Sunday, November 20, 2022

WAC Tournament Final Recap: SFA 3, Utah Valley 1

 Edinburg, TX - SFA Volleyball will return to the NCAA Volleyball Tournament for the third time in a five year span after the 'Jacks defeated the Wolverines of Utah Valley University in the 2022 WAC Tourney finale.  SFA finished off the match in four sets (25-12, 25-22, 20-25, 25-23) and was led by the tournament's most outstanding player Junior RS Ielan Bradley.  Bradley earned the official honor after following up her 18-kill semifinal performance with 17 more against Utah Valley while hitting a stratospheric .469 on 32 swings.  Freshman middle blocker Izabella Ortiz and junior libero Haley Hoang joined Ortiz on the All-Tournament team.

The 'Jacks started fast in the first set getting two kills by Bradley along with two Wolverine service errors to stake an early 5-2 lead.  When second setter and freshman Jayden Flynn and senior right side Payton Cerny made their first sub into the 'Jacks 6-2 offense they each made an instant impact.  In her first trip across the front row, Cerny had four kills to pad SFA's lead to 9-5.  The right-side offense and service pressure by the 'Jacks smothered the Wolverines as the set got out of hand after Hoang and freshman outside hitter Camryn Hill each went on long service runs.  When Hill was finally sided out by her own service error, the 'Jacks had completed a 8-3 run and held a 19-10 advantage in the set. Utah Valley would score only twice more in the runaway frame that saw the Wolverine setters only post three total assists.  SFA would win the first set 25-12 as Utah Valley was never able to consistently run their offense due the service pressure applied by SFA.

Set 2 was tighter as early in the set the teams were tied at all of 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8.  Two kills by Bradley, another by senior Ariana Pagan and a Utah Valley hitting error by right side Tori Dorius gave SFA the 12-10 advantage near the half-way point of the set.  After the Wolverines got a kill from Kalea Kennedy to get within one again, SFA went on a 5-1 run to open up some space behind the serving of Flynn.  Flynn continued her season long serving onslaught in the match running her yearly ace total all the way up to 48 by posting three total on the night.  The Flynn service hold got the score to 16-12 in favor of the 'Jacks. SFA's left side attack then began to balance out the massive offensive production from the right pin as both Pagan and Hill added terminations to up the score to 19-13. Utah Valley wasn't dead at that point as middle blocker Caleigh Vagana blocked two SFA attacks and squeezed in a kill of her own to bring the Wolverines to within two at 19-17. The teams traded left-side offense as Kazna Tanuvasa - who was held down in the first set - began to get hot, scoring multiple times down the stretch in Set 2.  With SFA clinging to a small two point lead at 22-20, Camryn Hill errored, but then SFA got two straight points on a Bradley kill and a Kennedy error.  That made it 24-21, but Tanuvasa got one last set kill before Bradley ended it to give the Ladyjacks a 2-0 lead at the long break.

Set 3 was also close throughout as Tanuvasa continued to put the Wolverines on her shoulders.  While she and Dorius got early kills in the set, Jayden Flynn again applied service pressure to build a 6-3 lead. When Flynn aced Freshman of the Year Avery Shewell for Utah Valley she was finally sent to the bench in favor of passing help from Haley Cuff.  Shewell would not return in the match and finished with just three total kills while hitting -.067.  The move to Cuff worked as Utah Valley knotted up the set at 8-8 and eventually took the lead by a score of 11-10 after a Pagan error was followed by another Tanuvasa strike.  During the middle of the set the teams traded mini-runs with four straight points by the Wolverines being countered by three straight for SFA. But then SFA got error prone as each of Bradley, Cerny and Ortiz missed on shots and Cuff got a kill to give Utah Valley a lead with the score 20-16. The Wolverine lead swelled to six as each of Kennedy, Tanuvasa and middle blocker Makayla Broadbent threw down kills. That made the score 23-17 and while SFA would add on a few more tallies from Wolverine service errors, the third frame ended with another Kennedy kill - her final total on the night ending at 8.

