VOLLEYBALL: Lady Tops try to avoid collapse

Michael Casagrande

For volleyball coach Travis Hudson, its d?j? vu all over again.

The eight-year veteran will lead his team into the Sun Belt Conference Tournament today as East Division champions for the third time in as many seasons.

When the Lady Toppers (30-4) hit the floor at noon against Denver (7-18), they will try to erase the memories of past postseason collapses.

In 2000, Western entered its Sun Belt first-round match-up with host New Orleans toting its best Sun Belt record ever (13-3). But in the manner of the Boston Red Sox and the Buffalo Bills, the Lady Toppers choked.

The Privateers dominated Western in three games, sending the Lady Toppers home from the Big Easy with a Sun Belt hangover.

But it was last season that held the most promise for a Western volleyball program long overdue. In the 21-year history of volleyball on the Hill, the Lady Toppers had never tasted postseason success.

Touting a trio of talented senior hitters, Western seemed destined in Denver to capture its first piece of tournament hardware. After breezing through the first two rounds of the conference tournament, the Lady Toppers entered the title game as a heavy favorite over Florida International.

Then mighty Casey struck out.

Western once again returned empty-handed, and this time, with a Mile-High Hangover.

Fast-forward 370 days, and the Lady Toppers find themselves in the same position as a year ago. Boasting a perfect 14-0 Sun Belt record and riding a 16-game overall winning streak, Western will once again be the heavy favorite to take home the crown, and with it, an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

With past failures behind him, Hudson looks at his first-round pairing with Denver cautiously.

“Denver is hot right now,” Hudson said. “Denver was not a team people were even considering for the tournament, and won four of they’re past five to back door their way into the tournament. We are a better team than they are, but they are a hot team right now.”

On paper, a rematch between Western and New Mexico State in Saturday’s championship match looks certain.

But Hudson will tell you, nothing is certain come tournament time.

On Oct. 18 in Las Cruces, the Lady Toppers battled back from a 2-0 deficit to upend the Aggies in front of their rowdy home crowd.?

Western freshman Crystal Towler, Sun Belt Player of the Week, wasn’t around for the past two disasters. She looks at this weekend in a positive light.

“I think we are going to play good,” the talented newcomer said. “I think we are playing really good right now, and playing very well as a team.”

Ironically, this season’s Sun Belt tournament will be played on the home floor of last season’s spoiler, FIU. But the Golden Panthers finished this season in the basement of the East Division and left out of the tournament.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]