By GREG MENGELT
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. —
Melanie Stutsman has enjoyed tremendous success in two years with Western Kentucky volleyball program.
The junior setter is coming off a season in which she was fifth in the nation in setting percentage for a Hilltopper team that went 31-6, won the Sun Belt regular-season and tournament championship and made the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.
Stutsman was named AVCA All-American and All-Sun Belt Conference for her performance of a year ago. Stutsman’s 2,613 assists at Western Kentucky are seventh all-time through just two years. She more than halfway to Sara Noe’s school-record 5,172.
The Hilltoppers are 5-2 after five straight wins, including victories over Virginia, Delaware and Lehigh to win the Jefferson Cup in Charlottesville, Va., last week.
Former Highlander teammate Rachel Engel has joined Stutsman in Bowling Green this season as a freshman this season. Rachel’s sister and current Highlander, Sydney, will join the Hilltoppers in a couple of seasons, and WKU libero Ashley Potts, who went to Sacred Heart, is a cousin of the Engel sisters.
On Sunday, Stutsman talked with News and Tribune sports editor Greg Mengelt about her team’s and her own success over the past two seasons in Bowling Green and what to expect this season.
QUESTION: The schedule has been really tough so far. How do you assess the start?
STUTSMAN: “The first weekend [in losses to Penn State and Louisville], we didn’t really play our best. That’s been the way it has been around here for the last couple of years. I thought even while we were struggling a lot, the scores of the games — most of them — were close and we were encouraged that we were hanging with Penn State and Louisville when we were not playing our best. That gives you hope that when we are playing well, we can be pretty good.”
Q: [Tonight] you have a Cincinnati team that beat you 16-14 in the final set last year. How forward are you guys looking to that one?
STUTSMAN: “We’re always really excited to play Cincinnati. It’s been a lot of years since Western has beaten them. We lost 16-14 in the final [set] and we missed like 23 or 24 serves last year. We’re really excited, crossing our fingers because we served really well last week. We love playing Cincinnati. It always seems to be a good match. We’re ready to go out there and hopefully get a win.”
Q: What are your expectations for the Hilltoppers this season?
STUTSMAN: “We lost two [middle hitters] but our expectation this year is we think we can be even better even with losing them. [WKU middle hitter] Heather Boyan was the MVP [of the Jefferson Cup]. She did a really good job. Hopefully, she can continue that because we’re going to need her. We want to win the conference again and go to the NCAA Tournament. We feel we have enough talent on this team to play with anyone. Even though we lost two middles, it doesn’t mean we don’t expect to be as good or even better this year.”
Q: Last year, you guys had a historically good season in Bowling Green, including a 31-4 record, a stretch of 18 wins in 19 games and a Sun Belt championship. What was that experience like?
STUTSMAN: “It was amazing. The only loss in conference was to Middle Tennessee. Finishing up the conference, we played Middle again and won in five [sets]. That was an amazing feeling. Winning the conference, that’s one of those think I’ll cherish every minute of. Even if we do it again, I’ll never forget that. We’ve never won [the Sun Belt] back-to-back and we’ve never won the conference tournament at home, so we’re hoping to do both of those things this year and keep it rolling.”
Q: Of course, the season ended with disappointment with a tough four-set loss to Marquette in the NCAA Tournament in Champaign (Ill.). Is that a match you felt you should have won?
STUTSMAN: “I felt like we definitely could have won. Marquette is very good. We came out and played well then we tightened up. It was a big disappointment because it was a winnable match. We’ll remember that, work hard and try to get back there. It should give us motivation to do that this year and advance in the NCAA Tournament, because we’ve never done that, either.”
Q: Last year, you were an AVCA All-American and All-Sun Belt. Your setting percentage have been extraordinary. How do you feel your transition has been personally to the college level?
STUTSMAN: “It’s a huge transition from high school to college. My freshman year was very overwhelming, but I had great players around me to help. I’ve learned a lot. There was so much to learn about setting and running an offense. There’s so much about setting people don’t see.”
Q: Have you decided on a major and how is school going for you in general?
STUTSMAN: “Western’s great. It’s a beautiful campus. Classes are great. I couldn’t have asked for a better place. I love it here. ... I am majoring in psychology. I’m not absolutely sure what I want to do yet. I know I want to work with kids. I love kids.”
Q: Do you still follow Floyd Central volleyball?
STUTSMAN: “I do. I keep in pretty good contact with [Highlander coach] Bart Powell. I keep him updated on me and he keeps me updated on the team.”
Q: Are you excited to have some Floyd Central teammates joining you in Bowling Green?
STUTSMAN: “We’re super pumped. Me and Ashley [Potts] and Rachel and Sydney, we’re all excited. I won’t get to play with Sydney, but I know everyone is looking forward to having her.”