The Towel Rack
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The Towel Rack

WKU Hilltoppers: Recap & Reaction from the HAF Social

very year, the Hilltopper Athletic Foundation puts on a dinner in the Harbaugh Club or in Diddle, depending on the anticipated crowd. A solid 300 people showed up this season, packing the Harbaugh Club.

Last night, Rick Stansbury, Tyson Helton, and Greg Collins all previewed the prospects for their team. A unique feature at this annual event is the opportunity to also hear from the WKU President and the Athletic Director, as well.

This particular season athletic calendar features an opportunity for at least five sports on WKU’s campus to improve: Football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, volleyball, and soccer.

Three of those five coaches were in attendance and spoke about their particular sports.

At this event, which I would encourage Topper diehards to attend, you get fed quality catered food, watch the athletic department make fun of itself, meet important WKU people, and hear from arguably the five most notable people on The Hill, all for $25 or so a person. Well worth it in my opinion.

Here is a recap and reaction of last night’s HAF Dinner event. Here are the highlights of each speaker and some thoughts on what they said.

President Tim Caboni

Now in his third year, President Caboni is so much more comfortable in his role, and he’s doing a great job getting WKU’s enrollment issues under check.

Caboni inherited a mountain of debt, a campus still in need of repair, pending budget cuts, and declining attendance.

Caboni emphasized that Kentucky’s graduation population, in general, is declining, so the crop of homegrown college students is dwindling, as well.

The President plans to dip more into middle Tennessee and encouraged Topper fans to “Take over Nashville” for the Louisville football game and the basketball game against Belmont in November.

These are some good things from the President. Certainly, his presence is different from Gary Ransdell, but Topper alums seem to be warming up to him quite nicely, as they should.

He acknowledged people wondered if he liked sports at first, but he wanted to be sure that people knew he fully supported the athletics program and knows how vital it is to WKU’s success. He’s dead-on here. Our first impression was a strange one at his first HAF dinner. You can tell he’s now more settled in his role.

Athletic Director Todd Stewart

Todd kind of did his usual talking about stats, how WKU has 89 paid employees in the athletic department, and how WKU is winning despite budgetary limitations.

What he and his staff have accomplished with the 12th highest budget in C-USA is nothing short of miraculous.

However, what stood out to me from Todd is what he said about expecting good things from most of the sports.

Both basketball teams, football, and volleyball should all definitely improve if they meet expectations. Other programs, like track, soccer, softball, and baseball could all stand to step into the spotlight.

He highlighted Billy Tom Sargent, who was the first-ever Topper golfer to make the NCAA Championships. On top of that, he finished 11th. Also, Jake Sanford was C-USA’s MVP in baseball and also received the conference’s honor for overall best athlete, eventually getting drafted in the 3rd round by the New York Yankees.

Fathom this: Two basketball players on the planet at any recorded level averaged 50% field goal shooting, 45% 3-Point shooting, and 90% last season: Stephen Curry and Western Kentucky Lady Topper Dee Givens.

Gleaning from Todd what we can and knowing the situations in each program and expectations are met in the slightest, nearly every program on The Hill should tread water or take a step forward.

WKU Football Head Coach Tyson Helton

Tyson Helton begins his first year as head coach for the Tops after replacing Mike Sanford. It was certainly short and sweet.

However, he emphasized the first home game against UCA, and also harped on showing up in Nashville (vs. UofL) and wearing the “…right color red. They need to feel the fans in that stadium.”

He also made sure everyone knew Steven Duncan was the starter, which he announced earlier in the day. He pretty much echoed his earlier interview, saying his gut told him to put Duncan out there, but Ty Storey will “have a role”. He also went on to say the battle was extremely close and that it was an ongoing battle.

Perhaps the most impactful statement from Tyson was how well he thought camp went. He said it went better than he and the staff could have anticipated. Without saying it, he basically said this team could be good immediately. Exciting stuff!

He said kind of the cheesy first-year coach thing, in essence saying, “I can’t tell you how many wins, but we’ll play hard and you can always leave knowing that, win or lose.” However, it didn’t come across as a canned response. I think he really likes his team and they are way ahead of what he thought.

Like I said in my article from over the weekend, any coach saying these things in such a demonstrative way is a really good thing. My gut says he really feels great about the direction of his team.