With the set score at 2-1, Set 4 saw SFA come right back and apply some early pressure creating a 7-3 early lead behind two kills from Bradley and one a piece from each of Hill and Cerny. Broadbent brought Utah Valley back with strong serving to get the SFA lead down to one, 8-7.  Utah Valley continued to rebound tying the score at 9-9, 10-10 and again at 11-11 using kills from Dorius and Vagana. A 'Jacks service error and a Utah Valley ace by libero Bryton Nixon gave Utah Valley the lead briefly at 13-11. SFA fought back with another Bradley winner and focing Tanuvana to error getting the score even at 13.  The serving of Flynn, then Hill and finally Ortiz each held just long enough to allow the 'Jacks to create some space earning a 19-15 lead. Cuff got a kill and block assist to bring Utah Valley closer, but Pagan got SFA first to 20 in the set with her 10th and final kill of the match.  Pagan then served the 'Jacks to a 23-19 lead all while Wolverine star outside hitter Kazna Tanuvasa got stuck in the back row. A Tori Dorius kill finally got Tanuvasa to click around to front left with the score 23-20.  Dorius struck again and then Utah Valley found Tanuvasa for a kill and the Wolverines were within one.  With the score 23-22, the 'Jacks found Ielan Bradley on the right pin to gain match point.  Bradley tried to end it in the next rally but was stuff blocked by Tanuvasa and Vagana.  At 24-23, Camryn Hill was able to end a back-and-forth rally by glancing a shot off the left side Wolverine block that fell just outside the sideline to seal the Ladyjack win 25-23 and the match three sets to one.

Overall, SFA hit .252 and Utah Valley hit .211.  SFA out-blocked the Wolverines 11-9 and held a narrow total kill count edge at 55-50.  Each team had five aces.  In addition to Bradley's 17 kills, SFA got 11 from Cerny, 10 from Pagan and seven from Ortiz.  Hoang and Pagan led in digs with 11 and ten, respectively.  Ortiz' six blocks were a match high on either side.  Utah Valley got 16 kills from Tanuvasa and eight a piece from Kennedy and Dorius.  Setter Abbie Miller posted a double-double with 19 assists and a team high 13 digs.

SFA will await their opponent in the 2022 NCAA Tournament which will be announced at 6:30 PM CT on the NCAA Selection Show which will air on Sunday, November 27.  When the 'Jacks travel for their first round match-up it will be the Ladyjacks eighth appearance in the Big Dance over their team history.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

WAC Tournament Semifinal Recap: SFA 3, Grand Canyon 1

 Edinburg, TX - A scrappy floor defensive effort from the SFA Ladyjacks propelled the club into the 2022 WAC Tournament Finals with a four set semifinal win over Grand Canyon on Friday night.  SFA saw four players post double-figures in digs with senior Ariana Pagan leading the way with 22 scoops.  The second four set win of the season over the 'Lopes runs the 'Jacks overall season mark to 25-4.  In addition to the fierce back row play, SFA out-blocked Grand Canyon 10-7 and also won the battle in totals kills tallying 65 to the 'Lopes 53.

The 'Jacks played from behind in the majority of the first set as GCU's Ashley Lifgren got hot early and caused problems for SFA from the left side.  Behind four early kills from Lifgren and two from fellow outsider hitter Tatum Parrott, GCU built an early 10-7 lead.  SFA would play from two or three behind for several more rallies until an ace by the 'Jacks Jayden Flynn and a kill by teammate freshman Izabella Ortiz would knot the score at 15-15. But then Flynn errored on a serve and Ortiz errored on attack to give the 'Lopes the lead right back.  SFA answered and tied the score at 18 and then at that point a side-out game ensued seeing the set scores tied at each of 19, 20 and 21.   Parrott then errored for GCU and SFA senior middle blocker Kelsey Harrington knocked down a key kill to get the score in favor of the 'Jacks at 23-21.  Grand Canyon answered once more getting a termination from right side hitter Melanie Brecka before tying the score on a Parrott ace. Ielan Bradley and Camryn Hill would get the final two kills of the set however, as SFA survived the first set with a minimum two point advantage winning 25-23.

The second set again saw Grand Canyon build and maintain a small lead early on. Midway through the set a GCU kill by middle blocker Hannah Eskes gave the 'Lopes a four point lead at 13-9. The 'Jacks would cut it to two several times during the middle of the set but then a Pagan service error was followed by an attack that couldn't find the rectangle and that gave GCU their four point advantage back at 18-14. Camryn Hill got a kill that allowed Haley Hoang to go on one of her many service runs in the match including an ace that got the Ladyjacks the lead back with the score 19-18. The teams then traded mini-runs ending with GCU rattling off three straight to regain the lead by a score of 21-19. After a Brecka error was followed up by a kill, the 'Jacks then ran off four straight points of their own to earn the first set point in the second frame getting up 24-22. GCU forced extras with a Lifgren kill being followed up by an Ortiz error.  Then, Ortiz redeemed herself getting SFA their second set point of Set 2 by thundering down a kill that made the score 25-24.  Tatum Parrott then kicked in two straight winners to give GCU a set point that was denied by a Pagan kill that tied the score once again at 26-26.  The final two points of the long second set would go to the 'Lopes as Parrott again rattled a kill down and then an Ielan Bradley shot was too long allowing GCU to even the set score at 1-1.

