No more flights to the West Coast. The Lady Toppers are dancing in their own backyard.

For the first time, Western Kentucky will host in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament, a reward for a No. 19 Lady Topper squad working on one of the best seasons in program history.

WKU (31-1) will play Kennesaw State in the first round of the tournament on Thursday at 7 p.m. inside the comfy confines of E.A. Diddle Arena. Samford and Louisville will play at 5 p.m. to round out the four teams in Bowling Green this week for WKU’s first turn to host in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament.

“We’ve had great crowds in there, but it’s time to fill that building up for volleyball,” WKU coach Travis Hudson said minutes after the announcement. “What we’re doing this year, it’s an incredible run our kids are on.”

WKU’s name popped on the television screen early as one of the 16 host sites for the tournament. WKU is the No. 15 seed going into its 12th tournament. The Lady Toppers waited a few minutes longer at their watch party at Rooster’s on Sunday night before learning their opponent or the other schools visiting Diddle Arena this week.

The obvious storyline going into Thursday is what could potentially happen on Friday. WKU’s only loss this season is to the Louisville Cardinals from an early September meeting, the Lady Toppers’ fifth match of the season.

Since then, WKU has the nation’s longest winning streak at 27 matches and the nation’s best winning percentage (.969) and overall record.

Louisville finished the year 19-9 and No. 25 in the latest FIGSTATS projected RPI Top 50. WKU is No. 15 in that RPI ranking.

“The last time we played Louisville we were a completely different team than we are now and we’re ready for revenge on them if that’s what everything plays out to be,” WKU senior Sophia Cerino said. “We got a really good draw.”

WKU is 3-11 all-time in the NCAA Tournament and makes its appearance back in the showcase after missing out last season. WKU has made frequent trips to California in recent years and another to Utah for the tournament, which obviously presents unfavorable travel conditions for a team that’s been the cream of the crop in either Conference USA or the Sun Belt Conference.

WKU last played in the tournament in Lexington in 2017 and reached the second round before losing a five-set match against the University of Kentucky.

The Lady Toppers will first have to handle Kennesaw State, a team that finished 22-8 and earned an automatic bid by winning the ASUN Conference Tournament. Samford is the other team visiting Diddle Arena this week after winning the Southern Conference to earn an automatic bid. It’ll be Samford’s second trip to Bowling Green this year after the Lady Toppers swept them on Sept. 21.

Hudson’s charge for fans to fill Diddle Arena for volleyball this year comes after a small taste of what the atmosphere can be like in the venue that traditionally fills up for basketball. WKU’s average volleyball attendance doubled to nearly 1,200 for the last two games of the regular season.

Thursday will be the first time since 2004 that a C-USA team has hosted in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve worked hard to achieve the respect it takes to be able to host,” Hudson said. “And now we need Bowling Green and the WKU fanbase to come out and show the NCAA that we belong as a host site and we’re worthy of that in every way and that includes people in the stands.”

WKU is one of two Conference USA teams in the tournament with Rice (26-3) earning an at-large bid to play against Oklahoma. WKU had to defeat Rice in five sets twice during the season to earn its top billing in the league, the last coming in Houston in the Conference USA Tournament.

“I think Conference USA has been so strong,” WKU junior setter Nadia Dieudonne said. “Playing Rice at their place twice has been a challenge for us, but I’m glad they’re in the tournament and whoever they play, they’re going to get a good game.”{&end}

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

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