WKU defeats UAB 3-0

Western Kentucky’s Sophia Cerino (left) and Emma Kowalkowski lift the Conference USA championship trophy after their 3-0 volleyball win over UAB on Saturday at E.A. Diddle Arena.

There’s a new logo added throughout E.A. Diddle Arena the next two days. The familiar blue, circular NCAA markings placed throughout the arena indicate a milestone moment for the university and a volleyball program in the middle of an unprecedented run.

“I always say when we get to the NCAA Tournament that we’re excited to be here but we’re really excited to be here in Bowling Green and Diddle Arena,” WKU coach Travis Hudson said while seated in front of that NCAA logo on Wednesday. “We’re excited to have our fan base behind us in the NCAA Tournament.”

WKU will test how much more it can push its historic season from the confines of home. The 15th-seed Lady Toppers (31-1) are one of the 16 host schools for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday and Friday at Diddle Arena.

Samford (24-5) and Louisville (19-8) will start the tournament Thursday at 5 p.m. CST followed by the No. 19 Lady Toppers hosting Kennesaw State (22-8) at 7 p.m.

The winners of those two matches will meet in the second round Friday at 7 p.m.

WKU’s Kayland Jackson and Emma Kowalkowski are thankful their last NCAA Tournament trip two years ago was in-state and allowed short travel for the team and fans.

The senior Kowalkowski is even more thankful there’s no trip involved this time. For the last two regular-season games, WKU’s fan base brought in close to 1,300 in attendance, nearly doubling its average rate from the rest of the season. The university anticipates much higher attendance for the first NCAA Volleyball Tournament games played at Diddle Arena.

“We’re just lucky to be home, especially a second time being in Kentucky two of the last three years,” Kowalkowski said. “It’s really special for us as a team because it’s easy for our fans to travel and judging off our last two matches, I think we’ll get Diddle rocking this time.”

The Lady Toppers are making their 12th NCAA Tournament appearance and are 3-11 all-time in the event. WKU has never advanced beyond the second round, but came its closest to doing that by taking Kentucky to a five-set match in Lexington in the second round in 2017.

They bowed out early in the Conference USA Tournament last year and have turned 2019 into one of the best seasons in school history. WKU’s 27-match win streak dates back to a Sept. 6 loss at Louisville, a streak that leads the nation and attributes to a .969 winning percentage that also leads the NCAA.

By this point, Hudson has his Lady Toppers playing loose and confident after a regular-season championship and No. 15 RPI ranking secured their automatic bid.

“I told our kids a lot this week that I just want to go be who Western Kentucky volleyball has been all year,” Hudson said. “At some point that may not be good enough and when it’s not, that’s why they have this tournament, to find out who’s playing the best and who is the best and when it’s your time to fall off that bracket, then it’s your time.

“My hope is that it’s not our time sooner than it needs to be and that we don’t go out and play tight and play poorly and have regrets. If we go out there and let it fly, have joy in our hearts and a competitive spirit, then we’ll be done in this tournament when it’s time to be done, and I’ll live with that whenever it is.”

WKU will start that quest against Kennesaw State, which is making its second NCAA Tournament appearance after winning the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament.

Keith Schunzel is in his seventh season coaching and has the Owls playing as one of the top attacking teams in the country. KSU ranks 13th in the NCAA averaging 14.42 kills per set. Lauren Chastang and Quin Sutphin each ranked in the top 10 in the ASUN with 3.88 and 3.38 kills per set, respectively.

“Great, great match and opportunity to see what we can do against this program,” Schunzel said. “Can’t wait to get going.”

Thursday’s nightcap will feature two of the top servers in the country between WKU’s Sophia Cerino and Chastang.

Cerino has led the NCAA all season with the top average in aces per set and now sits at 0.75. The senior lefty is up to 81 aces on the season and owns the WKU single-season record in that category.

Chastang serves right-handed and ranks fifth in the country with 0.58 aces per set. She currently holds the KSU single-season record with 65 aces.

Chastang said she used to do a jump serve with a topspin just like Cerino, but stopped doing that this season and “it’s worked out this year for me a little more,” she said.

“We were actually in the airport coming back from our tournament and were watching the Western Kentucky-Rice (C-USA championship game),” Chastang said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that girl has a great jump top serve.’ And we’re playing them now, so here we go.”

Kennesaw State (22-8) vs. Western Kentucky (31-1)

7 p.m., Thursday, E.A. Diddle Arena

NCAA Tournament appearances (record)

WKU 12 (3-11), KSU 2 (0-1)

How they got here

Kennesaw State won the ASUN Conference Tournament over Florida Gulf Coast. WKU earned an automatic bid by winning the C-USA Tournament, but would’ve still made the tournament with a No. 15 RPI ranking.

Last meeting

First meeting

Samford (24-5) vs. Louisville (19-8)

5 p.m., Thursday, Diddle Arena

NCAA Tournament appearances (record)

Louisville 28 (17-27), Samford 5 (0-4)

How they got here

Samford won the Southern Conference Tournament for an automatic bid. Louisville ranks No. 25 in the RPI.

Last meeting

Louisville won its only previous meeting with Samford in 2012.

The breakdown

Louisville’s season took a turn when senior middle hitter Melanie McHenry suffered a season-ending knee injury. The Cardinals’ lone senior was a returning All-American and First-Team All-ACC selection who led the team with 3.58 kills per set.

Coach Dani Busboom Kelly has leaned on Anna Stevenson, Aiko Jones and a late emergence from Claire Chaussee.

“It’s different every night and you see it in different ways,” Kelly said. “Aiko has had to take on a bigger role, along with Anna, so these two, as far as kills go, have made the bigger contributions.

“Definitely can’t say it’s been from one person. Someone different literally every match.”

Louisville lost to Pittsburgh 3-1 in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The Cardinals have won 14 first-round NCAA Tournament matches in 27 previous appearances. Samford, making its fifth appearance, has never won an NCAA Tournament game but is riding a 12-game winning streak after grinding through two five-set victories to claim the Southern Conference Tournament championship.

“Louisville is one of the storied traditions in the Midwest, kind of like Western Kentucky,” Samford coach Keylor Chan said. “There are programs we aspire to be and you have to go out and play them. You’ve got to do the things they do and create your own path too and that’s what we’re trying to do here at Samford. Just a wonderful opportunity.”

The winner of Samford-Louisville will play the winner of Kennesaw State-WKU. The Lady Toppers swept Samford in Diddle Arena on Sept. 29. The Bulldogs lost all three matches that weekend in the WKU Invitational against Tulsa, Northern Kentucky and WKU.

“I’m trying to have amnesia about that weekend, honestly,” Chan said. “There is some advantage to us playing in this arena before and knowing what it feels like, seeing common opponents in Western Kentucky and Kennesaw, we couldn’t have asked for a better regional.”{&end}

– Follow WKU athletics beat writer Elliott Pratt on Twitter @EPrattBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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