Quick quiz. Name a Division I volleyball program that has put together 15-straight 25 wins, has clinched six-straight regular season conference titles and has earned mentioned in the AVCA Top 25 each of the last six seasons. Here’s a hint, you won’t find this team in a Power Five conference, but chances are you’ve heard of them.
That was all beyond Western Kentucky head coach Travis Hudson’s wildest dreams when he took over the program in Bowling Green, Kentucky, 23 years ago. Since then, his teams have accomplished all of that and more in a location where some said it couldn’t be done.
To find out what has made the Lady Topper program so successful, from building the school into a mid-major powerhouse to being a contender on the nation’s biggest stag, VolleyMob sat down with Coach Hudson. We covered everything from his start with the program to the legacy of success that is now the Western Kentucky program, including all of the above, a 586-201 record, 10 NCAA berths, and a 27-2 mark and regular season Sun Belt title in 2017.
You have been at Western Kentucky since 1995. You knew when you inherited the program that things weren’t all rosy. Talk about the early years and the ups and downs you experienced and how you have been able to build the program into what it is has become today.
This is my alma mater. I was a student here and I love this university and what it stands for. It was really by luck. I had been around the program. I had been a volunteer assistant and done some different things when the head coaching job came open. And, to be honest, I had absolutely no business being a head coach, whatsoever. I was 24 years old and I was the youngest head coach in Division I volleyball. I took over a program that was 298th in RPI and we went 7-26 my first year. Certainly, we had an uphill climb. I knew there was a long way to go, but I’ve always understood that if the program wasn’t in the shape that it was, that they would never have hired an inexperienced 23 or 24 year old head coach.
I feel very blessed that everything has happened in the manner that it has, but, from the time I took over, my thing was always ‘why not.’ Why not Western Kentucky, why couldn’t it happen here? This is a beautiful campus and we are situation in a tremendous amount of high school volleyball talent in the Midwest. So, we started from there and have slowly built this thing into something that we are very, very proud of.
Talk about that run of success: 17 straight 20 win seasons, 10 NCAA berths in the last 15 years (9 in the last 12), 13 conference titles, eight conference tournament titles… Looking back now, do you see the accomplishment in all that you have built?
Not until I do one of these interviews…. I think we just hit our 15th straight 25-win season, which is just beyond comprehension to me. Obviously, you don’t set out with dreams that big. Again, I thought this could be a place where we could have success. I think the whole key has been that I have tried to build a culture here and not a team. Our program stands for the right things and we recruit the right type of kids. In my 23 years, we have a 100 percent graduation rate and we have only had one kid transfer out of our program. I think those things speak to why the success happens on the court – because it is a really solid foundation. We have great kids that care a lot about wearing the jersey and care a lot about each other and I think that has parlayed itself into a consistent team, year in and year out.
What makes the Western Kentucky community and environment special?
This is a great school, full of caring people. We have turned our environment into a tough one to play in. One of the things I tell our recruits is that just because it is the biggest house in the neighborhood doesn’t make it the best home. There are things from a financial point we may not have that the Power Five schools have, but there are things inside this home that you are not going to find other places in the country that money can’t buy. We are very proud that we have that culture built in place and we are very proud of the team that we put out there to represent this community.
What are some of the things you have hung your hat on in terms of your program? What are the things that make Western Kentucky volleyball what it is?
I think the culture that we have in place is a massive part of it. The term family is thrown around very loosely by coaches all over the country, but this literally is a place where we are all very connected. My players – I care about them like daughters and my assistant coaches care about them like daughters. Our players spend time with our children and at our houses. It is just a very connected situation. We certainly don’t feel like we are their coaches for three hours out of the day and we will see you tomorrow at the same time. I think that culture has put in place a situation where we don’t ever want to let our kids down and they don’t ever want to let us down and that is pretty powerful.
And then on the court, it is ironic now that for the last decade we have consistently been one of the best offensive teams in the country, but we were able to build this program on great defensive players. Before we could get the kids touching over 10 feet that could really finish plays at the net, we started by recruiting some of the best defensive players in the country and best ball handlers in the country. We have maintained that and little by little we have improved the level of athlete we have at the net. Even though we are one of the Top 10 offensive teams in the country, we walk into most matches with an advantage ball handling-wise. That is always going to keep us in matches.
When you look at the last 15 years, there were some conference championships you missed out on or NCAA Tournaments you didn’t make. Are those the things that keep you motivated and keep the program motivated, knowing that there is so much more to achieve?