Set 3 began with Grand Canyon getting off to a 4-2 lead before SFA went on a 9-4 run that contained five straight points off the serving of Hoang once again. During the run, SFA got five right side kills - three coming from Bradley and two from senior Payton Cerny. The set see-sawed back and forth and included 11 tied scores overall to go along with five lead changes.  Hill held serve while Cerny added two more kills to get the 'Jacks first to 20 with the score 20-17.  After GCU got kills from Brecka and Parrott the third set ended with SFA finishing on a 5-1 run that saw the set come to a close with a Maddy Bourque ace to give SFA a 2-1 set advantage.

Much like she did in the first set, Ashley Lifgren started off the fourth set hot for GCU.  Lifgren finished with a season high 20 kills on 58 swings while hitting .241.  Her three early kills gave GCU the 5-3 advantage, but then Camryn Hill served SFA on a 5-0 run to take the lead 8-5.  The rest of the way, SFA would never again trail, but a tandem block by the 'Lopes Annabelle Kubinki and Hope Hanak-Harper, who had been inserted for the error prone Brecka got GCU within one with score 11-10 in favor of the 'Jacks. Another run by SFA followed, with Hoang leading the service line charge once again and the Ladyjacks lead build to 16-11.  Down the stretch, Payton Cerny was in on two blocks on Parrott to get SFA first to 20 and then the 'Jacks polished off the set and the match on a 4-0 run started by a Bradley kill and ended with a Hoang ace - her fifth of the contest.

Overall in the four set (25-23, 26-28, 25-20, 25-18) win, Pagan posted a double-double with 11 kills to go along with the aforementioned 22 digs.  Setter Maddy Bourque also posted a double-double dishing out 27 assists while scooping 10 balls.  Freshman Camryn Hill posted a career and season high 20 digs and the 'Jacks season scoring leader Bradley hit .310 while throwing down 18 kills.  Cerny was errorless posting 11 kills in her 29 swings (.379).  Izabella Ortiz went over 100 blocks for the year with her five rejections paired up with 12 kills while hitting .333.  Overall, SFA hit .240 and held the 'Lopes to .192.  

SFA will face off with #4 seeded Utah Valley who swept host and #1 seed UTRGV in the other semifinal match.  First serve on Saturday between the 'Jacks and Wolverines is slated for 7:00 PM with a radio broadcast available at this blog starting at the top of the hour.  The winner of the SFA/Utah Valley match will earn the WAC automatic bid into the 2022 NCAA Volleyball Championship Tournament.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

WAC Tournament Quarterfinal Recap: SFA 3, CBU 0

 Edinburg, TX - After a slow start in the opening moments of the first set, SFA Volleyball found their stride and never looked back en route to a three set sweep over #7 seed California Baptist University.  Junior right-side hitter and first-team WAC All-Conference selection Ielan Bradley led the way with eleven kills on 18 swings against only two errors posting an even .500 attack percentage for the match.  At times, especially in the final two sets, the Ladyjack front line was smothering of the Lancer attack posting a total of 10 team blocks for match, seven of which were assisted by senior Kelsey Harrington. Fellow middle blocker Izabella Ortiz showed why she was an All-WAC Freshman selection by downing six balls on seven swings while also rejecting three Lancer attacks.  But the highlight of Ortiz' evening was a service run in the middle of the second set that saw her attempt nine serves before CBU could finally side her and the 'Jacks out.  From that point forward, SFA was on cruise control and posted a .293 attack percentage overall while holding the Lancers to just .075.

SFA found themselves behind by five in the first set with score 10-5 in favor of CBU. Bradley and freshman Camryn Hill committed two errors a piece within the matches first eight rallies.  Slowly throughout the middle of the first set the SFA offense found its stride. Behind a kill and then block by Ortiz, two Harrington kills and one each from Bradley and senior Ariana Pagan, the 'Jacks got to within one with the score 11-10 in favor of CBU.

The Ladyjacks took their first lead of the match at 15-14 signaling the media time out and from that point on, CBU never led again in the match.  The Lancers committed a whopping seven service errors in the first set - their grand total on the night - to aid in the 'Jacks comeback.  Leading up the media timeout, Ortiz posted three more kills and a block.  The service game for CBU got particularly bad at that point in Set 1 and amidst it,  junior setter Maddy Bourque dropped in one of her three aces on the night and the 'Jacks built a four point lead at 21-17.  The set ended with SFA getting a kill each from a trio of pin hitters - Pagan, Hill and Bradley and went up one set to none after Pagan's ace ended the first frame with the score 25-17.

