VOLLEYBALL: Lady Tops hit the road, get the win

Michael Casagrande

Western’s volleyball team left Bowling Green late last week with a perfect Sun Belt Conference record. A trek 1,407 miles west didn’t change that.

The Lady Toppers (22-4, 7-0 SBC) faced Sun Belt West Division frontrunner NMSU (16-5, 6-1) on the road Friday. They got what they expected – a fierce battle – but also endured a rowdy home crowd, unusual in volleyball.

“I enjoyed playing in front of a crowd like that,” freshman outside hitter Jesse Wagner said. “It got me more pumped up for the match.”

In one of the most dramatic matches of the season, Western escaped Las Cruces with a come-from-behind 3-2 win. And after a relatively easy win at Denver Sunday, the Lady Toppers find themselves alone atop the East Division standings.

It didn’t come without a fight, though. Against NMSU, Western dropped the first two games, and its perfect conference record was in serious jeopardy.

At the break, coach Travis Hudson took his troops into the locker room to regroup.

“Although we were down 2-0 in the match, I really felt like we were doing some of the things we needed to do to win,” Hudson said. “I don’t remember us ever feeling like we couldn’t come back and win the match.”

And they did. With the third game tied at 29, sophomore hitter Amanda Cecil recorded back-to-back kills, giving Western a stay of execution.

Defeat loomed again with the fourth game tied at 28. But one of Wagner’s team-high 23 kills broke the tie and an Aggies error gave Western a 30-28 win.

The drama wasn’t over. Down 14-13 in the final game, Western faced a match point for the Aggies. But freshman Crystal Towler knotted the score with a kill. The teams traded points to 19-all before Cecil again took the reins. Her back-to-back kills lifted Western to a 21-19 win and sixth straight Sun Belt win.

Cecil finished with her 12th double-double of the season – 22 kills and 10 digs. And senior setter Sara Noe etched her name into the school record book during the fourth game, recording assist No. 4,522, leaving her alone atop the career list.

“It means a lot that I could accomplish something like that,” Noe said. “I would have never thought I would do it.”

After the emotional victory, Western traveled north for another conference game at Denver (2-15, 1-6 SBC). The Lady Toppers pounded the outmatched Pioneers 3-1 to stay unbeaten in Sun Belt play and extend a two-match lead over Arkansas Little-Rock in the East Division.

Sophomore outside hitter Amanda Schiff led the team with 16 kills. And when the Lady Toppers came home, they were recognized for their weekend performance, sweeping the Sun Belt awards for the second time in three weeks. Noe was named Player of the Week and libero Tracy May captured Defensive Player of the Week, thanks greatly to her 25 digs against NMSU.

Western has a break before returning to action in the Preston Health and Activities Center Friday to take on the Privateers of New Orleans.