That is one of the things I love about being here. Over the last five years, we have won more volleyball matches than anyone in the country. We are recruiting now against the SEC and Big Ten and trying to recruit those same caliber of athletes, but we understand that we are not in the Big Ten or in the SEC. We understand that there are some things we have to overcome like money that come along with being in a Power Five conference, but I like that. That puts me in my comfort zone. I like to have a little chip on my shoulder. I like people telling us what we can’t do.
Prior to 2002, we had never been to an NCAA Tournament and they said it couldn’t happen here and then it did. Then, they said at Western Kentucky you can’t be an at-large team in the NCAA Tournament, but we have done that on more than one occasion. Then, they said we would never be in the Top 25 and we have been in the Top 25 at some point in each of the last six seasons now. I believe those things can happen here and that is an edge we carry with us all of the time and I think it serves us well.
When you look at the conference championship picture – and you have won every year since 2011 – people might say, what more can you do? How do you motivate your players that there is still so much more to accomplish?
Because they put a year by all of those accomplishments…. We were the 2016 conference champion and we went to the NCAA Tournament in 2016. We won the 2015 conference championship and so on. But, this is the 2017 team. It is more of a burden than anything else, because we do have a target on our backs and we do hear about all of the successes they have had in the past. But, this is a different group. I just like locking arms with them and seeing how far we can go with this group on every individual year. We always try to start fresh and see what we can accomplish.
It is a puzzle every year that you are trying to put together and I enjoy taking that journey every year with a different group of kids. Every year is different for us. Every year is a different make up in terms of your roster and every year has different challenges. To me, it is like opening a new puzzle every year and starting over. A lot of the kids on our roster right now weren’t there in 2016 or 2015 or 2014 when those things happened. This is their year.
You return three All-Americans and several other incredibly experienced players. Is that what makes this year’s team able to be 27-2 and undefeated at 13-0 atop Conference USA?
This is an experienced group. This group of seniors moved into Conference USA together. Their freshman year is when we joined the conference, and to this point we have won every trophy they have offered – every conference championship and every conference tournament. Three of these seniors have played every match in their career. Two weeks after they got to our campus as freshmen, they were in our lineup to start our season. They have been through a lot. They have grown as players. They have been through the ups and downs. So here in their senior year, having the kind of consistency that we have had can be attributed to the senior and juniors that have been in a lot of big matches. This is an experienced group, so we expect to be in matches night in and night out. But, the consistency with which they have done it is the remarkable part, because I don’t care how talented you are, there are a lot of ups and downs throughout a season. I am really proud of that.
Other than early in the season, when you played Louisville and Illinois in non-conference play, you haven’t been challenged too much except for a couple of five setters. They say that losses build character. Do you think the two you had early on plus a couple of scares are enough to get you where you want to go?
It has been an interesting year. We are 27-2 and we lost those two matches in a 16 hour period in the same tournament (Sept. 1-2). That was a rough couple of days. Had you told me coming out of there that we would be sitting here at the first of November with no more losses, I wouldn’t have believed that for sure. But, we always are in a situation where we know we are going to get the best people have to offer.
We are going to have a real challenge on Thursday. We are playing a North Texas team who is having the same kind of year we are and is built very much like we are in terms of experience. They are right around the 50 mark in the RPI and they are 25-2, so we are going to get all of the character challenge we need on Thursday down at North Texas. That is going to be a tremendous task to go in there.
Then, we will use the Conference USA Tournament to continue to prepare us. Our conference season is what is what it is. I know the scores look like we have dominated the league and we have won a lot of games, but I think there are some very good teams and very good coaches in our league. We understand that and one of the things we pride ourselves on is being prepared night in and night out and being the best version of ourselves. Certainly we will have to do that moving forward.
What challenges does North Texas bring to your team? Obviously, you have already won the regular season title and they can’t take that away from you, but it can definitely effect how you go into the tournament.
It is going to be a wild environment. If North Texas wins out, they can share this regular season championship with us. They certainly know that. It is also their senior night and they are a senior laden team like us. They play in a smaller facility that will be standing room only. They have already knocked off Oregon State at home this year. The challenge is going to be tremendous, but it is one of those matches where win or lose you can’t hurt yourself from an RPI standpoint. North Texas and ourselves can only help each other because we are both having tremendous years. That is a match where we know we are walking into a hornet’s nest down there. The challenge will be great, but it can only continue to help us.
You have been in a situation where you didn’t make the NCAAs based on RPI or whatnot despite having a great season because of your conference strength of schedule. Do you try to schedule around that, knowing it is in the picture from the start?
It is almost unfair to our kids, to be honest. Most people use the first month of the season to learn about their team. We are still learning each other’s names the first few weekends and we are already going out and playing some of the top competition in the country. It is pretty mentally draining throughout the season to have to do that.
