The 2017-18 Western Kentucky athletics schedule is, for all intents and purposes, complete.
Another year in the books brought us another heavy dose of stories surrounding the Hilltoppers. Without further adieu let's take a look back at some of the issues that kept us talking throughout the past nine months.
• MITCHELL ROBINSON
It was without question the biggest story of the Western Kentucky athletic offseason – will he come? will he stay? will he go? will he return? will he flee again?
Mitchell Robinson, a five-star recruit from Florida living outside New Orleans, committed to WKU in June of 2016. From that time until September of 2017 his whereabouts became a national college basketball story.
His signing with Western in November of 2016 dispelled rumors that he would follow through with his commitment to be a Hilltopper. His arrival on campus in the summer of ’17 further squashed the voices of the naysayers.
But then the basketball phenom, lost in a sea of questionable advice, ditched campus and his teammates. He took recruiting visits and pondered his future after being released from his Western Kentucky scholarship only to once again return to Bowling Green for what appeared to be the end of a tumultuous few weeks.
It was too good to be true for those who wave the red towel.
Robinson left once more, this time for good, opting to train in Texas for the NBA as an individual. His story is still yet incomplete as the 2018 NBA Draft nears next month. He’s already backed out of the NBA scouting combine and he’s a bit of an enigma for professional scouts not wanting to take a chance on such a high-risk prospect while simultaneously not wanting to miss out on a potentially franchise-changing talent.
Whatever Robinson’s future holds, a small part of his past will always include being a Hilltopper for the shortest of eras.
• TRAVIS HUDSON AND THE PRIDE OF WKU VOLLEYBALL
Year-in and year-out the Western Kentucky volleyball program is a force. This we know.
But when the Lady Toppers reach the NCAA Tournament on a annual basis they are given the opportunity to showcase what they’re all about. Such an opportunity arose this past December – and veteran coach Travis Hudson created an organic, unforgettable moment that shined a light Bowling Green and The Hill.
One thing you can never question about volleyball coach Travis Hudson...his love for Western Kentucky. pic.twitter.com/iN7RWXmo6b— Dominique Yates (@RealDYates) December 3, 2017
Hudson’s team thoroughly dominated Notre Dame before facing Kentucky the next day in Lexington. And WKU had UK on the ropes before the Wildcats found an extra gear and pulled away for a 3-2 win.
The courage and energy with which Western displayed that day followed by Hudson’s impassioned post-match speech allowed WKU fans to bask in the glow of a prideful moment.
• WESTERN KENTUCKY FOOTBALL
How does one describe the 2017 Western Kentucky football season?
The Hilltoppers had exploded onto the national college football scene during a two-year (really 2 1/2) run that included back-to-back conference championships and a peak into the top-25 rankings. The excitement surrounding ’17 was at a fever pitch despite Jeff Brohm’s departure for Purdue in the offseason.
But nothing ever seemed to click under first-year coach Mike Sanford. The transition between coaching staffs and the turnover of a strong roster created more havoc than hope as the Hilltoppers went from a 5-2 team competing for another title to a squad with a losing record.
There were dramatic wins against Ball State, Texas El Paso, Old Dominion and Middle Tennessee. And demoralizing collapses against Florida Atlantic and Florida International. And head-scratching losses to Illinois and Georgia State.
Mike White, Joel Iyiegbuniwe and Deon Yelder became high-profile NFL prospects over the course of 13 games. Yet the ’17 Tops were also somehow part of the worst rushing team in Western’s modern history.
No one really knew what to expect from the Tops on a weekly basis and that, in turn, has given us few concrete expectations for the program moving forward.
• MIKE SANFORD
Sanford’s task in 2017 was not for the faint of heart. Twas easy for you and I to sit around and wax about how easy it would be for one of the nation’s youngest college football coaches to keep a winning train barreling down the tracks.
Turns out it wasn’t easy at all. Or perhaps Sanford made it more difficult than it needed to be. Or maybe the method to the madness won’t be fully appreciated (or demonized) for years to come.
Whether it was Sanford’s offseason “pursuit” efforts, in-game management, major recruiting victories or, ultimately, his wins and losses, the former Boise State quarterback and Notre Dame offensive coordinator took on plenty of headlines. His story was its own entity inside the WKU football season.
