Western Kentucky has been to the NCAA Tournament 10 times and for three years running. Not once has it been able to advance past the event’s opening weekend.
“Last year was kind of disappointing end for us,” WKU junior hitter Rachel Anderson said. “This is definitely something that our whole team, whole staff, (everyone) is looking forward to. Winning the first match and then advancing from there to play the second match and hopefully go into the Sweet 16.”
The Lady Toppers’ 11th trip to the NCAA Tournament will, at least, be close to home. And maybe that will help push WKU (30-3) over the proverbial hump.
A short drive to Lexington to face Notre Dame (22-9) at 4 p.m. CST Friday inside Memorial Gymnasium on the University of Kentucky campus will give Travis Hudson’s squad a bit of an edge. It’s a squad that once again dominated in the regular season to put itself in a position to make a long postseason run for the first time in program history.
“You can’t win in the NCAA Tournament until you get there. We never skip that step. We understand that’s an important part to this thing,” the veteran WKU coach said. “And we also know that when we get there we’re gonna play a competitive matchup in that first round.
“But this is a team that’s built to continue to play a little bit. These are kids that have been in NCAA Tournaments. These are kids that have won in the NCAA Tournament. A lot of these kids were a part of our team a couple years ago when we beat Arizona in the first round. So we’re veteran, we’re as healthy as we’ve been in a long time, so I don’t think the moment will be too big. Hopefully we’ll put our best foot forward and we’ll see what happens.”
The matchup between WKU and Notre Dame will be the classic tale of a flashy offense against a hard-nose defense. The Lady Toppers rank second nationally with a hitting percentage of .335 and sport two of the nation’s best weapons in Anderson (.425 hitting clip) and setter Jessica Lucas (10.9 assists per set).
Notre Dame ranks 11th nationally with 325 blocks and 12th with 18.2 digs per set. The Irish have held their opponents to a .152 hitting average.
“That’s the storyline of our first-round matchup. We’re second in the country offensively, they’re in the top 15 in the country defensively. Somethings gotta give there a little bit,” Hudson said. “To me, that’s the whole story of this matchup. We pride ourselves – there’s no doubt they’re going to have a gameplan where they’re trying to take certain things away.
“One of the reasons why we’re the No. 2-ranked offensive team in the country is because we pride ourselves in being able to come at you from wherever you’d like that to be. We have five offensive players and we feel like they can all really play the game and score for us. It’s gonna be a little bit of cat-and-mouse early on trying to wait each other out and see what the gameplan is.”
The Lady Toppers have won three straight after a season-ending loss to North Texas that broke a 23-match winning streak. Those three victories gave them a fourth consecutive Conference USA tournament title and, finally, a chance to play close to home in the postseason.
Not since 2005 has Western been able to play in the Commonwealth in the tourney. The NCAA has sent WKU to Lincoln, Neb., Champaign, Ill. (four times), Stanford, Calif. (twice), and Provo, Utah. This year’s team, with four players from Kentucky, three of whom are from Lexington, will relish the opportunity to see some red towels in the stands.
Four other team members are from nearby Indiana and a fifth hails from Tennessee.
“We are very excited,” junior setter Mary Martin, from Dunbar High School in Lexington, said. “And excited because there’s three of us from Lexington, so we’ll all get to be around our family and friends and everybody will be together. It’ll be a good atmosphere.
“These past two years we’ve been very far from home, so know ones really got to come watch. This year especially for a bunch of our seniors who are from Louisville and Indiana will have family there, too.”
The Fighting Irish ended their season splitting matches on the road at Syracuse and Boston College, respectively. But they won six of seven to finish in a tie for fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference – a league without a postseason league tournament.
Junior libero Ryann DeJaird is fourth in the country at 6.1 digs per set and 731 digs, sophomore hitter Jemma Yeadon is seventh at 13.2 attacks per set, senior blocker Sam Fry is 10th with 162 blocks and senior libero Natalie Johnson comes in at 14th with 50 aces.
“Very good opponent. Very good team. Very, very well-coached team,” Hudson said. “But a matchup that we like. I think we matchup really well with them. I think it should be a terrific match. I assume it will be a long match. I think both teams are gonna be in it.
“Both teams play a pretty simple style of volleyball, pretty straightforward. We’re a team that’s pretty straightforward and they are, too. The scout is not tremendously difficult against them.”
The winner of Friday’s match will advance to face either Kentucky (26-3) or East Tennessee State (19-11) at 6 p.m. CST Saturday. Western and UK actually scrimmaged each other Aug. 16 in Lexington.
Victory on Friday for the Lady Toppers would improve a 2-10 mark all-time in the NCAA Tournament and give the program’s seniors their 123rd career win.
“I feel like by this point, our team has accomplished everything that I could ever imagine,” WKU senior hitter Sydney Engle said. “So at this point I’m just here to have fun and be with my teammates as long as I can and whatever happens, happens.”
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop