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Head coach Travis Hudson speaks to his team during a timeout in the Lady Toppers' matchup against Texas-El Paso. 

The WKU volleyball team will kick off the regular season this weekend in Toledo, Ohio, where the Lady Toppers take on three non-conference opponents in two days at the Toledo Blue & Gold Tournament.

“Early road trips are something that I like being a part of,” head coach Travis Hudson said. “We’re looking forward to getting started. We have a lot of work to do before next Friday in Toledo, but we’re looking forward to it.”

The Lady Toppers open against Loyola (Chicago) on Friday. The match will be the third meeting between WKU and the Ramblers. It will also be the first time the two teams have faced off since 1994. Loyola has won the two previous meetings.

Last season, Loyola finished with a 16-14 record — 3-1 at neutral sites — and also strung together an eight-game winning streak. They finished seventh in the Missouri Valley Conference, while finishing third in hitting percentage and seventh in opponent hitting percentage.

The Ramblers are led by returning redshirt senior Heather Kocken, who ranked fourth in the MVC with 1.03 blocks per set. Kocken hit a team-best .299 with 2.14 kills per set and ranked fifth in the MVC in hitting percentage.

WKU will play two games the following day—first facing the Toledo Rockets before meeting the North Dakota State Bison just four and a half hours later.

The Rockets finished the 2018 season with a 9-18 record, while only going 4-12 in the Mid-American Conference. Toledo finished above just two teams in the standings, only winning 25% of their conference games and 33.3% overall.

The match will be the fifth all-time meeting between the Lady Toppers and Toledo. The all-time series is tied 2-2, but WKU won 3-0 each of the last two times the teams played.

NDSU finished 9-20 last season and went 6-10 in the Summit League. The Bison won only 31% of their games, finishing seventh in the league and last in hitting percentage out of nine teams. WKU leads the all-time series over NDSU, 1-0.

The Lady Toppers will be forced to hit the ground running this season since the team will be away from Bowling Green for the first two weekends of the year.

But WKU will be aided in its quest by several key returners, namely senior Sophia Cerino and sophomore Lauren Matthews. The duo claimed two of the 12 spots on Conference USA’s Preseason All-Conference team on Aug. 15.

Matthews ended 2018 with an All-Freshman team honor from C-USA. She appeared in 77 sets across 20 matches. Matthews concluded the season with 196 kills and 60 blocks, recording double-digit kills in eight games and at least three blocks in 10.

Cerino returns for her final campaign after earning Second Team All-Conference honors from C-USA last year. Cerino led WKU and the league with 45 service aces on the year while appearing in all 117 sets across 30 matches.

“Honestly, I think we are ready,” Cerino said about the team’s early-season road trips. “Because after like two-a-days, they start to get a little bit monotonous and stuff.”

Freshman Paige Briggs could also prove to be a valuable asset, as the Ortonville, Michigan, native was a standout for WKU during the team’s 3-1 exhibition loss against No. 7 Kentucky on Aug. 21 at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington.

“I stay close to my teammates when it comes to [being on] the road,” Briggs said. “They’re my go-tos. I need them — they’ll keep me calm, cool and collected.”

Game time against Loyola is set for 3:30 p.m. on Friday. WKU will then face two opponents on Saturday — Toledo at 11 a.m. and NDSU at 3:30 p.m.

Reporter Kaden Gaylord can be reached at 270-745-6291 and kaden.gaylord559@topper.wku.edu. Follow Kaden on Twitter at @_KLG3.

Kaden Gaylord is a sports reporter for the College Heights Herald. He currently covers the women's volleyball team and previously covered the baseball team.