Dream Weaver

Kyle Tucker

His grip tightened around a pen. His foot scuffed across the hardwood court. His head dipped. And his lids slammed shut, clamped as if the scene would change when they reopened.

He couldn’t believe it.

Game One: 26-30 … Not the start he had hoped for.

Game Two: 28-30 … It couldn’t be happening.

Game Three: 30-19 … Time for a comeback. They were the favorite, after all.

Game Four: 22-30 … That was it. Game over. Season over. No championship. His players were crying, eyes wide, hands on their heads. He, they, had been denied – again. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to see.

It was a year ago. And he just couldn’t believe it.

* * *

Vision, it seems, has little to do with eyes.

Travis Hudson wears contact lenses. He’s near-sighted.

“Can’t see stuff far away,” he says.

But that’s just it. Seeing down the road is actually the keenest of his abilities. His vision has never been more clear.

The Western volleyball coach keeps a journal in his office. In the small, red notebook, he scribbles everything significant to his budding program. But he doesn’t scrawl, stash and forget. He remembers everything that goes into that little book. He routinely reviews the contents of its pages.

“You just flip through the memories …”

On Oct. 10, 1997, Hudson’s Lady Toppers lost at home to Arkansas State. Actually, they were wrecked. It took just 54 minutes for the Lady Indians to sweep Western off the Diddle Arena floor.

Prize recruits Tara Thomas and Jessica Willard were visiting and watched the massacre from the stands. Hudson had never been more embarrassed.

So he wrote it down.

“I went in my office and wrote in my book that we would someday win a conference championship on our home floor,” Hudson remembers.

Late last October, a little more than four years after that journal entry, Thomas and Willard were back in Diddle.

They hadn’t been deterred by the loss, or the dismal 9-22 record Western managed that year. Hudson sold them on the program, on the chance to help his struggling squad.

And on that day last year, the pair – then seniors – were in Western uniforms to help further Hudson’s vision. They were there to make his prophecy, etched in a college-ruled tablet, come true.

The Lady Toppers beat Middle Tennessee in Diddle to clinch the Sun Belt Conference East Division title, Western’s second straight. They won it on their home floor.

And after a few tears – the good kind – Hudson wrote that down, too.

He is both historian and holder of Western’s newfound fortune. Through his foresight, he has built a champion. Under Hudson’s tutelage, the volleyball team has gone from joke to juggernaut.

He isn’t satisfied, though. And that seems to be the mark of his excellence.

“I think you can constantly learn and get better in any job,” Hudson says. “I have had some success, but I am very hungry to be a better coach every year.”

He’s proud of his successes. But he never forgets his failures. His outlook is tempered by the reality that the bottom is never more than a single tumble from the top. That fear pushes him.

He has, after all, been to the depths – a 7-26 record in his first season and the 9-22 mark in his third.

Now he sits perched on the pinnacle.

Last weekend, Hudson’s Lady Toppers clinched a third straight Sun Belt East title. The 31-year-old coach is one win away from Western’s first 30-win season since 1991 – and that was when the team played 43 matches instead of this year’s 34.

If the Lady Toppers win out the regular season and sweep the Sun Belt tournament, Hudson would not only get his first conference tournament title and subsequent NCAA tournament bid, but he would become the school’s all-time winningest volleyball coach with a win in the final.

He’s not yet counting those eggs, though. It wouldn’t be his style.

“I’m thrilled to be in the position we’re in. I’m certainly optimistic,” Hudson says. “But I’ve also been doing this long enough to know that things don’t always work out the way you want them to.”

“Flip through the hard times …”

When Hudson was hired as Western’s head coach before the 1995 season, he became the youngest Division I coach in America at the time. He was 24. He was a year removed from graduating Western.

He wasn’t ready.

That year, Hudson took over a program that few cared about. He inherited a team with little talent. And he lost. A lot.

“Misery,” Hudson says of his rookie campaign. “Absolute misery. I don’t take losing very well. How my wife stood it is more of a miracle than how I stood it, I guess.”

His team finished tied for ninth in the Sun Belt that year. It was the worst conference showing in the program’s history. The overall record was the second-worst mark ever at Western, surpassed in ineptitude only by the school’s inaugural team.

