Hilltoppers split exhibition with Wildcats, deep roster shines

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Credit: Steve Roberts/WKU Athletics

Freshman outside hitter Katie Howard makes a play during the Hilltoppers’ exhibition match against the Kentucky Wildcats on Aug. 19, 2021 in E. A. Diddle Arena.

Cassady Lamb, Volleyball reporter

The Hilltoppers took on the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats in an exhibition match on Thursday evening at E. A. Diddle Arena. It was the first time the two teams had faced each other since April 18 when UK defeated the Hilltoppers in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

The exhibition ended in a 2-2 draw, with WKU taking the first and third sets. The top scorers of the night included junior outside hitter Paige Briggs with 11 kills, junior outside hitter Avri Davis and middle hitter Lauren Matthews with nine kills apiece and fifth year right side Kayland Jackson with seven kills. Nadia Dieudonne, fifth year setter, ended the match with 37 assists.

“[There] was a lot of good volleyball going on out there,” head coach Travis Hudson said after the match. “Such a showcase for the state of Kentucky. And to see our fanbase turn out like that was something that is a real impact for our players.”

Set one:

Kentucky put up the first point of the match with a kill by Elise Goetzinger. A serve from Goetzinger allowed WKU’s first point of the match after a service error.

Matthews struck the first kill of the match with an assist by Dieudonne, bringing the score to 2-1. A no-contact kill by Briggs drew a roar from the crowd and the Lady Topper’s fourth point of the first set. Fifth year defensive specialist Logan Kael hit an ace, the first of the match, the following play.

Kentucky took the lead 7-6 after a bad set from fifth year defensive specialist Hallie Shelton. Kills by Jackson and Davis gave the Lady Toppers the lead again 9-8. A kill by Dieudonne gave WKU its largest lead of the match (13-10) and a kill by Briggs led Kentucky to call its first timeout of the match with the Hilltoppers ahead 16-12.

The Lady Toppers achieved a five-point (18-13) lead after an ace from Briggs. The Wildcats called a second timeout following a kill from Matthews that brought the score to 20-15.

The Lady Toppers won 25-18 with the final play of the set being a kill by Briggs off of an assist from Shelton.

Set two:

A kill by Jackson assisted by Dieudonne was the first point put up by the Hilltoppers in the second set. Back-to-back kills by Briggs gave WKU a 4-2 lead and the score stayed tight throughout the first half of the set.

Kentucky took a three-point lead (11-8)  after two errors and a kill by Reagan Rutherford. The Hilltoppers minimized the deficit after a kill by Davis and a Kentucky attack error.

Wildcat Alli Stumler brought in the team’s first ace of the set, knotting the score 15-15. The game remained close, and a kill by Davis and an ace from Shelton broke a 20-20 tie and gave the Hilltoppers a two-point lead. 

A kill by Wildcat Allie Stumler knotted the score back up 22-22  and WKU called its first timeout of the match after UK took the lead 23-22. Matthews came out of the timeout with a kill assisted by Dieudonne but Kentucky claimed set two by a score of 25-23 after a kill by Stumler and a WKU attack error.

Set three:

Back-to-back kills from Stumler allowed the Wildcats to take an early 3-1 lead. Briggs hit a kill, bringing in WKU’s third point of the set and setting the score at 5-3. The Lady Toppers climbed back up to the lead after an ace by Hood and a Kentucky attack error.

A kill by Katie Howard with an assist from Hood caused the crowd at Diddle to erupt and gave the Hilltoppers a 10-8 lead, but the Wildcats quickly caught up. An 11-11 tie was broken with kills from Briggs and sophomore middle hitter Sam Canner, bringing WKU’s lead back to 13-11.

WKU’s three-point scoring run was stopped with a service error. A kill by Rutherford and an ace by UK’s Maddie Berezowitz gave the Wildcats a 16-15 lead. That deficit was overcome following kills by Canner and freshman outside hitter Howard, both assisted by Dieudonne.

“Just great to see some of those young kids go out there and play,” Hudson said.

A big block from Matthews led to a Kentucky timeout but the Wildcats came out of the timeout with a kill from Bell and a point gained from a WKU attack error, tying up the set once more at 19-19.

A UK error allowed WKU to take a one-point lead, 20-19. A kill by Matthews, her seventh of the match, allowed WKU to claim its 20th point of set three. The score remained tight and a kill from Wildcat Azhani Tealer led to setpoint 24-23. A UK service error brought the score to a 24-24 tie but a hard block by Matthews let the Lady Toppers take their 25th point of the set.

The Wildcats fired back with a block from Erin Lamb, knotting the score again, this time at 25-25. A kill by Matthews assisted by Dieudonne was followed by a WKU timeout. Matthews fired out of the timeout with a kill, earning WKU its second set win of the evening with a score of 27-25.

Set four:

A kill by Howard assisted by freshman setter Callie Bauer gave WKU the first point of the set. Bauer hit an ace in the following play.

Sophomore defensive specialist Cameron Mosley drew her first kill of the match, ringing in a 3-2 lead for the Lady Toppers.

Two Kentucky attack errors extended WKU’s lead to 6-4. Freshman right side hitter Kenadee Coyle hit her first kill of the match, the seventh point for WKU.

“We have the second team right now, and they are pushing us every single day,” Jackson said. “They’re playing amazing, out of their minds. All the way down the list, our roster is very deep this year. And I think that’s just going to set the bar for where we are in this season, and it has obviously set the bar where we were.”

Kentucky took the lead 11-10 with a kill by Lamb. A kill from Howard knotted up the score 11-11. The Wildcats were able to grab a three-point lead following back-to-back kills from Lamb.

“Every day in practice, Katie Howard, I look at her and I’m like, ‘I gotta step up my game’,” Davis said. “Like she’s coming up to me and I’m like, I have to do this really well, [the second team is] pushing all of us really well every day. They’re getting better and better.”

A kill by Bauer cut UK’s lead to 16-14. Following a kill from Wildcat Madi Skinner, Bauer hit another kill. In the following play, Howard blocked her first ball of the match, bringing set three’s score to 17-16, with Kentucky still leading.

Junior outside hitter Jennifer Rush’s second kill of the match led to a 19-19 tie and was followed by a Kentucky timeout. A block by sophomore middle hitter Shannon Keck allowed WKU to take the lead 23-22. Another Kentucky timeout followed the play.

UK gained two points following the timeout with kills by Goetzinger and Skinner. The Lady Toppers tied the score 23-23 with a kill from Keck.

“We have a very talented roster,” Hudson said, talking about his younger players’ performances  in the fourth set. “The fourth set of that was literally, we pulled All-American off the floor, setter of the year off the floor, we pulled all those kids off the floor, and just kind of [threw them] to the wolves out there, and they stood tall.”

Setpoint occurred after an ace from Mosley. A kill by UK’s Skinner knotted up the score again 25-25.

A kill by Howard allowed WKU to take a slim 26-25 lead. A WKU service error and a kill from UK’s Reagan Rutherford brought the score to 27-26, with Kentucky gaining a one-point advantage. UK’s lead soon sprouted to two-points after an ace from Cameron Scheitzach. The Wildcats claimed set four 28-26.

“Today we came out really strong and I’m just really proud of our team for putting that together,” Jackson shared afterwards.

“They made plays and that’s what they’re here to do,” Hudson said.

The Hilltoppers’ 2021-22 season will officially commence when the team travels to South Bend, Indiana for the Notre Dame Tournament on Aug. 27-28.

Volleyball beat reporter Cassady Lamb can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @lambp0p.