VOLLEYBALL: Rivalry heats up against FIU

Michael Casagrande

Yesterday may have been Picture Day for the Lady Toppers, but their play in the last two victories hasn’t been scrapbook material.

Western (26-4, 10-0 SBC) followed its ugly non-conference win at Austin Peay last Tuesday with a five-game slugfest with fierce Sun Belt Conference rival Florida International (7-18, 2-8) Friday night.

Intensity is never in short supply when the Lady Toppers and Golden Panthers meet at the net, but Friday’s showdown was especially heated.

“It got a little spicy,” coach Travis Hudson said with a smirk. “I still think we showed a little bit of youth, because I thought we played with intensity for stretches, but I think we struggled a little bit maintaining it.”

After trading off the first four games, the two teams reached their boiling point and tempers spilled over.

Western received a gift to start game five when FIU hitter Adriana Fundora received a red card for taunting after providing the game-winning kill in the fourth.

The Lady Toppers pounced on the Golden Panthers after the red card with kills from Amanda Schiff and Crystal Towler. Blocks from Cynda Derbort and Towler pushed Western’s advantage to 6-2.

But following her block, Towler was given a red card for reminding Fundora she meant business.

“It was really heat of the moment,” the freshman said. “I thought it was kinda funny because I’m really quiet, and the second time I say something, I get a red card.”

The Golden Panthers appeared to feed off of Towler’s miscue, narrowing Western’s lead to 6-5 after a Lady Topper hitting error.

But Wagner used one of her career-high 25 kills to spark a 7-4 run that capped the emotionally charged contest and gave Western its 23rd consecutive home win.

For the second time in three weeks, junior libero Tracy May was named Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Week. May contributed a game-high 14 digs against FIU.

As usual, senior leader Sara Noe was a force in the middle, adding 58 assists. Noe now ranks 9th in the NCAA with 1,144 assists, and sits at third on the all-time Sun Belt list.

Western is in the driver’s seat of the Sun Belt East Division. Hudson’s young guns need only one victory in their final four matches to clinch their third straight East title.

If they win out in the regular season and sweep the conference tournament, Hudson would become Western’s all-time winningest coach the same night he would get his first Sun Belt Tournament title and NCAA Tournament berth.

The Lady Toppers will put their 18-game regular season Sun Belt win streak on the line with a weekend trip to play Arkansas State Friday night and Arkansas-Little Rock Saturday.