Schools in the Power Five very often can use that to figure out their teams because they are going to get plenty of juice in terms of RPI from their conference schedules. We are in a very unique situation. There are just a handful of us in one-bid leagues that are trying to go out in that first month and build a resume that will hold up the rest of the year. We do that every year. We have gone out and scheduled very aggressively and did again this year. We played Miami (Ohio), who is leading the MAC, the first weekend. We played Louisville and Illinois the second weekend. We beat Pittsburgh in our home tournament the third weekend. We played Ohio State and Dayton. We have gone out and done what we can do. Our league schedule is what it is on a given year. We can’t do anything about that. But, when the selection committee is sitting in that room, they should be asking ‘what did Western Kentucky do when they had the chance?’ We certainly go out and schedule in a way that will give us a chance if we pull it off.
When you look at your roster, who are the players that are carrying your team to success this year?
We have three All Americans. Jessica Lucas and Alyssa Cavanaugh are in their senior year and are already three-time All-Americans. Rachel Anderson, who is a junior middle hitter for us, was an All American last year as well. We are very blessed in that regard and certainly those are the kids who carry a big share of the load for us.
Sydney Engle is a player who, and I have said this over and over, is probably the best volleyball player we have. She can do everything. She passes, plays defense, blocks, serves. She does everything at a high level. Jessica, Sydney and Alyssa are the three that have played in every match since they have been here and they have certainly led us in their senior year. And Rachel Anderson has done the same in her three years here. We are very blessed and very talented and those players certainly care the biggest share of the load.
Is there anyone that is doing things behind the scenes to lead the team?
We returned a ton from a year ago, but what we lost last year were two senior ball control players. Our ball control is being handled by two freshmen and a sophomore. Our sophomore libero Emma Kowalkowski and the two freshmen handling the ball control duties and defense for us back there have been the biggest key for us returning to a high level this year. They have handled the ball well enough for us to continue to do what we do and I think that was the biggest question coming in.
As you look ahead to the Conference USA Tournament, which can be vital in earning you an NCAA berth, do you allow yourself to look at that big picture or do you just focus on each match in the tournament? How do you approach something that can make or break your season?
We take it as three different seasons. We really work hard in the non-conference season to build a resume, then when we get to the conference season, it is all about trying to win a regular season conference championship. Then the third phase of it is conference tournament time. It is an exciting time and it will be a very competitive tournament.
We are very blessed that we have built the resume that we have. Our RPI was 32 this week. I think we are in a very good position to get an at-large, which is a really tremendously difficult task to do. Obviously we want to go into the tournament trying to win it, but it is nice to be able to relax and know that it might not make or break our season and our chances of making the NCAA Tournament.
When you look at your career resume, you have all of these amazing seasons and conference championships, but one might say what you are missing is a deep NCAA Tournament run, a Sweet 16 berth or more. Is that on your mind at all?
We always talk about that how you cannot skip steps. You cannot finish fifth in the league and make the NCAA Tournament. We can’t skip steps. The first thing we have to do is get back to the NCAA Tournament. We try to stay focused on that. Once we get there, it is the next step for us. We have been to the second round a couple of times, so that is the natural next step for us – to be in a position where we can try to break through to the second weekend.
Is that a possibility with this team?
I think yes. I think we are talented enough to do that. We have enough experience and we are physical enough to do that. We certainly feel like we have a chance to do it, but so much of it relies on where they stick you in the bracket. Last year we had an RPI of 16 going into the tournament with hopes of getting to host and we got sent all of the way out to Stanford for the first and second round and ended up in the same bracket with eventual champions. Sometimes it is hard to make heads or tails of that.
I don’t really let myself get to that point. We just worry about what is in front of us. We are trying to get back to the tournament and then we will look at that draw and hopefully be able to break through and get to that second weekend.
In closing, what does it feel like being to able to coach at your alma mater and what has kept you there at the mid-major level all of this time despite your success?
That is a question that I get a lot. Why have I not moved on? How long am I going to be here? Why have I not taken the next job? I always answer it this way. I coach for different reasons than a lot of people I guess, because having different letters across my chest and a little bigger paycheck is not what motivates me. What motivates me is helping young people grow and get degrees and really love the place that they are and really be proud of who they are playing for. Everything that I want out of coaching can happen right here.
I took over here when we were 298th in the country in RPI. What you usually see is people win a few matches and move on to the next job. To me, instead of going somewhere else and trying to get a better job, how about turning this one into a better job. That is what we have tried to do. And now, when you look at the history of what has gone on over the last 10 years in collegiate volleyball, we have competed with the very best of the best and I am really proud to do it here at my alma mater.