But Hudson didn’t have much to work with. Today, he doesn’t struggle to pinpoint that season’s pitfalls.

“Talent,” he says, “if you want me to be perfectly honest. We just weren’t an overly talented team. I was a young, inexperienced coach, and we didn’t have a lot of talent. I’ve often said that might’ve been the best coaching job I’ve done, to win seven matches. The program was really at rock bottom at that point.”

So Hudson started climbing.

With his first shot at recruiting, Hudson’s strength as a salesman shined. After taking his lumps in the first year, the green coach laid his championship foundation in the off season.

Hudson entered living rooms with dreams for sale. He was pawning promises, hawking his hopes.

“I had to find kids that didn’t necessarily believe in the program but believed in me and what we could get done,” Hudson says. “I remember selling kids on me.”

He revealed his vision. Some bought it. For those who didn’t, he had a backup pitch.

His hook: “You can help us quickly.”

He was quite convincing.

Two names from that first recruiting class remain atop Western’s record books. Jenni Miller still holds the single-season assist record and was just passed this season by senior Sara Noe on the career list for handouts.

Melissa Starck was also in that class and still reigns as the school’s all-time leader in aces and matches played. Starck was the first to commit to Hudson.

“When I came on my visit, I was really scared,” Starck said. “They’d had a really bad year. I really didn’t want to come on my visit. But once I got down there, Travis was so warm. Point blank, when I came in I asked him why I should commit. And he said you can go to another school and be another great player there, or you can come here and leave your mark, help make Western something great. That’s what sold me.”

Miller, now Morgan after a recent marriage, followed by committing shortly after. She and Starck acted on faith. They were the turning point.

“No question about it,” Hudson says. “I still owe that class more than anything, because they took more of a chance than any of them. They pumped life into the program, and I think they did as much recruiting as I did for the next couple years.”

But it took some time to pay dividends.

Western improved to 18-17 that next year. And Hudson brought in some more solid talent. The program seemed to be on an upswing.

Then came 1997 – the year of the Arkansas State slaughter that Willard and Thomas were on hand to watch. The Lady Toppers won just 29 percent of their matches and slid almost all the way back to where they started.

Hudson scribbled often, furiously filling that red notebook.

“That’s probably when Travis and I really got on the same page,” Miller said. “We both wondered if we were doing something wrong. Travis had to make me believe that if we just get through this year, then something’s going to happen. It was many long nights we sat in his office until 9 or 10 talking, and he was bawling or I was bawling.”

But the unwavering coach sold another crew of recruits in the off season. He told them the program was almost there. He again asked them to believe in him.

They did, and the next year, Hudson’s efforts started clicking. What had been a scrambled heap of Legos began, under guidance of his vision, snapping into place to form an elaborate castle.

“Once that season was over, I don’t know what happened,” said Miller, who still gets choked up remembering, still beams at the program’s new success. “It was like we had nothing to lose.”

In 1998, Western went 26-10. The team jumped from eighth to fourth in the Sun Belt. The Lady Toppers pulled off the biggest one-season improvement in the country.

And the vision, which for a time existed only in Hudson’s mind, was materializing.

“Flip through some good …”

Since the start of that season, Hudson’s teams have gone 122-42 (a winning percentage of .744).

The fruits of Hudson’s hard-selling, dream-weaving labor have culminated in consecutive 20-plus-win seasons the last three years. Three straight Sun Belt East crowns have piled up in the Lady Toppers’ trophy case over that span.

Since his hiring, Hudson has produced 13 all-conference players, the first two all-South Region selections in school history, a Sun Belt Player of the Year, Newcomer of the Year and two Defensive Players of the Year.

As regular seasons go, this one has already surpassed any other as the best in the program’s 21-year existence. Hudson’s lone senior, Noe, is a favorite for the latest Sun Belt Player of the Year honor. The team ranks at the top of almost every statistical category in the conference. And Western checked in at No. 5 in last week’s South Region poll.

In short, the last five years have easily been the most prosperous stretch the Lady Toppers have ever enjoyed. This year’s edition has raised the ceiling of their success even farther.

