BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - For the sixth time in program history, the Western Kentucky University volleyball team will take part in the NCAA Tournament as competition begins this weekend at Huff Hall in Champaign, Ill. The Lady Toppers (31-3) open play against Marquette (23-10) at 4:30 p.m. Friday. The winner of that match will take on either No. 3 Illinois (27-4) or Central Michigan (19-13) at 7 p.m. Saturday.
"We're at a point with our program that I think it is really important for these kids that we take that next step and try to advance in this thing," WKU coach Travis Hudson said. "We're excited to be there every year and Marquette poses a tremendous challenge for us in the first round, but I think these kids have had a goal in mind all of being able to advance and that's why we are headed to Champaign."
WKU will be making its sixth trip to the NCAA tournament and back-to-back appearances for the first time since 2007-2008. Last year, the Lady Toppers fell 3-0 to Cincinnati at the same site in Champaign.
"I don't think there is any question we'll be a much more relaxed team, if you will," Hudson said. "Not only that these kids had an NCAA experience last year but we're playing on the same floor and in the same environment that we played in last year and I think that'll be big for our kids. It's certainly not a home game for us but it's definitely not unfamiliar."
Marquette, who went 12-2 in the BIG EAST, enters the tournament with a 23-10 record and will be making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament and earning an at-large bid.
The Golden Eagles led by 2011 BIG EAST Coach of the Year Bond Shymansky, who has led MU to 23 victories each of the last two seasons and a spot in the semifinals of the conference tournament each year. The tournament appearance is the fourth for Shymansky as a head coach. BIG EAST Freshman of the Year Chelsea Heier leads the Marquette offense with 11.90 assists per set, while senior outside hitters Ciara Jones and Ashley Beyer lead the squad with 3.57 and 3.36 kills per set, respectively.
"They are very competitive," Hudson said. "They've got some really talented kids but they play the game with great competitiveness. It is a reflection of their coach Bond Shymansky, who I've known for a long time. The thing about Marquette is you know you're going to get their very best every time they step on the floor and you know if you beat them, you're going to have to beat them. They're not going to get shaken or go away, they are going to continue to play and I expect it to be a really, really fun match to watch for people sitting in the stands."
WKU and Marquette have met once previously with the Lady Toppers coming away with a 3-1 win over the Golden Eagles in September 2004 at the Marquette Challenge in Milwaukee, Wis.
The Lady Toppers and Golden Eagles shared three common opponents in 2011 (Cincinnati, Middle Tennessee and Villanova). WKU went 3-2 against common foes, while MU was 2-3 in those contests.
The winner in Saturday's match will advance to the Gainesville Regional, which is set to take place Dec. 9-10. The regional winner will then move on to the National Semifinals and Finals hosted by the University of Texas-San Antonio and San Antonio Sports at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas on Dec. 15 and 17.
"I really do (feel like the team is ready)," Hudson said. "I've been extremely pleased with what we've done in the practice gym. I think we still have good rhythm to us. There are certain things we are going to have to do to be successful against Marquette and we've worked on those hard this week and I think we understand that in terms of what our players need to do. When you get to tournament time, certainly anybody can win on a given night but I feel like we are going to represent ourselves very well."
For complete results and a recap of this weekend's action, please visit WKUSports.com. Live stats and video will also be available through NCAA.com.