2002 team, others being honored Saturday

Elliott Pratt

When No. 19 WKU takes the floor this Saturday, it’ll have a collection of Lady Toppers in the stands cheering.

WKU’s 2002 Sun Belt Champion team and other alumni will be recognized prior to the Lady Toppers’ noon match against Arkansas-Little Rock.

The 2002 team, the first WKU squad to win a Sun Belt crown, was a spark plug for much of the success the Lady Toppers have enjoyed over the last decade.

That 33-5 WKU squad capped off the year with its first trip to the NCAA Tournament. At the Honolulu tournament, the Lady Toppers were knocked out by Hawaii, which eventually advanced to the Final Four.

Coach Travis Hudson compared the team to Roger Bannister, the Englishman who broke the four-minute mile barrier in 1954.

“It broke down a wall that had always been here in terms of a program that was trying to do something never done before,” Hudson said. “It’s like the story of the four-minute mile.

“It had never been done until someone broke it. Now people run the four-minute mile regularly.  

“WKU being an NCAA tournament volleyball team was one of those big barriers that had never been done, and that team got over the hump.”

When thinking about the players that helped build the WKU volleyball program up to that point, Hudson thought of two names that stuck out most: Melissa Bean and Jennifer Morgan.

 The two didn’t play on the first championship team, but they helped lay the foundation for what WKU volleyball represents today.

Bean, an outside hitter who played from 1996-2001 is an assistant coach for Louisville’s volleyball team.

She said Hudson couldn’t recruit the best athletes during the early days of his tenure in the 1990s, so he made mental toughness “a priority.”

“He constantly preached that we’re winners, and we need to think like winners,” Bean said. “We had to quit thinking of ourselves as the underdog.

“I feel like over my time there, I definitely saw the kids he was bringing have that mentality changing based off that they should be winning.”

Former Lady Topper setter Morgan (1996-2000) is the volleyball coach at Lexington’s Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

She said while the players brought a mental mindset, Hudson instilled even more into the team.

“He couldn’t sell us a winning record coming in as a recruit,” Morgan said. “He instilled in us the will to believe and work hard for everything and know that we could be a part of something great.

“Melissa and I came from winning programs, and that was something that we wanted to continue to do wherever we played.”

Setting the stage for a program that prides itself on a winning mindset is exactly what the first few recruiting classes did for WKU.

It finally paid off in 2002 when the ball hit the court for the final point to punch WKU its first ticket to the big dance in school history.

During the years prior to that day, Hudson coined the term around campus, “Why not Western?”

“We’re a great university in a great location, and I felt like we could be a school that could succeed in volleyball,” Hudson said. “Those kids were winners.

“They were going to get beat from an athletic standpoint on some nights but they were never going to get outworked in toughness and competitiveness.”