PLAYGROUND NOTES: Do you know the best team on the Hill?

Kyle Tucker

So we’re all excited about basketball.

Daddy Dennis has brought in a bunch of giants to join Chris Marcus in the middle. Pretty-passing Patrick Sparks is a year older. And we’re going to beat Arizona in the first game to kick off a run to the Final Four.

So we’re all bummed about football.

Jumping Jack has a new offense that, with the exception of the Kentucky State joke, has just been offensive. The Toppers are in a hole in the Gateway, and three straight top-15 opponents could provide the shovel to bury them.

So we’re all fired up about volleyball.

Uh, no. We’re not. Not many of us are paying attention to Travis Hudson and his Lady Toppers. But I’m not sure why.

What Hudson has done, and his team is doing, is just plain exciting. Forget for a minute that it’s girls in tight shorts. Western may be one of the most exciting teams in one of the most exciting spectator sports there are.

Scoring is rapid. There are few breaks from the spiking, diving, blocking action. It’s a non-stop display of grace, power and athleticism.

And it’s girls in tight shorts.

But that’s not the point. The game is fun. The team is good. And the coach is an inspiration.

The Lady Toppers are 12-3 after Tuesday’s win over Evansville. It was a yawner. They were uninterested, ho-humming to a victory. Hudson wasn’t happy, but the win was symbolic of the progress his program has made.

The record is good. Wins over Purdue and rival Cincinnati are impressive. That the Lady Toppers have done it with three true freshmen replacing three of the program’s best-ever, though, is crazy.

“We didn’t rebuild,” sophomore hitter Amanda Cecil said. “We reloaded.”

And that, Hudson will tell you, is the mark of a great program. It’s the mark of a great coach – something he won’t tell you. But it wasn’t easy.

When Hudson took over eight years ago, he was the youngest coach in America. Volleyball wasn’t a priority here, and calling the talent pool thin would be like saying the same of Calista Flockhart. It isn’t enough. They were emaciated.

Western went 7-26 that first year. Hudson questioned himself. He agonized. To this day, Hudson hasn’t forgotten how it stung.

“Absolute misery,” he said.

But he persevered. He hit the road and started pawning dreams. With no reputation to sell recruits, he hawked his hopes for the program’s future.

Amazingly, some pretty good players bought it. Two from his first recruiting class remain among the best-ever at Western.

Jenni Miller still holds the single-season and career assist records. Melissa Starck is tops in career matches and service aces.

“They pumped some life into the program,” Hudson said. “As long as I coach, those kids … will be as responsible for our success as anyone.”

Hudson’s teams have gone 132-80 since that first year, culminating in back-to-back 20-win seasons and Sun Belt East Division titles the last two years. The only thing they didn’t get was a conference tournament title and trip to the NCAA tourney.

And when All-Sun Belt seniors Tara Thomas, Natalie Furry and Jessica Willard graduated last spring, the dream appeared deferred. It would be a while before Hudson could gun for the title, for the Big Dance.

Or not.

Witness the latest stroke of Hudson’s masterpiece. A year after bringing in Kentucky High School Player of the Year Cecil, he landed ultra-talented hitters Jesse Wagner and Crystal Towler. And the team hasn’t missed a beat.

“We’re starting to have that next-level kind of talent,” Hudson said.

Cecil has emerged as a leader. Senior setter Sara Noe already has 700 assists, closing in on the all-time record. And freshmen Wagner and Towler are both near the team lead in kills.

So the machine rolls on. The program inches closer and closer to national prominence. And Hudson keeps working.

“As opposed to jumping ship and moving to the next level,” Hudson said, “I enjoy the challenge of staying here and trying to take this program to the next level.”

And while you probably didn’t notice, they’re getting there.

“I don’t want to put the cart ahead of the horse, but we’ve got an exciting young group,” Hudson said.

So we’re all excited about volleyball. Right?

Reach Kyle Tucker at [email protected]