Trial by fire: WKU freshman Stutsman settling in as starter

Freshman setter Melanie Stutsman sets the ball at the net during WKU’s game against Belmont this past season. Stutsman was named a “Rising Star” of the freshman class by Collegiate Volleyball Update on Friday.

Emily Patton

Those who surround Melanie Stutsman on the WKU volleyball team often forget the setter is merely a freshman.

It’s an easy mistake to make given the Floyds Knobs, Ind., native stepped right into the starting setter role straight out of high school.

“Sometimes I just forget, because of her talent level, that she is just a freshman,” Head Coach Travis Hudson said. “She is going to have those ups and downs. She has had to grow up in this first month of the year.”

Stutsman, who has played every position on the volleyball court throughout her career, began setting her freshman year of high school and has stayed there ever since.

But starting for WKU (11-4) as a freshman was a dream Stutsman never imagined would come true.

Hudson made the decision to start Stutsman prior to the start of the season, meaning last year’s starter, junior setter Lauren Stuckel, would lose her starting spot on the court.

Stutsman said it was news that brought her to tears.

“I fell out of my chair. I was really shocked,” Stutsman said. “I expected to come in and battle for the position, but I don’t know. I guess (Hudson) just wanted to put it all on the table so there were no surprises.”

Stutsman said learning she would start as setter gave her time to prepare for the responsibility and gave the team time to adjust.

This adjustment time is exactly what sophomore outside hitter Jordyn Skinner said made the smooth transition possible.

“We all knew she was going to come in, and we knew she was going to be ready to set,” Skinner said. “She just has done her job and done really good. She has proven she can play.”

As the season has progressed, a tag-team duo between Stutsman and Skinner has shown itself — most recently Tuesday night against Belmont in Diddle Arena.

The match featured a second-set battle with 16 ties and seven lead changes.

When Belmont grabbed the lead, 25-24, Stutsman set up a gem, and Skinner delivered the game-tying kill — a combination that proved effective as WKU went on to win, 3-0 (25-17, 29-27, 25-22) over the Bruins.

Stutsman had nine kills, 26 assists and a .412 hitting percentage against Belmont.

Since Stutsman has been on the court, the Lady Toppers have upset No. 27 Missouri, won two non-conference tournaments and scored more than 1,200 points in their last 15 games.

“I feel like I have to raise my level of play,” Stutsman said. “The level of play here is so good. Because of the coaching staff, I have improved so much. Everyone is encouraging me and working with me every day.”

To Hudson, Stutsman’s improvements must keep coming as the Lady Toppers enter nine straight conference games beginning this weekend.

“She is a really, really talented kid, and she can make so many plays for us,” Hudson said. “But she is still is so inconsistent with her approach and how she does things. She is going to have to take it up another notch when we get into conference play.”

Consistently improving as a setter is something Stutsman said she feels a responsibility to do, especially since she took an upperclassman’s starting spot.

“I feel like since I took her spot, I’ve got to do well every day, or there is no reason for me to take it,” she said.

Stutsman will get the chance when the Lady Toppers head into their first Sun Belt Conference match — a 7 p.m. Friday meeting at Arkansas State — followed by a trip to Arkansas-Little Rock on Saturday at 2 p.m.

“We’ve had a really good preseason — won some pretty big games that people probably never thought we would win,” Stutsman said. “I think we are ready to go.”