VOLLEYBALL: Veteran roster wants to repeat 2002 NCAA Tournament bid

Wes Watt

miles, hugs and greetings filled the Hall of Champions at Diddle Arena over the weekend. Talks of yesteryear echoed the walls as former and current Lady Topper volleyball players met in the team’s annual alumni match Saturday.

But now the Hall is empty, the echoes have subsided, the smiles are gone. It is back to business, as the team begins its quest for another trip to the NCAA Tournament.

After reaching the tournament in 2002, the prize eluded Western last year. But with a stacked roster and tougher schedule planned by coach Travis Hudson, the Lady Tops are itching to go back.

“It’s our number one goal to make it to the NCAA Tournament,” senior middle-hitter Amanda Schiff said. “It’s very important to us, especially to all of us seniors.”

Schiff was named Sun Belt Conference preseason player of the year last week. But it’s not just her name that opponents are talking about.

Schiff merged with junior setter Caron Blotch and junior outside hitter Crystal Towler to make up three of just eight spots on the SBC preseason team.

With eight upperclassmen, all with NCAA Tournament experience on the 11 spot Lady Topper roster, the SBC coaches have picked Western as the favorite to win the Eastern Division for the fifth consecutive year.

But that’s what Hudson likes.

“It’s the place I’ve wanted our program to be in ever since I took over,” Hudson said. “All of those awards and preseason accolades are nice, but basically the only function all that has to serve is to put a bulls-eye squarely on our backs. When everyone in this league goes out to practice, they’re thinking of ways to beat Western Kentucky.”

While Western is clearly the favorite in the East, defending SBC champion New Mexico State only holds a one vote advantage over Denver in the West. The Aggies defeated Western 3-1 in last year’s SBC Tournament, but this season Hudson has a back-up plan. He isn’t leaving it up to winning the SBC Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament. Instead Hudson has beefed up the schedule in hopes that Western will receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The non-conference schedule consists of top teams including Northwestern, which is going for a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Then there’s Cincinnati which is just an eyelash out of the top-25. And don’t forget NCAA powerhouse Stanford.

The Cardinals will no doubt be the toughest opponent on the Lady Toppers’ schedule. Stanford ranks No. 6 in the land in the USA Today/College Sports Television preseason poll, with two votes for the first place position.

“The Sunbelt has typically been a one-bid league,” Hudson said. “I think I owe it to (the team) to play a schedule that would allow them to be recognized nationally and put themselves in position not to have to rely on the (SBC) Championship.”

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Reach Wes Watt at [email protected]