And Hudson’s employers have taken notice.

“God, it’s the difference in boyhood and manhood, or should I say girlhood and womanhood,” Western athletics director Wood Selig said. “He has certainly built volleyball from virtually nothing to being on the verge of being a perennial NCAA playoff team.”

Selig noted that Hudson did it without the luxury of a big budget, an army of assistants or any national or international recruiting possibilities.

When Hudson was hired, he had no paid assistants. His salary was well below the conference average at just over $19,000. And Western had no name recognition on the recruiting scene.

“He has scratched out this lofty position through the old-fashioned way,” Selig said, “through hard work and perseverance. And I can’t think there would have ever been a better person for Western’s volleyball to be entrusted to than Travis Hudson.”

As a reward, Hudson has gotten a substantial raise, his salary more than doubling to $41,000. He has been granted a paid assistant. His budget has increased. And he now drives a Chevrolet Malibu provided by the university.

“(Selig) allowed us to do some things that let us take the program to the next level,” Hudson says. “Quite honestly, I don’t know if I’d still be here if he hadn’t been here. I don’t think the program could have continued to grow.”

But it has. And Selig and Western know that as the program’s exposure expands, so does Hudson’s. They know big schools with big money have and will come calling. Big Ten conference coaches, for instance, have salaries ranging from $65,000 to $110,000.

Hudson knows that, and so does Selig.

“We’ve realized for some time the asset he is to our athletics department and our institution,” Selig said. “So we’re doing everything we can to make sure we retain his services for the long haul.”

For now, it doesn’t appear Selig has anything to worry about. Hudson says he’s not eager to leave.

He likes the area. It’s a good place to raise his 9-month-old son Tyler.

His parents live just 45 minutes from Bowling Green. His wife Cindy, who Hudson met while she was a setter for Western in the early 1990s, also has family nearby.

“That’s a rarity in the profession I’m in,” Hudson says. “We like that.”

But there’s something else, something deeper holding him here. Something that eats at him.

“You just flip through the memories, flip through the hard times, flip through some good.”

When his eyes opened, the devastation was still in front of him.

Last year, after what had been Hudson’s most successful campaign to that point, Western stood at 24-5 overall. The Lady Toppers had gone 13-1 in Sun Belt play, clinching a second East title. They had steamrolled through the conference tournament and into the championship game.

They were favored, expected even, to knock off their final opponent, Florida International.

It was to be retribution for a year earlier, when Western went 25-8, won its first East championship and was stunned in the first round of the tournament.

Players whispered their confidence. They would win this time.

But they didn’t.

FIU again shocked the Lady Toppers, winning in four games (30-26, 30-28, 19-30, 30-22). For the third time in his career – Western was knocked off in the tournament title game in 1998 – Hudson was denied what seemed so obviously his.

He again left empty-handed. Western got no at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Lady Toppers got to watch, instead.

And Hudson’s notebook got a workout.

His vision had stalled.

“It burns in me every day,” Hudson says. “My wife thinks it’s a good thing that we haven’t won it. She thinks it keeps me motivated. But it’s something I think about every day when I walk out to the gym.”

So here he is again. Here they are. This year’s team is better than last, poised for another run, expected to wipe out the field.

“Honestly, I really think this is the year,” Hudson says.

Others have been, too, but didn’t pan out. The fruitless pursuit is Hudson’s fire. It’s why he remains on the Hill.

“As opposed to just jumping ship and moving to the next level,” Hudson says, “I enjoy the challenge of staying here and trying to take this program to the next level.”

He is a man of vision. Look past his contacts and into his green eyes and you’ll see it. But does that vision hinge on winning a tournament?

He says no. He says his vision is much simpler, though it may yet facilitate the championships that skip along beneath his clamped lids at night.

His vision:

“Just keep having fun with kids, and keep watching kids do things they didn’t know they were capable of doing,” Hudson says. “If you want to know what I’m about, that’s what I’m about. If I never get that NCAA tournament, am I going to be disappointed? Sure. Am I going to feel like I’ve failed? Don’t count on it.”

Reach Kyle Tucker at [email protected]