Sanford is all-in for Western Kentucky football and hellbent on creating a program he can call his own. That story began a major one in 2017 and its apparent it will continue to be so in 2018.
• WKU BASKETBALL’S MAGIC RIDE
I can honestly and truthfully say covering Western Kentucky’s basketball team in 2017-18 made watching college basketball fun again.
There have been some fun moments, to be sure, since the fall of 2011 when I hopped on the scene. But there wasn’t a season as a whole that produced so many dramatics and so many storylines and so many talking points in a shell of excitement.
You can go back to Birmingham in October when WKU beat Samford in an exhibition. There was the shocking win over Purdue. Jake Ohmer’s shot against Southern Methodist. Don’t forget about Darius Thompson’s triple-double at Marshall. Include the debuts of Josh Anderson and Moustapha Diagne. Remember E.A. Diddle Arena becoming a true college basketball venue again. The shot that went in and then out in the Conference USA championship game. The run through the National Invitational Tournament.
Remember what Justin Johnson did for your program.
Relive all the glory that Taveion Hollingsworth, a freshman, created.
And all those bullet points came from what transpired on the court. Recounting all that happened outside the gym is a discussion for another day.
Western’s 2017-18 team set the bar incredibly high for years to come. That’s the way Rick Stansbury likes it – and we all are craving to learn what’s in store for an encore.
• MICHELLE CLARK-HEARD
Western Kentucky women’s basketball was in a rough stretch when Michelle Clark-Heard was charged with turning the program around in 2012. She did that and then some over the past six years.
Heard’s squads became a dominant dynasty as WKU transitioned into Conference USA. They were a fixture in the postseason and the school’s trophy case busted at the seams with team and individuals awards.
What Heard did for the Lady Toppers during her tenure is undoubtedly appreciated, but may not be fully appreciated for quite some time. And it wasn’t just all the wins and championships – it was the way WKU ran the floor, scored at will as it imposed its will and left opponents dumbfounded before it was too late to recover.
Heard’s demanding demeanor with her players and her program was juxtaposed with her friendly and welcoming persona in the community while she never wavered from her faith or her love for her alma mater.
Her departure for the University of Cincinnati in March was a tough pill for Western fans to swallow. Her commitment to making WKU great before then should be celebrated.
• IVY BROWN AND TASHIA BROWN, SISTERS IN TRIUMPH
Tashia Brown, from Georgia, and Ivy Brown, from LaRue County, became fast friends in the summer of 2014 as true freshmen in Bowling Green. They capped their careers by putting WKU on their backs and taking the Lady Toppers to another NCAA Tournament in 2018.
What was impressive about the dynamic duo was their ability to stay the course in the face of adversity while trusting the process in the shadow of doubt. Following the incomparable pairs that came before them (Chastity Gooch and Alexis Govan/Kendall Noble and Micah Jones), Tashia and Ivy creating a long-lasting legacy because of their fierce determination between the lines and their impressionable smiles outside of them.
• WKU BASEBALL'S COLLAPSE
Three weeks ago I wrote about the state of the Western Kentucky baseball program. How it was headed in the right direction. How it was on the cusp of finally (finally!) making the Conference USA baseball tournament.
OK, I have nothing to do with how the Hilltoppers performed – or didn’t – since then. Honesty, however, compels me to inform you that they won one single game since that day, lost eight of their final nine overall and five straight to end the year.
Western was eliminated from the postseason in the cruelest of manners Friday, up 5-3 at Florida Atlantic in the 10th inning with two outs and two strikes on the board. The Owls won 6-5 an inning later.
The Hilltoppers ended up in 10th place in the league standings, two games back in the win column of eighth-place Alabama Birmingham. Still, they won five more games overall and in league play then a year ago and had put themselves in position to get over that proverbial hump going into the final month of the season.
Missing the league tournament once again despite being even closer than a year before is no moral victory for John Pawlowski’s program. But I’ll still contest the momentum has shifted in the right direction and 2018 was proof of that.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
According to the Glasgow Daily Times, Rick Stansbury’s message to the Glasgow Rotary Club: “We’re not gonna take a backseat to anybody in this state.”
MUSICAL PICK OF THE WEEK
Celebrated the father’s 70th birthday with a trip to Memphis this weekend and enjoyed Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials at The Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale Street:
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop