VOLLEYBALL: Noebody better

Michael Casagrande

Senior setter Sara Noe arrived on the Hill in the fall of 1999 with the potential to be one of the greatest players in the 21-year history of Western volleyball. But she would have to wait her turn.

The two-time AAU All-American took her spot behind Jenni Miller, who stood until recently as the greatest setter ever to play for the Lady Toppers.

During Noe’s first season at Western, she looked up to Miller, studying and modeling her game after the prodigious passer.

“When I came in, she was running the team, it was obvious,” Noe said. “You could watch her and see she was in complete control, and you could tell everyone looked to her to lead.”

Last Friday at New Mexico State, Noe surpassed her one-time mentor to become the all-time assist leader, recording her 4,522nd career assist. By the end of the weekend, she had pushed the school mark to 4,596.

With that, Noe officially took the reigns of the Western program – and a youthful team. It seemed logical from the outset of the 2002 season that

Noe would be the star. She is the team’s lone senior – a remnant of last year’s Sun Belt East Division championship team that graduated three of the school’s best-ever hitters.

Last year, the team media guide featured the trio of senior swingers on the cover. This year, Noe is the lone cover girl, sitting alongside coach Travis Hudson.

If the picture didn’t tell it, Hudson’s words inside the book did.

“This is Sara’s team,” Hudson said. “We expect a lot out of her this season, and I think she is ready to deliver it.”

She has.

Noe has taken the Lady Toppers on her back and carried them to an unexpected 22-4 record and a perfect 7-0 mark in the Sun Belt. After being picked third in the East – which they won the last two years – they have the only unbeaten record in the conference.

Hudson owes much of his team’s success to Noe after last year’s mass exodus in top scorers. Natalie Furry, Tara Thomas, and Jessica Willard accounted for 70 percent of kills the Lady Toppers recorded a season ago, then left with diplomas.

But this year, Noe has taken on the big sister role to a talented trio of freshmen. Noe and freshman outside hitter Jessie Wagner are known to joke with each other frequently.

“She leads by example, on and off the court,” freshman defensive specialist Abby Borror said. “She adapts to everyone’s personality.”

But it’s her leadership on the court that has been more visible.

The 1,238 assists Noe has tallied this year are indicative of her ability to make young players around her more successful. Her passes often put teammates in prime positions to finish a play.

In the eighth match of the season against Delaware, Noe’s 44 assists helped freshman Crystal Towler shatter the school record for hitting percentage (.810).

On the court, Noe doesn’t speak much. She just sets. And sets the tone. Hudson believes her competitive nature drives her play and influences everyone behind her.

“She is vocal when she needs to be,” Hudson said. “She is somewhat reserved off the court, and I think the rest of our players would agree that she can be a quiet, laid-back kid. But when she feels that something needs to be said on the court, she’ll get in your face in a hurry.”

In an early season match-up against highly touted Cincinnati, with the score tied at 18 in the second game, Noe turned to her teammates with a scowl and barked her rallying cry.

“Push ahead, guys. Push ahead!”

The ensuing 5-1 run by the Lady Toppers gave them the momentum to pull away from the perennial Conference USA power. Western defeated the Bearcats in consecutive games in the match, which Noe feels was the biggest win of the year.

And as her team continues to exceed expectations, Noe continues living up to them. In 2001, she was named to the All-Sun Belt second team for the second straight year. She followed that with a spot on the preseason first team this year.

A run at Sun Belt Player of the Year is next, as she has twice been named player of the week in 2002.

“If I had a ballot in my hands right now, Sara Noe would be the Sun Belt Player of the Year,” Hudson said.

While Hudson speaks highly of his star setter, Noe speaks similarly of her coach.

“He is so knowledgeable about every position,” Noe said. “He basically came in and changed so many things that I did skill-wise, and he taught me how to be a leader.”

She had a year to watch from the bench, listening to Hudson and watching Miller. And in the three seasons since, with Noe setting up the offense, Western has won 86 percent of its matches (114-18). Its captured back-to-back Sun Belt East Division titles.

Both feats her predecessor, Miller, couldn’t accomplish.

“I want to look back and see that people remember who I was and that I made a difference here at Western,” Noe said.

Noe has only one goal left to fulfill: win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and take the school to its first-ever NCAA Tournament.

While her career may not have yet reached its climax, Noe’s legacy is assured in the Western history books.

“The setter she just passed with the all-time assist record was one of the great ones here,” Hudson said. “(Sara has) got to be mentioned with the greatest players that have played here.”

The numbers tell as much. A trip to the Big Dance would set it in stone.