VOLLEYBALL: Western splits four on road

Michael Casagrande

Coach Travis Hudson knew his young team would eventually hit a bump in the road. It happened over the weekend at the Western Illinois Invitational.

Western’s volleyball team dropped its first two matches Friday against Eastern Michigan and Iowa – the Lady Toppers’ first two-game losing skid of the year. But Western got back on the winning swing Saturday, dispatching Northwestern State and host Western Illinois.

“I think, for the first time this year, we showed our youth, and some players panicked,” Hudson said.

Sophomore middle hitter Amanda Schiff was named to the all-tournament team after leading the team with 52 kills in the tournament.

Western opened the two-day event by losing a three-game match to Eastern Michigan (21-30, 29-31, 20-30). ?The Lady Toppers were fighting an uphill battle from the outset against the Eagles.

In the first game, Eastern Michigan jumped to an early lead, and every time Western seemed to regain momentum, the Eagles pushed further ahead. ?Eastern Michigan led by as many as 14 points before they closed out the Lady Toppers with a comfortable 30-21 victory.

In the second game, the Eagles again surged, leading by 10 at one point. But Western responded with seven unanswered points and staked a 23-22 lead, displaying shades of the dominance they showed against Cincinnati last week in its upset win.

The lead changed hands five more times, but the Eagles took Game Two 31-29. It seemed to break the Lady Toppers’ will and Eastern Michigan polished them off in the third, handing Western its second loss of the season.

And for the first time this year, Western failed to have a player reach double digits in kills. ?Crystal Towler and Schiff each had nine, and Towler led the team with a .400 hitting percentage.

A few hours later, the Lady Toppers returned to the court to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes, who, like one of Western’s earlier victims, Purdue, are in the Big Ten.

It wasn’t the same result.

In the first game, Western could not overcome the Hawkeyes 24 kills and .400 hitting percentage. The Lady Toppers battled to a 28-28 tie, but surrendered the last two points to fall behind.

Game Two saw the momentum change sides, as the Lady Toppers took advantage of 10 Iowa attack errors to win easily 30-18.

The third game was another grudge match that left Western a point from victory, holding a 29-28 advantage. But the Hawkeyes rallied to score the next three points and steal the game 31-29.

And the Lady Toppers could not regain the magic, dropping the fourth game 30-24.

“The first day, we were off,” Schiff said. “We came out the second day with more intensity.”

But the Lady Toppers seemed headed for their third straight defeat Saturday as they lost the opening game 27-30 against the Demons of Northwestern State.

Hudson pulled the team into a huddle.

“My message was to relax,” Hudson said. “We were pressing and panicking. Once we did that, we were good from that point on.”

Finally, the Lady Toppers showed some life.

An 11-1 burst gave Western a lead they would not relinquish as they dismantled Northwestern State 30-13 in Game Two to even the match.

It was more of the same in the third, as Western cruised to a 30-15 win.

And the Lady Toppers completed the comeback in the fourth, sending Northwestern State to the showers with a 30-20 win.

Hours later, Western used a balanced attack to capture the final match of the weekend against winless Western Illinois (30-18, 30-20, 30-17). Schiff, Towler and Jessie Wagner all posted double-digit kill totals, with 14, 15 and 11 respectively.

Western returns home tonight to battle the Purple Aces of Evansville at 7 p.m. in the Preston Health and Activities Center.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]