Emma Kowalkowski held up her left wrist Friday after Western Kentucky’s win over Notre Dame. A small No. 7 was written on it in pen.
The tiny tribute was in honor of Lady Topper great Alyssa Cavanaugh. The outside hitter who wore that No. 7 through four All-American seasons (2014-17) announced Thursday she’d been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“This is such a humbling time,” Cavanaugh tweeted Thursday. “I feel so blessed and loved by everyone who has reached out, I’m sorry if I cannot answer all your questions just yet.
“I have been diagnosed with ALL leukemia and I’m ready to kick cancer’s butt. Thank you to everyone who has sent prayers my way.”
With Cavanaugh’s sobering news on the WKU players’ minds, Kowalkowski said the Lady Tops “really tried to play in her” Friday at E.A. Diddle Arena.
“She’s still part of our team,” the defensive specialist Kowalkowski said. “… It’s just going to be another win in her column. She’s a strong female.”
WKU played two matches Friday at the Holiday Inn – University Plaza Invitational. The Lady Tops (5-4) dispatched Chattanooga 3-0 in the day’s first match before fighting off Notre Dame 3-2 in a five-set thriller.
Coach Travis Hudson said Friday marked “a step forward” for a young WKU team that’s battled thin numbers and a tough early-season schedule.
The Lady Toppers had many chances to close out the Fighting Irish in the day’s second match, including four match points in the fourth set. Notre Dame stayed alive after falling behind 2-0 and forced a decisive fifth set.
WKU’s defense responded in the final game and held the Fighting Irish to a .000 attacking percentage. An Irish service error sealed the Lady Tops’ 15-10 set victory and 3-2 match win.
“The only way you can get better at it is to be in that situation and have the courage to go make a play,” Hudson said. “I’ve said it 1,000 times and I’ll say it 1,001, I love this group of kids. We are going to get better and better.”
Win or lose, Kowalkowski said Cavanaugh’s situation “100 percent” put volleyball into perspective Friday.
Hudson choked up talking about Cavanaugh after the Notre Dame match. He recalled getting to know her when she was a high school recruit before she came to WKU in 2014.
Cavanaugh joined Hudson’s program and became one of the most decorated athletes in school history. Her accomplishments include four All-American selections, eight combined Conference USA regular-season and tournament titles and the 2017-18 C-USA Female Athlete of the Year award.
While Cavanaugh racked up the awards and trophies, Hudson always made a point to talk about her growth both as a player and as a person. The coach did so again Friday.
“I’ve watched that kid struggle through high school and the early part of her college career,” Hudson said. “Now I understand what all that struggle was for. It was for the fight that was in front of her and she’ll be up to the challenge.”
After sweeping Chattanooga earlier in the day, WKU mounted the type of tough victory Friday night over Notre Dame that would make Cavanaugh proud.
WKU, up 2-0 in the match, had the chance to sweep Notre Dame, leading 16-11 in the third set. The Fighting Irish rallied and scored 14 of the set’s final 21 points to pull to within 2-1.
WKU then was on the verge of victory in the fourth game. A Kayland Jackson kill off a Taylor Bebout assist gave the Lady Tops a 24-20 lead and set the stage for match point.
But Notre Dame once again fought back, scoring five straight points and taking a 25-24 lead. WKU tied things at 25, but then the Fighting Irish tallied two points in a row to finish off a 27-25 set victory.
That sent the match to a decisive fifth set where WKU fell behind 3-1 early. The Lady Tops then took control and set up a match point at 14-9 on a Sophia Cerino kill.
Notre Dame got a point back but then served into the net to seal an emotional WKU win.
“Travis is always preaching for us to stay together, be positive, have each others’ backs,” the outside hitter Jackson said. “That’s all you can do. You can’t give up and give in when you’re fighting. You have to be scrappy and go make the plays.”
Chattanooga (4-5) – 14 21 24 – 0
Western Kentucky – 25 25 26 – 3
Notre Dame (4-2) – 17 17 25 27 10 – 2
Western Kentucky (5-4) – 25 25 23 25 15 – 3
WKU will look to finish a sweep of its weekend tournament when it hosts Miami (Ohio) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The Lady Toppers are 4-4 all time against the RedHawks.
Hudson is 595-207 in his 24th year coaching WKU. … The Lady Toppers stretched their NCAA-best home winning streak to 26 straight matches. … WKU is 4-2 all time against Chattanooga and 2-0 against Notre Dame. … Announced attendance at Diddle Arena for the match against the Fighting Irish was 712.
Cavanaugh is now undergoing treatment at a facility in her hometown of Louisville. Anyone wishing to send cards can address them to:
– Follow Daily News sports reporter Brad Stephens on Twitter @BradBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.