By BRIAN PELOZA
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. —
Qualifying for the NCAA Tournament is becoming the norm for Western Kentucky’s volleyball program.
Now, the 17th ranked Hilltoppers want to take the next step: Win in the tournament.
If Western Kentucky is to achieve that next step, it will rely heavily on three-year starting setter Melanie Stutsman, a Floyd Central High School graduate.
“We want to advance,” Stutsman said. “We’ve been working on getting back to the NCAA Tournament so we can win because that’s never been done here with Western Kentucky volleyball.”
It’s already been a historical season for the Hilltoppers, advancing to their third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and winning consecutive Sun Belt Conference Tournaments, both firsts for the program.
Stutsman is a big reason why, compiling 1,305 assists this season for the 32-3 Hillltoppers. She’s on pace to leave as the program’s all-time leader in assists if she has similar statistics next season, and is already ranked fifth.
Stutsman is averaging 11.35 assists per set this season, which ranks 10th all-time for a single season in school history.
Not surprisingly, with those type of career statistics already being compiled, Stutsman has been the starting setter since stepping on the Western Kentucky campus.
“She certainly had the skill level to come in and play right away,” Western Kentucky coach Travis Hudson said. “From a personality standpoint she’s a pretty even keel kid. She’s not a real high, real low kid.”
Prior to Stutsman arriving on campus, Western Kentucky won at least 25 matches each of the previous three seasons, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament twice.
“I think that added to the pressure for her coming in as a true freshman,” Hudson said. “That’s a lot to put on her shoulders because as a setter a lot of it is going to rest on your shoulders whether you like it or not. Again, I don’t think it was ever something she wasn’t ready for, and she has gotten better and will continue to get better, but she had played at a high level in high school and played at a high level in club and I think those things aided her greatly in having to start right away as a freshman.”
The transition to collegiate volleyball was made easier for Stutsman when Hudson let her known in advance she would likely be starting from the first day.
“When I came in I had an idea that I would be playing, so it kind of helped me with my nerves,” Stutsman said. “It kind of settled in before I got here, but I was still kind of nervous because I had never played with these girls.”
It’s obvious Stutsman has developed a comfort with Western Kentucky’s hitters. Teams in the Sun Belt Conference can vouch for the proficiency of the Hilltoppers’ offense.
Western Kentucky swept through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, not dropping a set en route to posting 3-0 wins over Florida International, Arkansas State and North Texas.
The Hilltoppers were nearly flawless during the Sun Belt Conference regular season, going 15-0 and dropping just one set in the process.
During the non-conference schedule, Western Kentucky defeated No. 22 Michigan and won the Michigan Invitational; while also posting a win over No. 10 Dayton in their own tournament.
Over her first three seasons, Stutsman has improved her strength and conditioning, as do most players. But it’s a different aspect that draws the attention of Hudson.
“I think what she continues to do, and is the thing I get most excited about, is she mentally continues to get better and better and better,” Hudson said. “...She has really taken a lot more ownership in how she is playing and things going on around her. I think she is by far been at her best this season even though she has had two really good years so far.”
Western Kentucky freshman Rachel Engle — a Floyd Central grad and former prep teammate of Stutsman — has appeared in 35 matches this season, compiling nine kills.
The Hilltoppers will find out their NCAA Tournament on Sunday. In the meantime, Stutsman will enjoy the upcoming days knowing a spot in the NCAA Tournament is solidified.
“It’s been so much fun and it’s like you’re on Cloud Nine for a week,” Stutsman said. “I grew up watching it on television and always wanted to be there and playing in the tournament.”
Once again, she’ll be able to do just that.