Pratt: Lady Topper volleyball embracing youth and the unknown

WKU head women’s volleyball coach Travis Hudson addresses his team after their win over Arkansas State.

Elliott Pratt

I was three years old when Travis Hudson began coaching volleyball at WKU.

That’s crazy to think about, but what’s crazier is that five of Hudson’s newest players were either born the same year he began coaching or didn’t yet exist on this earth.

When you’ve coached that long at one place you’re doing something right. Hudson’s formula, for the majority of his career, has been right.

When you’re entering your 20th season of coaching, you get tired. Hudson, in all his success in bringing the Lady Toppers to the top 25 the past three seasons, admits he is tired.

“It’s hard for me to explain to people how I feel going into this one because I am truly exhausted,” Hudson said. “The amount of work with that many newcomers is overwhelming, but I wake up every day excited to get back in here because this is a group that every day, light bulbs are going to come on.”

Part of the formula to Hudson’s success has been his ability to understand and read the cards he’s dealt, and right now, he knows he doesn’t have as many aces in the hole just yet.

Five freshmen — Jessica Lucas, Jackie Scott, Sydney Engle, Amara Listenbee and Alyssa Cavanaugh — are the youth highlighting this Lady Topper team that replaces the five seniors from the 2013 class that featured a list of school record holders.

Ashley Potts holds the all-time digs record with 1,879 digs and won three-straight Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year awards. Melanie Stutsman is WKU’s all-time assists leader with 5,294 assists. Paige Wessel is second in school history in hitting-percentage (.367).

Those people are gone. Only two seniors outline the squad this season, middle hitter Heather Boyan and defensive specialist Mollie Pajakowski.

Junior middle hitter Noelle Langenkamp has been selected as the Conference USA Preseason Player of the Year.

Those Lady Toppers are the leaders of this team, but five freshmen make this one of Hudson’s most challenging of his 20 years.

“If we come out of the gate on fire it wouldn’t surprise me. If it takes us three or four weeks to figure some things out, it wouldn’t surprise me,” Hudson said.

“What I want is for them to almost embrace the fact that things are going to go wrong. It’s going to happen. There’s no way around it. I don’t want them to be shaken by that, I don’t want them to be surprised about that.”

Boyan has been in the same shoes these five freshmen stand in. Hudson said he and Boyan discussed not long ago about how far her career had come since her freshman year. Boyan played in 41 sets as a freshman. Her next season, she was named Second-Team All-Sun Belt Conference.

“It’s weird that it’s gone this fast and here I am in the last season,” Boyan said. “We definitely have a lot of talent this year. We might have a young team, but I think we have a lot of potential to go far and do big things.

“You have five people coming in and they don’t know the culture of our program and what we do here. It puts more pressure on the upperclassmen to make sure we set that example to let them know how we do things here.”

The Lady Toppers were humbled after last season’s end in the first round of the Sun Belt Tournament in which they were expected to repeat as champions bound for a third-straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

WKU volleyball has earned respect across the country as a strong program. Now they’re looking to earn respect once again in Conference USA.

For the first time in a while, Hudson’s Lady Toppers will consider themselves the 13th best team out of 13 competitors in the league.

“We’ve never played a part of this league and we don’t want anything given to us as a part of this league,” Hudson said. “We’ll start at No. 13 and see how far we can work our way up throughout this season and figure out where we land at the end.

“It’s a when, not if, with this group. This is going to be a really good team. How long that will take remains to be seen.”