It’s difficult to match the success of an unforgettable season, but Western volleyball coach Travis Hudson is working his way to make it happen.
Despite losing setter Sara Noe, last season’s Sun Belt Conference most valuable player, and backup setter Erica Ringger, the Lady Toppers have been picked to win its fourth straight Sun Belt East title.
“It’s where you want to be every year,” Hudson said. “We worked really hard to get that kind of respect.”
Coming off a 33-5 season, including a 14-0 conference record and a trip to the NCAA tournament, Hudson said being preseason favorites puts a big target on their backs.
Nonetheless, Hudson has confidence in his players.
“We have a chance to be an awfully good team if we move in the right direction,” Hudson said. “I am confident that we have that ability.”
Fellow Sun Belt coaches agree, picking two Lady Toppers to the preseason All-Conference team. Senior Tracy May and sophomore Crystal Towler were both named to the team for the first time.
Playing setter will be newcomer Caron Blotch. Blotch led Texas to the NCAA tournament last season, as well as ranking fourth in the Big 12 with 1,327 assists.
But Texas wasn’t where she wanted to be. So she transferred to Western because of her best friend.
“In Texas I wasn’t happy,” Blotch said. “Jessie Wagner always told me to come here, but I never thought I’d leave.”
Blotch and Wagner went to high school together in Franklin, Ind. and stayed in touch when they went to different colleges.
Blotch said she isn’t having a difficult time adjusting to Western’s offense, but is still working on getting used to the difference between the Longhorns’ hitters and Western’s hitters.
“At Texas, the hitters were huge compared to the hitters here that are normal height,” she said. “I need to get used to the timing of the hitters more than anything.”
Another concern with Blotch is being the only suitable replacement for Noe.
“One of the real vulnerabilities is our depth at the setter position,” Hudson said. “Caron has to stay healthy for us – it would create a drastic change to not have her out there (with) her being the only setter on the roster.”
The team’s main strength is the abundance of defensive specialists on the squad. Throughout practice the Lady Toppers fill the gym with the sound of their bodies hitting the floor to dig the ball.
Western’s defense will be key to the team as they face a harsh opening schedule before conference play.
The Lady Toppers will play their first match on Aug. 29 against Kansas, one of three matches in the Northern Illinois Tournament.
September will be a test for the team as it faces Georgia on Sept. 5, Cincinnati on Sept. 16, and Indiana on Sept. 20.
“All four of those teams will be a big threat because they are top-level programs from top-level conferences,” Hudson said.
Western starts conference play on Sept. 26 against Louisiana-Lafayette.
But Hudson’s main concern is the teams that finished behind Western last year, New Mexico State and North Texas.
“Those two are the best programs in the Sun Belt to try to be reckoned with,” Hudson said.
Hudson said that competition within the team will be stiff as well but that it will help make the team better.
May is positive that her last year on the team will be a successful one.
“Last year we were so young and freshmen had to step up,” she said. “We’re more experienced – we basically have the same team that we had last year, just with a new setter.”
Reach Amber North at [email protected]