NCAA Women’s Volleyball 2021: FAU vs WKU

Western Kentucky’s Lauren Matthews strikes the ball in the first set of a Feb. 7 game against Florida Atlantic at E.A. Diddle Arena.

The No. 20 Western Kentucky volleyball team is preparing for its biggest test yet this season.

The Lady Toppers are coming off an unexpected week off and, because of the weather around Bowling Green recently, have had to somewhat “wing it” with practice plans leading into this weekend’s series at E.A. Diddle Arena against a Charlotte team expected to finish near the top in Conference USA.

“This Charlotte team is a legit contender in this league,” WKU coach Travis Hudson said. “They’re very well-coached every year, they play really, really hard and they had some good pieces a year ago, and they added a kid in Emani Foster who gives them a chance every night.

“ ... We know the challenge is great. They got our attention from the first time I threw some film on and started watching it. Our players are looking forward to the challenge. We’ve had a good week in preparation and are looking forward to hopefully playing some high-level matches.”

WKU (7-0 overall, 2-0 C-USA) was scheduled to travel to Norfolk, Va., last weekend to play Old Dominion for the first time in program history after opening C-USA play with a dominating sweep of FAU the week prior. The series with ODU was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 result in WKU’s Tier 1 testing group.

But now the Lady Toppers are ready to return to action against a Charlotte (5-2, 3-1) team bringing its solid offensive attack to Bowling Green.

The 49ers have won three straight matches, including a sweep of FIU last weekend at Halton Arena, are second in C-USA’s East Division and rank in the top three in the league in each offensive statistical category along with WKU and Rice.

“Definitely the biggest challenge,” WKU junior middle hitter Katie Isenbarger said. “Charlotte’s obviously in the top three in all categories in the league with us, Rice and then Charlotte. They definitely present the biggest challenge thus far and maybe who we play in the league.”

Charlotte hits at a .246 clip and racks up 13.68 kills per set, the latter of which leads C-USA and ranks 40th nationally. The 49ers are led by Foster, a 5-foot-10 freshman outside hitter who ranks first in the league and 16th in the nation with her 4.61 kills per set. She’s also posted the most service aces in the league.

“Our sport is different than most sports,” Hudson said. “When you have a kid like that you can’t double team them and take the ball away from them, you can’t double cover a receiver, you can’t play a zone defense. There’s a big net standing there between both of us, so they can get her the ball as much as they want and you have to just sit down and try to defend it.

“The thing that jumps out initially is she’s just so spectacular athletically. She’s one of the best athletes I’ve seen in this league in a while, but she’s more than that. She’s got a pretty advanced game to be such a young kid and for her to be an outside hitter hitting over .300 10 or so matches into this year – she’s more than just an athlete. She’s got some game and she’s going to be a problem, and they’re more than her.”

While WKU may be turning its attention to serving and defense – its opponents are hitting at a .068 rate, which ranks fifth nationally – there’s been no letup on offense.

The Lady Toppers’ .385 hitting percentage led the nation heading into the weekend. Lauren Matthews, Paige Briggs and Kayland Jackson command three of the top four hitting percentages in C-USA, and all three were among the top 31 nationally in the category entering the weekend. Setter Nadia Dieudonne has facilitated the offense with her 10.91 assists per set – the top mark in the league and 30th-best in the country.

“I feel like our experience is the key and that’s what’s going to help us this weekend,” Matthews said. “Also, our practices have been pretty consistent with the weather and stuff, so I think we’ll be fine. It’ll mostly be mental.”

Not only would success against Charlotte separate WKU from the 49ers in the East, but a win would be the 650th of Hudson’s career. The 26th-year head coach enters the series with a 649-215 record, and would become just the 13th active head coach in Division I to reach the milestone. WKU is 14-3 all-time against Charlotte, including wins in the last 11 matches.

The two matches are scheduled for noon Sunday and Monday, and will be streamed on the Hilltopper Sports Satellite Network Facebook page, as well as CUSA.tv.{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.