The second set was a complete runaway as SFA committed only one attack error and hit .455. After a Payton Cerny kill gave SFA a sizeable lead at 11-5, Ortiz stepped back to serve for the first time in the set. Ortiz proceeded to serve nine straight times to build the lead to 19-5 before CBU's Laura Walewska and Anna Jackson finally stopped the bleeding with a block on Pagan.  Cerny put down another kill and SFA had scored 20 points in its first full six rotations around the floor.  Soon after, a Pagan ace made it 22-9 and the 'Jacks polished off the set with a kill by Bradley and a CBU bad set to make the final score 25-10 giving SFA a 2-0 set lead at the intermission.

The 'Jacks onslaught wasn't done as they scored the first four points of Set 3 on three Lancer attack errors.  A Jayden Flynn ace - her 43rd of the season - ran the score to 8-2 and the rest of the way CBU would get no closer than four as the 'Jacks cashed in on 16 kills in the set while hitting .310.  Bradley came alive in the final frame terminating seven of her 11 match kills in the third with several of them down the stretch in the matches' final rallies.

Overall, behind Bradley's 11, SFA was led by Ariana Pagan with eight winners and Ortiz and Cerny finished with six each.  Five Ladyjacks hit over .300 in the offensive takedown and SFA out-slugged CBU 40-26 in the match kill tally.  The defense for SFA was also strong with WAC Libero of the Year Haley Hoang scooping a match high 13 digs to up her season tally to 513.  Maddy Bourque finished with 17 assists and moved into 9th place all-time at SFA in career assists with her total now standing at 1559.  Jayden Flynn finished one dig shy of a double-double posting 11 assists and nine digs.

SFA returns to action in the WAC Volleyball Tournament semifinals on Friday at 4:00 PM CT against #3 seed Grand Canyon.  The Lopes are one of the hottest teams in the nation having swept their last seven matches including their semifinal win against #6 seeded New Mexico State.  Earlier this season, SFA defeated GCU in Nacogdoches by a set score of 3-1.  The winner of the SFA/GCU match will take on the victor in the other semifinal which pits #4 Utah Valley against host and #1 seed UTRGV.  Radio for the Ladyjacks match against the Lopes kicks off just a few minutes before 4:00 PM Friday.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Honoring Players is Always Good: A Look at 2022 WAC All-Conference Teams

I'm a big fan of the concept that what other people do well never takes away from your own strengths.  Giving other people recognition that they deserve never diminishes any contribution you might make.  Said another way, it's rarely - if ever - about you.

For 11 years in this space - and while Stephen F. Austin was in the Southland Conference - I created my own version of the Southland All-Conference Teams and released them before the official lists were published.  These posts were often my most read of the year and they almost always led to conversations among people both here at SFA and around the league.  My musings about HOW all-conference teams can, should, and might be constructed is well chronicled in the archives of this site.  You can click the "2019" link in the right sidebar and easily find the post to the 11th and final rendition of my Southland All-Conference picks.  I'll make you click instead of linking because the point is that those days are done and new days and new conferences are upon us.  But, the concept of conferences publishing "all-conference" lists remains.

In the WAC, coaches are asked for nominations. Then, those players that are nominated are voted upon by these same coaches and from the rankings submitted, the all-conference lists are formed.  I've long frowned on the "nomination" phase of this process, but I understand why it is done.  This years' WAC All-Conference teams were announced yesterday and in case you missed it, Stephen F. Austin was well represented.  Our own Haley Hoang won Libero of the Year and was listed as a second team all-conference selection along with Ariana Pagan.  Ielan Bradley was named to the first team and our young guns Izabella Ortiz and Jayden Flynn made the All-Freshman team.  All, of course, were excited and I've already posted reactions with Ielan and Haley earlier today.  See the sidebar for the list of recent interviews.

Honoring players is always good.  But, there's more than one way to do it and I'm not sure it can be proven that one way is superior to another.  Oh, I've tried to make that argument.  Again, search through the pages of the blog if you dare. I've tried to construct logic for how I always made all of those old Southland lists in this space.  My main observation has always been this: the lists are not teams - not teams in the truest sense of the word.  I'm not the only one that this bothers, but again, I understand the way that many conferences do this and I'm done trying to convince others that one way is better than another.  Instead, the spirit of this and all future posts like it is simply to champion the idea that honoring players is always good and that there is more than one way to do that.

