Lady Toppers set to compete in Panther Challenge

Sophomore outside hitter Taylor Dellinger (21) jumps up to block a shot from Belmont’s outside hitter Maggie Mullins (4) during WKU’s 3-0 victory on Tuesday, Sept. 6 at Diddle Arena. Matt Lunsford/HERALD

Matthew Stewart

After a strong outing in the Holiday Inn University Plaza Invitational (2-1) the Lady Toppers dropped out of the top 25 of the AVCA poll. WKU earned enough votes to place it at 29th in the nation.

“To tell you the truth, it’s really not something that we talk about on a regular basis,” Head Coach Travis Hudson said. “It’s not something that interests me. We know we’re one of the better teams in the country.”

The team may have dropped out of the polls, but individual play did not go unnoticed.

Junior All-American setter Jessica Lucas was named Conference USA setter of the week for the third consecutive time as Lucas racked up 137 assists over the three matches this past weekend, averaging 45.6 assists per match.

“I don’t think people understand the amount of pain that kid (Lucas) is playing with on a daily basis with her foot injury,” Hudson said. “The kid is just a winner. She’s still got that smile painted on when he’s out there playing.”

This weekend the Lady Tops will look to continue a high level of play in yet another tournament as WKU will travel to Pittsburgh to take part in the Panther Challenge hosted by the University of Pittsburgh.

This Friday, the Lady Tops will face off against the host team Pittsburgh (7-2) at 6 p.m.

“We know we have a major challenge ahead of us in Pittsburgh on Friday,” Hudson said. “They are coming off a win over number 22 Michigan. They are a really good team and we’re looking forward to that challenge.”

The Panthers knocked off the Wolverines of the University of Michigan in five sets on Sunday. Earlier in the season Pittsburgh also defeated 25th ranked Colorado State University.

“I think I looked in the last two years Pittsburgh has only been beaten in three [sets] one time,” Hudson said. “You know going into the match that best case scenario it’s going to be a long, tough matchup.”

Pittsburgh has a sizeable roster. Their offense is anchored by sophomore setter Kamalani Akeo who has 336 assists to her name. Redshirt freshman Stephanie Williams leads the team in kills with 116.

The Panther defense is led by redshirt sophomore Angela Seman with 147 digs.

“We gotta continue to get better serving-wise and continue to get better blocking,” Hudson said. “That’s an area of the game in the Pittsburgh match that going into it they’re a better team than we are blocking the ball. I think if we do a good job there I think it certainly will keep us in the match.”

Robert Morris University (6-5) will be the Lady Tops’ second opponent of the weekend. The two teams are set to square off at 11 a.m. Saturday morning.

RMU is led by Arden Fisher, a senior outside hitter who has racked up 141 kills on the season. Its setter, Brianna Frakes, is a junior who has put together 333 assists this year.

In the third and final match of the weekend the Lady Tops will take on the Mountain Hawks of Lehigh University (3-7).

The Mountain Hawks are led by redshirt sophomore Victoria Hemsath on the offensive attack. Hemsath leads the team with 105 kills.

Led by two All-Americans in Lucas and junior outside hitter Alyssa Cavanaugh, the Lady Tops’ offense has been impressive as Cavanaugh has notched 172 kills on the season while Lucas has 442 assists.

Junior outside hitter Sydney Engle has also enjoyed a favorable season which has drawn rave reviews from Hudson so far.

“Best volleyball player on our team,” Hudson said about Engle. “She does everything. She is a very complete player. She passes, she digs, she sets, she hits, she serves, she blocks; she is an absolute vital cog of our team. Most important player we have maybe.”

Engle is third on the team in kills with 104 and leads the team in service aces with 18. The Indiana native also ranks second in digs and fifth in blocks.

“Offensively, her numbers are really good,” Hudson said. “There is more there offensively. We are trying to get a better rhythm for her. I am incredibly pleased with what Sydney Engle gives us on a daily basis because she does everything, she does everything really well.”

After a five-set loss to Michigan State University, Hudson and company are ready to get back to work.

“My biggest concern is getting healthy. We are gonna start having team meetings in the training room,” Hudson said jokingly. “I feel really good about what our team is doing right now.”

Reporter Matthew Stewart can be reached at 270-745-6281 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @MES_WKU22.