Western Kentucky volleyball player Jessica Lucas leads the nation in assists per set. When you set up your teammates 12.28 times per set, you are in command and for Lucas, that command comes from growing up in a volleyball family.
Lucas has been around volleyball since a very young age. When pre-kindergarten children are starting to recite the alphabet, Lucas probably could have said “Set. Dig. Spike.” When your mother is a successful high school volleyball coach, that’s what happens.
“I was probably 2 years old the first time I was at one of Mom’s practices,” Lucas said recently in an interview with American Sports Network.
Since she was a toddler, the Seymour, Ind., has spent tens of thousands of hours around the game or playing it. Her mother brought her to practices before she could even walk. Then Lucas starts playing herself.
She developed into a talented middle school player and then a four-year starter at Seymour High School. Lucas earned All-State honors in 2012 and 2013 when Seymour went to the Final Four and Final Eight in back-to-back seasons. At the same time she also played club volleyball with KIVA, a team out of Louisville, which is over an hour away from her home.
“It seemed like from my sophomore to senior year all I did was go to school, get in the car, play volleyball, sleep and then do it all over again the next day,” said Lucas.
Lucas made the decision to play for WKU early. She was only a sophomore when she committed to the Lady Toppers. Upon arriving on campus, she played immediately and made an instant impact. As a freshman Lucas ranked second in Conference USA with an average of 11.62 assists per set. She was C-USA First-Team All-Conference and All-Freshman honoree. As just a sophomore last year she started all 36 games, ranked 13th in the country with 1,397 total assists and was the the MVP of the C-USA Tournament.
Lucas has probably set over a million balls over her career. Its probably fair to say that not once while on the court has she ever said “Omaha! Omaha! Omaha!” Yet like her favorite quarterback, she is directing the team.
“Being a setter is very much like playing quarterback,” Lucas said. “You have got to know where everyone is on the court and it is your job to be communicating at all times.”
Very few quarterbacks had command of a football offense like Peyton Manning.
“I’m a huge Colts fan,” said Lucas. “I’d have to take Peyton Manning over Andrew Luck. He was awesome. Those commercials (Manning is in for DirectTV now); those are really good.”
Like any Peyton Manning-led team, expectations are high this season for the Lady Toppers. WKU opened up the season ranked No. 23. Usually after making the NCAA Tournament, WKU loses players and is seen nationally as being in rebuilding mode the following year. That was not the case when the AVCA Preseason Poll was released on Aug. 10.
“Its good to see,” WKU head coach Travis Hudson said during media day. “In the past years when we’ve been ranked, we’ve had to work our way back up there (the following season). It continues to speak to the credibility of our program nationally that we are thought of in the preseason.”
Winning last year in the NCAA Tournament played a big factor in WKU starting the season in the Top 25. Beating Arizona 3-0 in the first round opened a lot of eyes.
WKU (9-2) stayed ranking for the first two weeks of the season. They got up as high as No. 19. Saturday’s five-set loss to Michigan State, which was on the cusp of being ranking (technically No. 26 with 90 votes), dropped WKU out of the poll. However by Michigan State vaulting to No. 22 it showed that a win over WKU was impressive enough to move them up four spots.
BYU, Hawaii, Santa Clara are the only Group of 5 schools that have stayed ranked since the preseason poll came out.
Ranked or unranked, WKU is the elite team in Conference USA and that means having to be laser focused.
“We don’t need that number next to our name to have a target on our backs,” Lucas said. “We have won the conference in back-to-back years. We know that we are going to get everyone’s best shot.”
Above: Jessica Lucas has had a major impact on WKU from the moment she took the court as a freshman (Photo courtesy WKU Athletics)