppers have this season, but have also played a significantly tougher schedule in 2017.

One player who has racked up the numbers for the Fighting Irish is sophomore outside hitter Jemma Yeadon, who has accumulated 442 kills, good for 57th in the country.

Yeadon’s presence leads a Notre Dame offense that has averaged only a .190 attack percentage on the season, which could post a problem against the stingy Lady Topper defense.

However, it is clear that the Fighting Irish’s 12th-ranked defense has made the most noise this season, as they have held opponents to just a .152 attack percentage on the season.

Junior libero Ryann DeJarld has been the driving force for the Notre Dame defense as she stands at fourth in the NCAA Division I standings with 731 total kills in 2017.

The Fighting Irish are ranked 10th in the nation in total blocks with 325.0 and are also ranked 13th in NCAA D-I with 2165 total team digs.

“They’re a very well-coached team,” Hudson said. “I think it’s safe to say that they will be prepared on Friday, but I think that it is a very good match-up. Both teams play a very straightforward style of volleyball.”

Should WKU defeat the Fighting Irish on Friday, it will move on to face another familiar opponent in East Tennessee State or Kentucky on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET in Lexington.

The Lady Toppers took down the Bucs 3-1 in Bowling Green on Sept. 8 while playing the Wildcats in a preseason exhibition in Lexington on Aug. 16.

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