No. 2 seed Lady Toppers prepared to defend title in E.A. Diddle Arena

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The last time Western Kentucky hosted a conference volleyball tournament was in 2012 – long before any of the current team’s members arrived on campus.

The Lady Toppers won that event, sweeping through Sun Belt Conference competition in three matches. They would love nothing more than the same scenario this weekend.

“Once that whistle blows to start the tournament there’s no place like Diddle Arena,” WKU coach Travis Hudson said. “It’s different. It’s a different experience. Everybody talks about our kids have won championships and they’ve won tournaments, but they haven’t won a (postseason) tournament in Diddle Arena. It’s different. I can speak to that having done both. It’s a different feeling.

“When you dog pile on the road and it’s just you and your team that’s a great feeling. But when you dog pile at home and the stands are filled with people waving their red towels, that’s a pretty special opportunity that our kids are ready to take advantage of.”

Hudson’s team enters the weekend’s Conference USA tournament as the field’s No. 2 seed after dropping a 3-2 decision in the regular-season finale at league champion North Texas. It’s the second time WKU has been in that position since joining the league, but it has won at least a share of the CUSA regular-season title all three years and, regardless, has captured the postseason tournament each time.

Western (27-3) will start the tournament at noon Friday against Charlotte (19-11), an opponent it swept Sept. 24 in North Carolina.

“I think when the lights come on we all are ready – and to do it in Diddle with all our fans,” WKU senior outside hitter Alyssa Cavanaugh said. “We look up and know all the people. We’ve gotten so close with all the people that come to our games. A part of us wants to play for them.

“Just all of that is just awesome and the relationships that we’ve built with them is amazing. To be able to end on that is just incredible.”

The Lady Toppers don’t want to leave anything to chance, but if they should stumble Friday – or in Saturday’s semifinals or Sunday’s championship – they feel they’ve done enough to make the NCAA Tournament the first of December. Western has an RPI of 32 and is just outside of the American Coaches Volleyball Association Top 25 at 27th.

After a 4-2 start, WKU has won 23 of its next 24.

“We’re not in a position that was given to us. We’re in a position that these kids have gone out and earned,” Hudson said. “We understand that if you leave it somebody’s else hands then there’s always that chance that you’re name doesn’t get called. So that’s what this week’s about. This week’s about leaving no doubt and coming out and playing in this tournament in a way that makes sure we rest easy over the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Our resume I think it speaks for itself. I’m really, really proud of what our kids have gone out and done.”

After Western Kentucky and UNCC serve up the first bit of action Friday, Rice (21-7) and Southern Mississippi (19-11) take the floor at 2:30 p.m. Top-seed UNT (26-2) and Marshall (11-18) play at 5 p.m. and Texas San Antonio (11-15) goes up against Florida Atlantic (18-8) in the nightcap.

Saturday’s first semifinal (the WKU-UNCC winner vs. the Rice-USM winner) is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. followed by a 4 p.m. match. Sunday’s final, on WatchESPN, is scheduled for noon.

“Playing in our gym I know all of us are that much more excited to be going into the tournament,” WKU senior Sydney Engle said. “This is what we’ve been working all year for. I definitely think the time is right. I think that we are moving in the right direction and we are ready as a whole team.”

“It’s gonna be great. I’m just really excited to end my season and career here where I started. It’s an incredible feeling that I can’t even put into words.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop