WKU plays host to Sun Belt Tournament

Freshman middle hitter Noelle Langenkamp completes a kill during the Friday night game against MTSU. Langenkamp contributed seven kills to the Lady Toppers winning score.

Elliott Pratt

No. 17 WKU has a philosophy that the season is divided into three parts: the non-conference season, Sun Belt Conference season and postseason.

Two-thirds of the schedule is complete. It’s now up to the Lady Toppers on how much longer they play.

WKU finished the regular season 15-0 and dropped just one set in a match against Florida International.

That same Panther team will meet the Lady Toppers in the first round at 5 p.m. Thursday in Diddle Arena.

They and six other Sun Belt schools will walk into Diddle this weekend with one goal in mind — defeating WKU for a Sun Belt championship.

Coach Travis Hudson said there’s a perception that the Sun Belt is struggling this year with the disappointing seasons of usual powers Middle Tennessee State (7-8 Sun Belt) and FIU (7-8), but he believes surprises could be in store.

“For the past several years, the first round has been almost like a formality with a lot of the matchups,” Hudson said. “That’s not going to be the case this year. The bottom half of the league is really playing better volleyball now and I think on Day One you’ll see many upsets.”

Hudson said he understands  his own team could fall victim to an upset, but what his team has done this year gives him confidence in preventing that.

Complacency can also set in when a team breezes through a schedule like WKU has done. Hudson said it has been a challenge to keep his team on the edge.

“I’m probably as worn down as I’ve ever been as a coach,” Hudson said. “Sometimes losses keep your players’ attention, and with us being on the winning streak that we’re on every week it’s been a challenge to put new things in front of our team to keep them locked in on where we’re trying to go.”

Junior setter Melanie Stutsman said the team is aware that all eyes are on them, and that they have to be on upset alert.

“You see a lot of upsets during tournament time, so we have to go in there knowing that they’re going to come out for us,” Stutsman said. “Everyone is going to want to win, and we want to win just as bad. But we can’t go out with big heads thinking we have it in the bag.”

As for the game plan, sophomore middle hitter Heather Boyan said the team’s focus hasn’t changed since the beginning of the season.

“When things get tough, just keep playing,” Boyan said. “We have to stand up to adversity, because anything can happen in tournament time. So we’re going to be ready for anything and keep playing when it’s hard.”

WKU has a chance to make school history with this tournament run — the Lady Toppers have never won a Sun Belt Tournament at home.

“This has been driven all year by trying to do things that have never been done,” Hudson said. “We’ve gone from 298th in the country my first year in the RPI, and we’re 17th in the country right now. One of the things that’s eluded us is we’ve never won the Sun Belt Tournament here in Diddle Arena.

“It sure would be nice to do it with everybody’s family and friends around and celebrate it in our hometown.”