Will it translate to wins? Who knows? But definitely, improvement should be coming for WKU Football.

WKU Lady Topper Basketball Head Coach Greg Collins

Greg Collins kept it fairly vanilla, highlighting his players in his laid back, charming sort of mellow way.

Raneem Elgedawy and Meral Abdelgawad both competed for Egypt’s national team over the summer, finishing 7th in Africa, their highest finish ever. Surely they should improve.

According to Collins, Dee Givens has been working out up to three times a day over the summer, dragging her teammates into the weight room, as well.

WKU plays five NCAA Tournament teams to begin the season, playing seven such teams total.

Collins commented on his scheduling, saying (paraphrasing), “We’re going to assemble a tougher schedule than you’re used to every year. In this conference right now, you pretty much have to win three games in three days to make it to the NCAA Tournament.”

With a schedule like that, maybe the Lady Tops could hope for at-large bids if they ever hold their own against the best, or ever get help with another quality team or two in C-USA.

With little production leaving the Lady Tops and most people coming back from a semi-disappointing season, expect the Lady Tops to be really solid in 2019–20. Hopefully, they’ll learn lessons from not really playing vicious defense last season and come out to prove something this season.

One thing is certain: Playing nearly historically awful defense won’t get anyone to the Promised Land.

Men’s Basketball Head Coach Rick Stansbury

A lot has happened of late in WKU Basketball, with Marek Nelson and Tolu Smith transferring seemingly out of nowhere. Now Stansbury and crew went back to Matt Horton, who immediately accepts his scholarship back at WKU after decommitting and accepting an offer in Division II early in the offseason.

At the HAF social each year, Rick generally goes through his entire team and talks about each of them. It’s impressive that he’s always got a thought on each player and remembers to mention them and understands each of their eligibility concerns, etc. Most coaches can’t or won’t do that. He did it this year, and of course, it was impressive again. Of note, they are still waiting on NCAA to grand or a waiver for Lipscomb transfer Kenny Cooper. That is a concern but we’ll wait and see before we announce the sky is falling at the point guard spot.

He went on for a good 20 minutes about his team, how valuable the fans are and what they do, and encouraged everyone to come to Diddle and to travel and watch the team wherever they go, especially when going somewhere close.

Stansbury also acknowledged the fact that WKU lost in the championship game for the second year in a row. To his credit, he acknowledged it as a complete disappointment, and he encouraged fans to keep up their expectations. In his words (paraphrased), “I embrace expectations. It’s better than having none. Look at how far we’ve come with the expectations of our fans. I wake up every morning thinking about championships.”

Well, then, Rick, it’s time to seal the deal, brother.

Overall Impression

Frankly, this particular social was a little less eventful than most. Sure, there were moments when people got fired up, bragging about beating Middle in women’s basketball, and they each took little potshots at each other. But was there one defining moment?

For me, the moment went to Tyson Helton. His words got me pretty fired up. Hearing that camp went better than he could have anticipated tells me whatever your expectations are for the season, be it zero to 12 wins or whatever, raise them up.

Anytime camp is that awesome means the potential has risen. Be skeptical if you want. You have every right to be, but look at all the missed opportunities last season and ask yourself, “How close was that team to being decent?” Pretty close, actually. WKU was potentially 16 more points (placed perfectly) from a 7–5 record.

How many decisions or calls could have been a little better? How many games did the Tops have leads? It’s not far-fetched to see small improvement with significant returns, and the Tops didn’t lose that much from last season. Set your expectations where you want, but this program is not going to be in the dumps for long.

Again, if you ever have the chance to go to one of these things, the food is good enough to warrant breaking even on your investment. Seeing coaches, admin, and people you know from games is just gravy, baby.

Let me step away from my unbiased media attempt here and say this:

Anyone with a pulse should be excited for the new year. It’s time to wash away bad memories and create some Topper magic that maybe we’ll never forget.

GO TOPS! BEAT UCA!

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Matt McCay

L&H agt @safeguardky. Husband to Steph. Daddy to Riley & Hailey. Member @destinychurchbg. @WKUFootball ‘14 #WKU BA ‘14 #WKU MS ‘17 #GOTOPS @TheTowelRackWKU