Here's some tallies for you:  Of the 11 athletes recognized on the official WAC First Team All-Conference list there were five outside hitters, four right-side hitters and two setters.  Were they really good choices?  Yes, of course.  There are 11 great volleyball players on that list.  But, it isn't a "team".  There were no middle blockers and no liberos on the official first team.  To some (my phone actually semi-blew up to be honest) this seems to slight these other positions.  The second team fit the bill a little better: four outside hitters, one right side, three middle blockers, a setter and two liberos.

So, our grand tally among the 22 official honorees:  nine outside hitters, five right side hitters, three middle blockers, three setters and two liberos.

Of the 13 WAC Volleyball programs, eight predominantly ran a 6-2 offense and five used one setter in most matches.  So, the majority of our league used two setters and six hitters alongside a libero.  Suppose that we stick with 11 players honored as "First Team All Conference" and another 11 honored as "Second Team All-Conference", but required there to be two outside hitters, two right side hitters, two middle blockers, two setters and a libero on EACH team.  The final two slots on each team could be any position, because at that point you'd have the typical usage of a team running a 6-2 covered.  Get the idea? So, what I am trying to do here is to create an all-conference team that is actually a "team" - actually a team that could play in a collegiate volleyball match in their natural positions and run the offense most popular in our conference at present.

Now, the lists below are not simply a rearrangement of the official conference lists.  They are my personal choices for first and second team honors but under the restrictions mentioned in the paragraph above.  Last year, I didn't go through this exercise primarily because I didn't actually see each team in our new league live (because of divisional play).  This year, I called a match that involved each team in the WAC at least once - sometimes more than once.  

So, I guess this is my "1st Annual SFA VolleyBlog All-WAC Teams" the way that I did this for 11 years in the Southland.  Next year, maybe I'll title the post with "2nd Annual", but if I do it again, I'll definitely publish it before the official lists.  I had already done all the research for this post before the official lists were posted, but it just gives added reduction of bias to my picks if I publish them the day before the official lists appear.  Believe it or not, but in the Southland I got accused once or twice of actually influencing the voters because I would publish the lists before the coaches turned their rankings in.  I found that claim absurd, but started publishing the list the day before the league announced the real winners so that the voting would clearly be over.

You probably can tell from reading this:  I have a lot of thoughts on lists like this and one theory I squarely adhere to is that these are NOT team awards.  Just because a team does well does NOT imply it should have a certain number or even necessarily more representation than other schools.  Great players from teams with poor records should still be recognized if worthy.  This is one shortcoming I notice on basically every conference's lists - the teams down in the standings too often get completely shut out.  Now, there isn't room for every school usually, but again, I see no need to shut players out just because they play for a team down in the standings.

Here's my personal set of "teams" (2 OH, 2 RS, 2 MB, 2 S, one L required, plus 2 extra).  Below the lists are some honorable mentions, because again.. honoring players is always good.

Greg's First Team WAC All-Conference Actual TEAM

OH Sarah Cruz, UTRGV (My pick for Player of Year)
OH Brianna Ford, UTA
RS Ielan Bradley, SFA
RS Christine Graf, CBU
MB Izabella Ortiz, SFA
MB Allie Hair, Tarleton
S Luanna Emiliano, UTRGV (My pick for Setter of Year)
S Klaire Mitchell, GCU
L Haley Hoang (My pick for Libero of Year)
OH Molly Johnson, NM State
OH Tatum Parrott, GCU (My pick for Freshman of Year)

Greg's Second Team WAC All-Conference Actual TEAM

OH Kazna Tanuvasa, Utah Valley
OH Avery Shewell, Utah Valley
RS Tori Dorius, Utah Valley
RS Whittnee Nihipali, Utah Tech
MB Makayla Broadbent, Utah Valley
MB Lia Mosher, NM State
S Taela Laufiso, Utah Tech
S Macy Short, Southern Utah
L Hannah Baker, Sam Houston
MB Luisa Silva Dos Santos, UTRGV
OH Ariana Pagan, SFA

Others that get an "honorable" mention because "honoring" players is always good:

OH: Katie Birtcil (NM State), Grayson Schirpik (Tarleton), Arianna Bilby (Seattle), Makenzie Templeton (Southern Utah)

RS: Payton Cerny (SFA), Breanna McDonough (Tarleton), Melanie Brecka (GCU)

MB: Kate Hardy (Utah Tech), Margherita Giani (UTRGV), Madison Dyer (Sam Houston), Meredith Fisher (UTA)

Setters:  Many 6-2 Setters could be here.  I found them very tough to parse through.

Libero: Mykenna Nelson, Utah Tech