Senior Stability: Boyan, Pajakowski provide balance for young roster

Senior middle hitter Heather Boyan spikes the ball against Tennessee Tech Tuesday night at Diddle Arena. Luke Franke/HERALD

Jonah Phillips

Like many other teams composed of five or more freshmen, WKU volleyball and Head Coach Travis Hudson have gone through some growing pains this season — but with the aid of two remaining seniors, the transition hasn’t been too painful.

Not only is this WKU’s inaugural season in Conference USA, but it also marks the first season in quite some time that the Lady Toppers have been without players Hudson described as “some of the all-time greats that ever played here” referring to likes of Ashley Potts and Melanie Stutsman, who both graduated from last season’s team.

Hudson was left with just two seniors — middle hitter senior Heather Boyan and defensive specialist senior Mollie Pajakowski — to help usher in the largest and most heralded recruiting class in program history.

“It’s the complete opposite from last season,” Boyan said. “Going into it, we knew it was going to be different and knew it was going to be a difficult transition for us, so Mollie and I knew we needed to step up and be good leaders.”

That leadership seems to be evident thus far. The Lady Toppers currently sit at 23-5 on the season with an 11-1 clip in league play. Pajakowski said the seniors’ departure a season ago paved the way for the team’s success this year.

“I saw them progress and get better with them,” Pajakowski said. “When their senior season didn’t end exactly the way they wanted it to, I think it put pressure on us and the five freshmen.”  

With big changes taking place this season, both Boyan and Pajakowski knew that not only would their individual roles on the team change, but the entire dynamic of the team would also change.

Hudson and his lone seniors found themselves traveling in the uncharted waters of a new conference with a lineup that featured three to four freshmen consistently on the floor.

“I’m used to having at least five girls that were older than me, so to come in and be one of two seniors has definitely changed my role and my responsibilities on the team. It’s something that I don’t always think about though,” Pajakowski said. “I like being there for the underclassman, encouraging them, listening to them, anything I can do to help.”

The strength that can be found in Boyan and Pajakowski as student-athletes was certainly instilled with them in their first three years on the Hill — and for both of them, they can’t believe how far they’ve come.

Boyan — a Munster, Indiana native — reminisced of her less-than-typical journey to WKU in the first place.

“To me, it seemed pretty random that Western Kentucky was interested in me, just because I’m from northern Indiana, by Chicago. I remember driving down here for my visit just thinking ‘this is so random, why would I come here?’ but when I got here and went on my visit I absolutely loved it,” Boyan said. “I loved the campus, program — Travis was awesome — so I started thinking to myself, ‘maybe I will go here.’”  

Jacksonville, Miami (Florida), and Central Michigan were also seeking Boyan’s services — for good reason. The senior has tallied Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week honors twice this season and currently ranks second in the league in blocks per set with 1.08. Her hitting percentage of .329 also ranks 8th in the conference.

Pajakowski — a native of Granger, Indiana — remembers the feeling she had as soon as she stepped on the Hill.

“Right when I stepped on campus I knew I loved it,” Pajakowski said. “I loved the campus and the coaching staff and the girls and everything. It felt right from the beginning. You can tell that they genuinely care about you here.”

The same growing pains that seem to be eluding the five freshmen thus far this season didn’t completely dodge the seniors early in their playing careers.

Pajakowski traditionally played setter at the club and high school level, and was even looking at different programs to set for in college, but coming to WKU, she would quickly be transformed into a defensive specialist.

Boyan, on the other hand, didn’t have to deal with a change in position, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing for her, either.

“It was hard for me because as a freshman, I had two other people in my position, so I really didn’t get to play that much,” Boyan said. “Typically, Division I athletes are used to getting so much playing time in club and high school, so for me it was hard to make that transition.”

As both their careers progressed, they each reached personal and team-oriented heights, which have chiseled them into the leaders they have become.   

“This is definitely my favorite season,” Pajakowski said. “I’m an upperclassman and a leader and I absolutely love this team. Not that I didn’t love the team before, but these girls are like my family.”

If the Lady Toppers are a family, it’s a result of Hudson’s mentoring ways and the two seniors that have hurdled leaps to get to this point — and with four games remaining until postseason play, the WKU volleyball family isn’t done turning heads.