VOLLEYBALL: Lady Tops rally to win first SBC title

Michael Casagrande

Holding a 14-13 lead in game five of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament title match, coach Travis Hudson observed while on one knee.?

Memories of past failures flittered in the back of his mind. They were erased when New Mexico State committed a ball-handling error that ended the match — and Western’s Sun Belt curse.

Hudson fell to the floor in tears as the winningest coach in school history, the win edging him past Charlie Daniel on Western’s all-time list. The coach laid on the floor in jubilation for 10 minutes before joining his team in celebrating their first-ever Sun Belt Tournament championship.

The title earns them the school’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament.

“You hear the term ‘living a dream’ a lot, but certainly, that’s what it felt like,” Hudson said, beaming. “I was just overcome with emotion.”

While the ending may have come straight from a Disney movie, the road to victory was far from storybook.?

The Aggies blitzed the Lady Toppers in the first two games. Going into the locker room after game two, Western found itself a game away from disaster after being pummeled 30-18, 30-23 to open the match.

Hudson was concerned that his team may have lost the fire that pulled them from the depths of defeat several times, including an Oct. 18 five-game comeback at NMSU.

After watching four Lady Toppers make no effort to save the last point of game two, Hudson became enraged.

“When we got in the locker room, I let them have it pretty good,” Hudson said. “I really let them have it pretty good, not because we were getting beat, but because I thought we weren’t showing the guts that we had shown all year.”

A rejuvenated team hit the floor in game three.?They trailed 24-23, but rallied for a game-winning 7-2 run.

Game four saw the Lady Toppers fall behind again, but freshman outside hitter Jessie Wagner led a balanced attack that evened the match at two games apiece.

The final game was the last obstacle Western needed to overcome to realize its dream.?But once again, the Lady Toppers found themselves trailing.? They were down 8-5 until Wagner capped a 4-0 run with a pair of her match-high 19 kills to give Western a lead.

And after knotting the score at 13, the Aggies committed two of their seven ball-handling errors to end the match.

Afterward, Western needed extra cargo room on their flight home to hold all the hardware it picked up in Miami.

To go along with the championship trophy, Western collected Coach of the Year (Hudson), Player of the Year (Sara Noe) and Defensive Player of the year (Tracy May). Noe also earned tournament MVP after her double-double in the championship match.

The win was especially sweet for Noe, Western’s only senior.

“I felt extreme excitement,” Noe said. “It’s always what we’ve wanted to do, so to be able to do it before I’m out of here was very exciting.”

Sophomore hitter Amanda Cecil said she thought Hudson was relieved after the match. She patted him on the back while he lay on the floor.

“Everything he’s worked for finally just paid off,” Cecil said.

With the Sun Belt title in hand, the Lady Toppers also earned their first-ever bid to the NCAA tournament.?Western will find out its NCAA seeding and first-round pairing Sunday night during the selection show on ESPNews.?

Hudson said the team is planning a selection-night party that will be open to the public, but details are not yet final. The selection show starts at 8 p.m.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]