Western’s volleyball team made another resounding statement this weekend that it will not easily give up the Sun Belt East Division crown it has worn the last two seasons.
With victories over Arkansas State Friday and Arkansas-LittleRock Saturday, the Lady Toppers (18-4, 4-0 SBC East) improved on their unblemished Sun Belt record and pushed their home win streak to 19 matches.
Freshman outside hitter Jessie Wagner continued her mid-season hot streak by recording 11 kills Friday and a season-high 24 Saturday.
“Everybody did their job, and everyone was excited,” Wagner said. “When we play with that much enthusiasm, it’s easier to go out there and have fun.”
Coach Travis Hudson attributed much of his team’s success to a good week of practice. For the first time all season, Hudson was able to spend significant time in the gym with his team between matches.
“Last week was the first full week of practice we’ve had since the preseason,” Hudson said. “I think that full week of practice helped Jessie a lot.”
It apparently helped all the Lady Toppers, as they needed only three games to send Arkansas State (5-9, 1-1 SBC East) home with a loss Friday night at the Preston Health and Activities Center.
The Lady Indians held a glimmer of hope early in Game One, jumping to an early lead. But Western squashed any visions of an upset using a 5-1 run to gain a lead they would not relinquish. The Lady Toppers ran away with the first game 30-18.
Freshman defensive specialist Abby Borer kept the Lady Toppers rolling with her service ace to gain a commanding 8-3 lead in the second game. ASU gave Western a brief scare, cutting the lead to three, before a 4-0 burst put Game Two on ice.
And the Lady Toppers left little to chance in the third game, closing out with an easy 30-17 win. Sophomore outside hitter Amanda Cecil put together her ninth double-double of the season with a team-high 13 kills and 10 digs against the Lady Indians.
Then came Arkansas Little-Rock on Saturday, complete with a roster sporting more consonants than any other Western has faced.
The Trojans (6-7, 2-1 SBC East) start five players hailing from outside the United States. With names like Ivana Kuzmic, Larisa Durmisevic, and Ivana Vracar, Arkansas Little-Rock brought a true international flavor to the Preston Center. They also brought some talent.
“Arkansas Little Rock is one of three or four teams who can really win this,” Hudson said. “They are a very talented team.”
It showed, as they dismissed the Lady Toppers in a close 34-32 first game.
But Western would not surrender its longstanding home win streak that easily.
The Lady Toppers responded in the second game with a convincing 30-23 victory that put momentum back on their side. Western rode that wave to a narrow 33-31 win in Game Three that put the Lady Toppers on the brink of victory.
They raced to a 6-0 lead in the fourth game, and didn’t relent. Western rolled to a 30-20 clinching win.
Sophomore hitter Amanda Schiff complemented the rookie Wagner, as she added 22 kills and a .370 hitting percentage Saturday. And Cynda Derbort had a game-high .542 hitting percentage to go along with her 15 kills.
While still perfect, at home and in the Sun Belt, Hudson won’t make any promises or predictions for an unbeaten mark by season’s end. He knows his young squad still has some rough waters to navigate over the course of a grueling conference schedule and natural maturation process.
“I think it’s way too early to go there,” said Hudson. “There is a long road ahead of us. We are 4-0 and that’s very good, but three of those four have been at home, and so I think it’s way to early to talk undefeated.”
Now the Lady Toppers have a week without a match, another full week to hone their skills, before traveling to Miami to take on defending Sun Belt Conference Champion Florida International Saturday.
They may have something to prove, facing the team that shocked them in the championship match of the Sun Belt Tournament last year, costing them a title and birth in the NCAA tournament.
Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]