VOLLEYBALL: Lady Tops drop Cincinnati, get landmark win

Michael Casagrande

Western’s volleyball team took to the floor against Cincinnati Tuesday night at the Preston Health and Activities Center like a team possessed – like a team with something to prove.

The Lady Toppers hadn’t beaten the Bearcats since 1991. They’ve been picked to finish third in the Sun Belt Conference East Division after winning it two years in a row. They were looking for respect.

They got it.

With the bouncing basketballs of pick-up games clanging around them and plodding feet circling the track above them in Preston, the Lady Toppers pummeled the defending Conference USA champion Bearcats in consecutive games (30-21, 30-27, 30-27) to improve their record to 9-1.

A win against a team with so much recent success – three straight trips to the NCAA tournament – gives Coach Travis Hudson’s young team a significant boost as they embark on another four-game road trip.

“This is one of the best victories we have had since I’ve been at Western,” said senior setter Sara Noe.

While pleased with the landmark victory, Hudson wants to keep his team grounded for the tough road ahead, namely the start of conference play, which is just around the corner.

“It was a big win, but we still have a long way to go,” Hudson said.

Sophomore middle hitter Amanda Schiff provided the spark for the Lady Toppers with 16 kills and a career-high hitting percentage of .750, just shy of freshman Crystal Towler’s school record of .810 set Saturday against Delaware.

But even after an impressive personal performance, Schiff attributed the win to the team’s pregame preparation.

“If we came out flat, we knew we wouldn’t have a chance,” Schiff said. “We’ve never really played well against Cincinnati. In Conference USA, they are one of the top teams, so it’s huge to beat them in three.”

The Lady Toppers breezed through the first game, due in part to their 25 kills and .500 hitting percentage. With the Lady Toppers controlling the tempo, Cincinnati coach Reed Sunahara called for a timeout with his team trailing 14-20.

The pep talk didn’t help, as the Lady Toppers extended their lead to 27-19 before Sunahara called for another huddle. But the Lady Toppers would not be denied, closing out the opener 30-21, setting the tone for the sweep.

The Bearcats seemed to have stolen Western’s confidence early in the early second game, staking an 8-4 lead. That was before Towler made her presence known.

The freshman outside hitter, who finished with nine kills, delivered several powerful spikes to help turn the tide.

And with the score tied at 18 in the second game, Noe turned to her teammates and said, “Push ahead, guys. Push ahead.”

The Lady Toppers responded with a 5-1 run that prompted another Cincinnati timeout. The Bearcats closed the gap to 27-26 before the Lady Toppers finished them off, taking the second game 30-27.

Cincinnati surged ahead again in the third game, 7-3. The Bearcats seemed to have an answer for every Western run. They led 19-17 at one point, but Western rallied to knot it at 20.

Sunahara took another timeout. And Western smelled blood.

Following the break, the Lady Toppers went on a 5-0 run, bringing the Western faithful – more than 100 crowded around the tiny court in Preston – to its feet.

Western weathered the Bearcats’ final push, and Cynda Derbort’s career-high 17th kill finished it off, 30-27.

“You would think with such a young group, we would tighten up in close matches,” Hudson said. “But I just think we’re not old enough to know better.”

The Lady Toppers won the match without outside hitter Lyndsey Broerman. The sophomore hitter has a torn meniscus in her left knee and underwent surgery yesterday to determine the extent of her injuries. Hudson said Broerman could be out two weeks or the rest of the season.

Western will travel to Maycomb, Ill., this weekend to play in the Western Illinois Invitational, its third-straight weekend tournament. The Lady Toppers will take on Eastern Michigan, Iowa, Northeastern State and Western Illinois as they try to capture their second tournament of the season.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]