Coach Travis Hudson is the inspirational rock behind Western Kentucky volleyball

A year and a half ago, Travis Hudson sustained a widowmaker heart attack. Now, his Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are in the midst of the best season in program history. Western Kentucky Athletics

Western Kentucky volleyball's uncharacteristic exit in the first round of its conference tournament a year ago made for a long bus ride back from West Virginia to Bowling Green. Travis Hudson settled into his seat and pulled out a black spiral notebook he had bought before the trip.

The Hilltoppers coach doesn't fancy himself much of a writer, but he began to scribble down some thoughts. More than four hours later, when the bus pulled into campus, Hudson wasn't done. In fact, he was just getting started.

On paper, a 20-10 record requires no explanation for most programs. But Hudson's disappointment wasn't about results. It was about falling short of standards that he had introduced a quarter century ago when, at age 24, he was hired as the youngest coach in Division I.

One year after that bus ride, WKU is completing a different journey. The Hilltoppers, 31-1 and seeded 15th in the NCAA volleyball tournament, will host first- and second-round matches for the first time in program history. They open with Kennesaw State on Thursday, with that winner facing either Louisville or Samford.

Hudson's notebook is much thicker now. Indexed with yellow tabs, it goes where he does. But the roots of this story predate his first entry. They go back to the day before Easter in 2018.

The day he almost surely should have died.

'You got hit by lightning'

Lying on a table in a Bowling Green emergency room, Hudson fixed on the nurse's expression as he watched her attach sticky electrodes to his chest. She didn't look alarmed. He wasn't sure what caused the shortness of breath and throbbing pain radiating from his left arm during a drive to the hardware store. But he had no reason to suspect it was a heart attack.

Hudson had no family history of heart disease. A recent check confirmed his good cholesterol and low blood pressure. A fitness buff, he eats right. He was 47.

Flipping on the monitor changed the calm of the room.

"Within seconds, there were close to 10 people in there in a hurry," Hudson said.

A piece of plaque flaking off his artery had landed in the worst of places -- directly blocking the main valve that supplied blood to Hudson's heart. A "widowmaker" heart attack, among the deadliest kind, has just a 12% survival rate.

"You got hit by lightning," his doctor would later tell him.

"I have deep gratitude to this group of 13 kids ... They've reminded me why I wanted to do this in the first place." WKU coach Travis Hudson

An immediate procedure inserting a stent to support the artery saved his life. A few hours later, Hudson remembers the nurse in intensive care commenting, "Oh, wow! We usually don't see this kind up here."

"I'll never forget those words," he said. "They usually don't make it to ICU because they die."

Hudson embraces gratitude, especially because his heart attack scare wasn't his first brush with death.

In 2009, he received two opinions about a growth on his skin, both times dismissed as harmless. When it didn't go away, he persisted. Two days after a third doctor's visit, a surgeon removed a section of his shoulder. Had he waited even a few weeks longer, his doctor told him melanoma would have entered his bloodstream.

The following year, he and the Tops avoided disaster en route to Mobile, Alabama, for a match. The team's sleeper bus careened out of control on the highway when the driver, separated by a closed curtain, suffered a heart attack. The bus nearly crossed the median but veered back onto the right side of the road, still on cruise control.

Hudson hit the ceiling but crawled to the front, used his 6-foot-5 frame to splay over the deceased driver and steered the bus to safety with no players injured.

"Another miracle," he said.

Grateful to return

Returning to the sidelines was never in doubt for Hudson, especially after Western Kentucky's 2017 season, when the Hilltoppers came within three points of their first-ever Sweet 16 performance only to fall to sixth-ranked Kentucky.

In retrospect, maybe it should have been.

"I wasn't physically or maybe even mentally ready to return," Hudson said. "My thought was that my kids needed me there. In hindsight I wonder if I gave them what they needed. It was a struggle to get through the day from a fatigue standpoint and regulating medications. It was a foggy year."

Two starters left. Hudson nearly signed a top-50 recruit but it didn't pan out. Injuries mounted. Word that the school's most decorated player, 2017 graduate Alyssa Cavanaugh, had been diagnosed with leukemia affected even those who never met her.

"I blur out last year sometimes because it was so unlike the culture that Western Kentucky has," senior Emma Kowalkowski said. "My first two years, I loved being here. I loved everything it was about. Last year wasn't that way."

Added Hudson: "It was going to be a rebuilding, challenging year anyway. Then we had all of that. Our culture here is unique; it's one I've spent my whole career building. It wasn't close to the culture it had been in the past. We let some things slip and weren't committed to the things I want us to be about, and it showed."

Hudson never touched a volleyball prior to attending Western Kentucky, just a half hour away from his hometown, Bee Spring. He loved basketball but was better at football and visited a handful of schools officially, including Western Kentucky. Ultimately, he didn't receive any scholarship offers and was "too poor" to accept a walk-on opportunity, so he paid his way through college by combining student loans with multiple jobs -- nights as a hotel desk clerk and day jobs at a warehouse and Walmart.

A first-generation college graduate, he planned to be hands-on with wherever his management degree took him. He never dreamed that would be as volleyball coach at his alma mater. Hudson picked up the sport at a club level as a student and hit it off on the court with Jeff Hulsmeyer, then WKU's volleyball coach. Hulsmeyer, now associate head coach at Florida State, had no assistant at that time. Hudson offered to come to practice and shag balls.

"That's where it all started," said Hudson, hired for the full-time position in 1995.

It wasn't a major sport when he took over. In his first season, the Hilltoppers finished 7-26. Six seasons later, Hudson was Sun Belt Coach of the Year, the first of more than a dozen accolades for one of the most decorated fixtures in the sport. Five times the American Volleyball Coaches Association named him its South Regional Coach of the Year. This season marks the 20th consecutive year the Tops have won at least 20 games.

"Everybody knows Travis Hudson," said setter Nadia Dieudonne, a transfer from Xavier. "I remember thinking Western Kentucky was a school I thought I could never possibly play at the first time around."

Hudson cites six core values -- respect, trust, hard work, accountability, positivity and a team-before-me attitude -- behind WKU volleyball's culture, pillars that fell short last year. His initial notes in that black notebook included a page for each player and subsequent sections on communication, leadership, offense and defense. By the time the bus pulled off of Interstate 65, Hudson had immersed himself into the 2019 season.

Reconnecting with his players was pivotal. A retreat to a lake cabin offseason set the tone for the fall.

"The beautiful thing about being out there is that their phones don't get service," he said.

Every player has WKU notecards in her locker. He suggests they personally write notes of gratitude for even the smallest acts of kindness.

"Growing up, my dad made me write handwritten thank you notes after every official visit I took," Kowalkowski said. "I loved that Travis had his players do that. If anyone comes to mind for us to write a letter to, he'll mail it."

"I've mailed over 150 notecards in the last few months," Hudson said.

This NCAA tournament is also about savoring for Hudson. These Hilltoppers, who weren't picked to win the conference, are riding a 27-game win streak that includes a pair of victories over Rice, including one in Houston to secure the Conference USA title.

The trophies have become less important as the memories multiply.

"I'm proud of many things that have gone on here, but I'm proud of this season maybe more," Hudson said. "Nothing was given to this group. I've been able to find myself again and remember what has made this a special ride. That's something I have deep gratitude to this group of 13 kids for. They've reminded me why I wanted to do this in the first place."