VOLLEYBALL: Lady Tops still unbeaten but unsatisfied in Sun Belt

Michael Casagrande

Miami was the site of a spirited contest between rivals Saturday afternoon – but it wasn’t played at the Orange Bowl.

While the football Florida State Seminoles failed to exact revenge on archenemy Miami Saturday, the Western volleyball team buried its demons by defeating Florida International.

The Lady Toppers (19-4 5-0 SBC) avenged a stunning 3-1 loss at the hands of the Golden Panthers (5-14 1-4) in last season’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament title game. This time Western found itself on the winning end of a 3-1 decision that extended its winning streak to five games.

With redemption in hand, coach Travis Hudson still wasn’t pleased.

“I was pretty disappointed, to be quite honest,” Hudson said. “It was really not much of a revenge game for me. Beating them this year does not give us the trophy from last year.”

Freshman outside hitter Jessie Wagner, Sun Belt Player of the Week, led the team in kills for the second game in a row, recording 16. But it was a group effort. Four other Lady Toppers – Amanda Schiff, Crystal Towler, Amanda Cecil and Cynda Derbort – hit double figures in kills.

Senior setter Sara Noe moved closer to a record with her 52 assists. She’s now just 66 shy of Jenni Miller’s career record of 4,521.

“I don’t think anyone was worried about whether we were going to lose or not. We knew that we were better than them,” Noe said.

After an early scare in Game One, the Lady Toppers rallied to a 30-23 victory. Getting off to a strong start has been critical for Western this season, as the Lady Toppers are 13-0 when they take the first game of a match.

The second game was a disaster for Western, as the team recorded a meager .088 hitting percentage.

The Golden Panthers jumped to a 11-5 lead, and Western did not respond. Florida International built leads in excess of 11 points and never let the Lady Toppers come within 9.

The Golden Panthers cruised to a 30-19 win to even the match.

In the huddle following the game, Hudson provided some advice for his struggling team.

“We kept talking about doing the things we know we are supposed to do, and to execute individually. And if we do, we will be fine,” Hudson said.

Western regained momentum in the third game, building a 25-14 lead behind key kills from Wagner and fellow freshman Towler.

The Lady Toppers ended a late effort from the Golden Panthers on a game-winning kill from Cecil. They won 30-23.

But FIU wouldn’t go down without a fight in Game Four, grabbing an early 7-3 lead. It was a battle throughout, and the Golden Panthers were a point away from forcing a decisive fifth game.

But the Lady Toppers didn’t travel over 1,000 miles to come up short again against their Miami rivals.

A kill from Wagner capped a feverous rally from the brink of defeat to escape the Everglades with a 31-29 victory-clinching tally.

While players and coaches remain coy on the possibility of taking the rest of their conference games, only two remaining Sun Belt opponents, New Mexico State and Middle Tennessee State, have winning records.

The Lady Toppers get a breather from the Sun Belt schedule Tuesday when they return to the Preston Health and Activities Center at 7 p.m. against Lipscomb.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]