It all started December 2, 2011.
As soon as the last whistle blew in the Western Kentucky University volleyball team's last game against Marquette, the 2012 season began.
Now just two weeks away from the first game of the season against Louisville, the Lady Toppers are in full swing to prepare to defend their Sun Belt Conference titles and make it three years in a row to compete in the NCAA Tournament.
"We are excited to get started," WKU head coach Travis Hudson said. "We have a lot of reason for optimism because of the players we have returning, the number of players we have returning and the quality of players we have returning. We have a schedule in front of us that is as challenging as anyone's in the country, so from a record standpoint, I don't think we will repeat what we did a year ago, but it doesn't mean I don't think we will be a better team."
Returning nine student-athletes from a 2011 squad that went 31-4 and finished 23rd in the nation, the 2012 schedule will not be easy for WKU. Featuring 11 teams that competed in the NCAA Tournament last season, the Lady Toppers will have 13 home matches while also hosting the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in November.
"This is a year for us to really challenge ourselves," said Hudson. "We feel like we could potentially be a team in the top 25 preseason after finishing the way we did a year ago and returning what we do. We wanted to challenge ourselves, so we understand that means we are going to be in situations where matches are up in the air every night, but we understand that is going to help us at the end of the year to be in those big matches."
Once past the non-conference portion of the schedule, league play will not lighten up WKU's schedule. Finishing the 2011 season at 15-1 while earning the regular season championship and the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship, the Lady Toppers will look to continue their successful streak, as they have now advanced to the championship match at the SBC Tournament for nine of the last 11 seasons.
"In conference play, I feel like on paper we are going to be the favorite going in, but they are not won on paper," said Hudson. "When you look at preseason and postseason teams, they look very different most years. We understand that the league is improving at a fast pace. I think the overall quality of our league is improving, which is more of a challenge on a daily basis. We take nothing for granted with any part of the schedule this year, and we are going to have to be ready to play."
With the graduation of Tiffany Elmore and Lindsay Williams, helping to carry the load will be returning AVCA All-Americans Jordyn Skinner and Melanie Stutsman along with defensive staples Sarah Rogers and Ashley Potts.
"I think the anchor of our team this year is what we are going to be able to do defensively," said Hudson. "The two kids that we graduated were both great offensive players, but we feel like defensively we have an opportunity to be better. We return all our back row defense and all our ball control, so when we play the caliber of teams that we are playing, we have to understand that to be in it we have to defend."
With the program going to the NCAA Tournament six times since 2002, experienced returners, three athletic newcomers and the confidence from what the team did last season, the Lady Toppers look to have a strong attack for the 2012 season.
"It's what you want going into a year-we are an experienced team, more balanced team and have a lot of kids that have been in big matches and postseason play. We think that bodes well for us in the future."
Make sure to check back to WKUSports.com for previews of each position before the season begins August 24 at Louisville.