Lady Toppers thriving on both sides of the net

Clay Manlove

As the midway point of the volleyball season sits in the rear-view mirror, the Lady Toppers are playing their best volleyball on both sides of the net in the middle of conference play, and it has paid dividends over the last few weeks.

Following this weekend’s pair of conference wins over Alabama-Birmingham and Florida International, WKU has won 22-straight sets since its conference opener against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 22, the most by the program since 2013.

“We’re happy to get a win at the end of a brutal road trip travel wise,” WKU head coach Travis Hudson said after Sunday’s win over FIU. “Our kids are continuing to improve on the defensive side. I’m proud of the way we played today.”

The Lady Toppers have swept 16 opponents in the 2017 season and are now 21-2 overall, including a 7-0 record halfway through their Conference USA slate. Among the 16 sweeps, three have been against teams with three losses or less before they faced the Lady Toppers (Charlotte, Austin Peay and No. 25 Ohio State).

Overshadowed by its offensive performance for most of the season, WKU’s defense has put together seven straight sweeps and have swept all but one of their conference opponents (FAU).

The Lady Toppers have held opponents to a lowly .172 hitting percentage on the year while the offense has countered with a .343 hitting clip in 2017 and has out-dug opponents 964-774 while winning the blocking battle at the net 174.5-128.5. Of those 964 digs, sophomore libero Emma Kowalkowski owns 228 of them (2.96 digs/set).

Following close behind Kowalkowski in digs is senior Sydney Engle (195 digs, 2.53 digs/set), senior Jessica Lucas (169 digs, 2.19 digs/set) and freshman Darby Music (116 digs, 1.521 digs/set). All four have played all 77 sets of volleyball with the team this season.

Leading the Lady Toppers in blocks are junior middle blocker Rachel Anderson (75 blocks, 0.97 blocks/set) and Engle (49 blocks, 0.62 blocks/set).

Offensively, the Lady Toppers continue to blister teams with their scorching hitting percentages, hitting for a combined .343 on the season including three outings of .500 or more. WKU hit at a .549 percentage in last Tuesday’s 3-0 win over Austin Peay, setting a school record.

Senior Alyssa Cavanaugh continues to be the workhorse from her outside hitter position, racking up 313 kills and hitting at a .382 clip on the year. Meanwhile, Anderson has a team-high .428 hitting percentage to complement 269 kills, good for second on the squad.

Engle has also been one of the better two-way players for the Lady Toppers, accounting for 159 kills – good for third on the team – in her senior campaign and has hit at a .384 clip, good for second on the team. Junior Taylor Dellinger has also made an offensive presence, coming in at fourth on the team with 122 kills.

Other places where the Lady Toppers are thriving late in the season are in the service game. Although Hudson has hinted on several occasions that serving would be an area that his team could improve on, WKU has racked up 103 service aces to their opponents’ 74. However, the Lady Toppers have had 186 service errors on the season to their opponents’ 165.

Kowalkowski leads the Lady Toppers with 23 service aces followed by 20 from sophomore Sophia Cerino, who has been exclusively a serving specialist for WKU throughout most of the season.

The Lady Toppers will look to continue their dominance when they return home on Friday evening to face Texas-El Paso, kicking off another four-match slate at Diddle Arena.

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