Lady Tops hope to get first win at NCAA tournament

Sophomore outside hitter Jordyn Skinner hits against Cincinnati players (from left) Stephanie Niemer and Becca Refenes during the Lady Toppers’ home volleyball game against the Cincinnati Bearcats Oct. 19 in Diddle Arena. WKU lost 1-3.

Emily Patton

The WKU volleyball team has advanced to the first round of the NCAA tournament in five of the last nine years.

But what a team in WKU’s program’s history has failed to do is win in the first round, and Head Coach Travis Hudson said he’s not satisfied with just getting to the tournament this time around.

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WKU (27-8) faces Cincinnati (29-5) today in the first round at Huff Hall in Champaign, Ill., after earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

“It’s always a big accomplishment for WKU to get to a NCAA tournament period,” Hudson said. “We are not satisfied there. Having had the experience, the first time or two that we went, you are just glad to be there. It’s just not where we are at in our locker room right now.”

The last time the Lady Toppers played Cincinnati, they lost 1-3 (25-21, 20-25, 21-25, 24-26) at Diddle Arena on Oct. 19.

It was a match that left senior outside hitter Emily Teegarden and junior middle hitter Tiffany Elmore in tears.

“We almost took them to a fifth game,” Teegarden said. “I was so upset after that game. We were so close. We just needed that extra point.”

To Elmore, the outcome should be different this time because of a more experienced WKU team on the court.

“We came so close to winning. Since we played them last, we have tuned up some things, fixed some things and added some things that have helped us out,” Elmore said. “It’s almost like they are going to be playing someone different.”

Not only is the first round a rematch after the loss this season, but Friday’s contest is also a rematch for those players that experienced the Bearcats’ 3-2 win over WKU in the first round of the 2008 NCAA tournament.

“It is the exact same setting as last time,” senior defensive specialist Kelly Potts said. “It is a team we play every year. I always think we are going to beat them. This is my last chance. It has to happen. Maybe the tables have turned this time.”

Hudson will have to rely on Potts for a strong defensive performance to stop the Bearcat’s starting outside hitter, senior Stephanie Niemer.

Niemer was named the Big East Player of the Year after leading the league in kills per set, ranking third in aces per set and fourth in hitting percentage.

“Their outsider hitter is destined to be an all-American this year,” Hudson said. “She is really, really hard to deal with. We are going to have to do a great job defending if we are going to give ourselves a chance to win.”

Against Cincinnati this season, WKU was limited to a .234 hitting percentage, committed 21 attack errors and allowed 49 kills.

Facing a team that is ranked No. 21 in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association Division I Coaches Top 25 Poll, Hudson said it’s obvious WKU will be back in its familiar underdog role.

“We are going to have to pull off an upset,” Hudson said. “Ever since I have been here, it has been about climbing that next mountain that people said we couldn’t.”

If the Lady Toppers make history by winning the first round, they will face the winner of a match between Austin Peay (26-7) and regional site host Illinois (22-8).

In his 16th year at WKU, Hudson said he has reached that point in his career where he is ready to “make the next step” by winning at the NCAA tournament.

“Its funny because 15 years ago the next step for us was to win 10 matches,” he said. “Then the next step was to have a winning season. For me, yeah, there are more things that are possible in this program. That’s what I’m striving for every year.

“But at the same time, trying to keep focused on the fact that getting to an NCAA tournament from WKU is an amazing accomplishment that I never want to take for granted.”