November 17, 2001 is a date that will live in infamy, so to speak, in the history of Western volleyball. That was the day Florida International stunned the Lady Toppers in the championship game of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, costing Western a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Since that dreary day in Denver, the Lady Toppers (18-4, 4-0 SBC) have had Saturday’s rematch with the Golden Panthers (5-12, 1-2) circled on their calendar.
“Certainly, it’s not going to take much of a pregame speech for our returning players,” Coach Travis Hudson said. “But you have to remember that almost half of our lineup is freshmen.”
But the rookies have no doubt been filled in on the significance of this one. And what Western’s trio of freshmen lack in experience, they make up for in talent.
Monday, rookie outside hitter Jessie Wagner was named Sun Belt Conference Player of the Week due in large part to her 24 kills in a win Saturday against Arkansas-Little Rock. She also had 13 kills against Arkansas State.
“I actually didn’t know I made it until someone mentioned it to me,” Wagner said. “I was really shocked, but I was happy I got it.”
So was Hudson. Wagner’s early success has been emblematic of the Lady Toppers’ surprising start.
Sophomore hitter Amanda Cecil also garnered the conference’s Defensive Player of the Week, marking the first time in the two years the SBC has handed out the two awards that one school has claimed both.
Along with Cecil and Wagner, the young team has thrived.
Western ranks first in the Sun Belt in team kills, assists and hitting percentage. The Lady Toppers are second or third in four other categories.
In the NCAA’s South Regional poll released Wednesday, Western ranked sixth, the first non-Southeastern Conference school on the list. The Lady Toppers are behind Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana State in the South Region, which includes teams from the Sun Belt, SEC, Atlantic Sun and Southern Conferences.
And a little more than halfway through the regular season, Hudson gives his Lady Toppers a positive report card.
“I would give them an ‘A’ right now,” Hudson said. “I don’t think in my wildest dreams I would have dreamt we would be 18-4 through our first 22 matches.”
On the matter of his mid-season MVP, Hudson wasted no time naming setter Sara Noe. Noe, the only senior on the team, leads Western in assists, and is approaching Jenni Miller’s career record of 4,521.
She also ranks first in the league in assists.
“With everyone we lost offensively, Sara has become the quarterback of our offense, she is the wheels that make us go,” Hudson said.
Noe, more than anybody, is looking forward to getting revenge against the Golden Panthers for last season’s shocking defeat.
“I think we are always motivated going into games, but there is a little extra motivation behind this one,” she said.
Sophomore outside hitter Amanda Cecil said she’s confident Western won’t make the mistake it made last year, underestimating Florida International.
“Last year was so heart-breaking,” Cecil said. “We were expected to win last year, especially when we found out we were playing Florida International. We were like, ‘We’re going to the NCAA.'”
They didn’t win. They didn’t make the Big Dance. For a second straight year, the Lady Toppers were stunned in the tournament after sweeping through regular season play.
FIU was responsible. And Western hasn’t forgotten.
Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]