VOLLEYBALL: New home, new team, same expectations

Kyle Tucker

Their old home is getting a facelift. Their new home is in a middle school. It’s the perfect metaphor, if not the perfect situation.

After losing three All-Sun Belt Conference stars – essentially the heart of the team – from last year’s squad, the 2002 Western volleyball team is young, to say the least. Like their home court in Diddle Arena, the Lady Toppers are being remodeled.

So for now, three freshmen, five sophomores, two juniors and a single senior practice at the old Bowling Green Junior High gym. They’ll probably play their home games in the Preston Health and Activities Center.

“As a coach, you don’t go into the season saying, ‘Boy, I hope we’re really young and have no place to play,'” Coach Travis Hudson said. “But that’s the hand we’ve been dealt. Now it’s just the job at hand. So we’ll get it done.”

The job at hand is successfully following up back-to-back Sun Belt Eastern Division championships without last year’s three main attackers. In departed seniors Tara Thomas, Natalie Furry and Jessica Willard, the Lady Toppers lose a trio that combined for 1,241 kills in 2001. That’s almost 70 percent of last year’s offensive output gone.

But, Hudson says, all is not lost. One key part of that scoring juggernaut remains. The lone senior, preseason All-Sun Belt setter Sara Noe, returns after an amazing junior campaign in which she had 1,432 assists to lead the conference and rank 18th nationally.

“I’ve said all year that when you’re as young as we are and unproven as we are, the place to start is with consistency at the setter position,” Hudson said. “And we’ve got one of the best in the country.”

Her main target this year will likely be sophomore outside hitter Amanda Cecil. Cecil was the 2000 high school player of the year in Kentucky. As a freshman, she tallied 106 kills behind the Big Three. She’s also the second-leading returner in digs, with 272 last year.

Now she’ll be expected to lead.

“In high school I was a leader, but never really got the full confidence from my coach,” Cecil said. “Now Travis is asking me to step up. He’s like you’re the one that needs to do it. I like it.”

But the performance of freshmen hitters Crystal Towler and Jesse Wagner, who come in with much acclaim and will start immediately for the Lady Toppers, may be the critical component of any Western success.

Towler was an all-state selection in Wisconsin as a high school senior, tallying 416 kills, a .413 hitting percentage and 77 blocks. Wagner, from Franklin, Ind., put up 381 kills, 212 digs and 80 aces in her senior campaign.

Thomas, who is volunteering alongside new assistant coach Furry this season, has been impressed with the newcomers.

“They’ve definitely stepped up and are filling in the holes,” Thomas said. “They’re still struggling with unity and playing as a team, but I think the offense will be a strong point come November.”

On the other side, junior Tracy May will anchor the defense, playing in the newly created libero position on the back row. She is the leading defender coming back after posting 297 digs last year.

“There’s really nobody on our team right now that isn’t going to make an impact,” Hudson said.

And with the season opening this weekend at the Georgia Southern Classic in Statesboro, Ga., the Lady Toppers will soon find out what that impact will be.

“I think they can be real good,” Thomas said. “They definitely have a shot at winning the Sun Belt.”

Apparently, the rest of the league disagrees. Western is picked to finish third in their division. But Hudson isn’t worried.

“It gives me motivation to come to work every day,” Hudson said. “We’re two-time Sun Belt champions. Until somebody comes in and shows me we’re not still, I’ll reserve judgment.”

Reach Kyle Tucker at [email protected]