Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Ladjyacks Setting a Fast Pace in 2022

Entering WAC play, Stephen F. Austin Ladyjack Volleyball is 12-1.  This ties for the best 13 match start in program history.  If you've been around these parts for a few years, then you know the last time the team started this fast.  If not, go look up the historic 2019 club that went 31-2 losing only to Arkansas State in Match #8 and USC in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

Truth be told, the 2022 club is still a long way from channeling 2006 or 2019 vibes.  But the current team has set a fast pace and this break between pre-conference and conference play gives us a chance to examine the statistical arcs for the counting stats for each of our starters.  Before we get to far into this, I should clarify that I do not expect everyone on this list to hit their "pace" or projected 2022 final season stats.  Doing so would be unrealistic.  Minor (and major) injuries do happen, as do illnesses and at times players need rest for one reason or another.  But, this is an exercise in looking forward at what type of pace these players are on and as you will see - if some of these statistical patterns continue - we will be talking about new career highs and even a few new entries in the Ladyjack record book.

Let's go around the court and look at what the season statistical paces are for the key counting stats at each position entering conference play.  First, a small bit about the methodology here.  The math isn't hocus-pocus.  We are mainly talking about just arithmetic here, but I did have to project how many total sets the team would play this season.  When I just straight extrapolated from the number or sets we have played per match so far I got a projected season total of 106 sets.  When I individually guessed using my super-duper announcer, blogger insider volleyball brain, I got 107.  Ok, that made me feel satisfied that I was in the ballpark, so all of what you see below assumes 106 total sets played this year.  To get to this number, I also had to estimate the number of postseason matches we would play.  I factored in three such matches.  Last year, we played four:  two in the WAC tournament and two in the NIVC.  So, if anything, I may be conservative on my set totals which for an exercise in numbers such as this is probably a better strategy than assuming too much.  For the record, SFA played 103 sets last year.  Enough with that.  Put the math in the background.  On to the numbers, please:

Ariana Pagan.  On pace for 267 kills, 246 digs and 25 aces.

This would leave her career marks at 664 kills and 1146 digs which is nothing to sneeze at.  If Pagan even sniffs 200 kills it will represent a career high.  Previously, her best offensive season stands at 166 kills.  She's at 116 right now.  So, this will probably go down as the best offensive season of her career.  I'll take the under on the total kill count as I expect something more in the 220-240 range.  It is reasonable to expect Pagan to wear down just a bit as the season goes on and some of her offense translate off to others.  However, one good sign is that she still produced big numbers all during the heavy weekend portion of the schedule.  Now that we have settled into two matches a week, she should get proper rest and be strong for each match.  She's very vigilant about things such as this, so all the numbers above are still a distinct possibility.  I just think the offense will trail off ever so slightly, but a 200/200 season for Pagan seems legitimate and would be a huge contribution.  Her final numbers won't place her in the record books at SFA, but she will certainly be remembered as one of the more consistent players to wear purple.  She's the only current player that truly has been instrumental to the club ALL four of her years on the team.  If she posts 250 kills and 250 digs she'll probably be the viewed as the team MVP.

Leah Powell. On pace for 283 kills, 264 digs and 36 aces.

Wow.  If these numbers are even approximate to what Powell finishes with then the level of improvement here is truly profound.  Powell has always been a threat offensively since the first time she stepped on the court as a freshman, but all the numbers above would represent career highs.  So, there is clearly only one conclusion:  Powell is currently playing the best volleyball of her career.  It's scary what the end of this year might be along with 2023 if she continues to develop.  Personally, I think we are looking at an "All-WAC" recognition for Leah at the end of the year.  The advances in her passing, floor defense and serving are huge.  She's clearly a six-rotation stud at this point as she did everything she needed to do in the last calendar year to shore up her floor responsibilities.  I've been very impressed with her floor defense during the first half of this season.  She is so much better at reading attackers, positioning, setting her platform and contributing to in-rally defense.  Then, consider this:  Powell had 9 aces total in her career coming into this season.  She didn't regularly serve.  Now, she is tied for the team lead in aces with 16.  Powell isn't just a good player - she's a great player and she looks primed to blow past all her career highs and don't sleep on a 300/300 season.  I'm believing every one of the projected numbers above and might even take the over on a few.  It may be close, but it's probably better than 50/50 odds she joins the 1000 kills club next year - a high honor.

Ielan Bradley.  On pace for 320 kills and 76 blocks.

Did I call this or what? In my positional preview article at the beginning of the year, I wrote "dreaming on 225 kills with 70 blocks while hitting over .250 is where my mind it with Bradley".  Well, in addition to the projections above she is currently hitting .341.  Now, THAT's a breakout.  Bradley's dominance is as much a reason for our 12-1 start as any other you could come up with.  She's on pace for nearly 100 kills more than I predicted at the start of the season while hitting 90 points higher.  Now, .341 is VERY high, so I wouldn't be surprised to see that number come down just a tick, but if Bradley stays healthy she will take the biggest steps forward of any returning player in 2022.  You're looking at pure dominance and you might be looking at the top right side attacker in the WAC.  I think everyone knows her name now.  On pace for first team All-WAC.

Payton Cerny.  On pace for 216 kills and 35 blocks.

The offense from Cerny so far is pretty much at the same pace as 2021, if not slightly ahead.  We've seen flashes of her ability to take over a match offensively, most recently the 15 kill, .591 performance last weekend against Eastern Washington.  She doesn't have to carry as much of the offensive load now primarily because of the three athletes we've already projected.  The block numbers are down in 2022 as her career clip is 0.56 blocks/set and right now she stands at 0.38. She tallied 63 blocks last year and 52 the year before so it will be interesting to see if she steps up at the net during WAC play the rest of the season.  But, over 200 kills is a plenty fine contribution as is hitting .310, which is 30 points higher than her career average of .279 coming into play this week.  All in all, it looks like another solid season brewing for Cerny and if Bradley hits 300 kills while all of Pagan, Powell and Cerny go over 200 then the offense will have had a strong showing.  I expect ups and downs with occasional dominant outbursts and I'll take the over on the final block projection above.

Kelsey Harrington.  On pace for 64 blocks.

SFA doesn't use it's current middle blockers to generate a ton of offense, so what is important for Harrington and Ortiz is that they are highly efficient on offense and touch a lot of balls at the net on defense.  Harrington is hitting .347 in a very limited numbers of attacks and that number is right in line with her career percentage of .335.  The 64 blocks would be a career high after having posted 54 last year.  The fact that Kelsey is healthy, swinging well, getting just enough sets to keep the opposition honest and blocking 0.72 balls per set is getting the job done.  She had a couple block outbursts last year so eclipsing 70 blocks isn't out of the question.  She's steady, prepared and a positive influence on the players around her.  She's giving us what we need.

Izabella Ortiz. On pace for 101 blocks.

Well now wouldn't 100 blocks be a great freshman season?  Like Harrington, SFA only needs enough offense from Bella to keep the opposition aware.  She is hitting .331 and already has a team leading 44 blocks which is good for just shy of one per set.  If she continues to play in the back half of the year the way she did in the first half then how could anyone complain about her inaugural season?  I think with Bradley exploding and Powell becoming a complete six-rotation hitter and Pagan posting double-doubles every three matches, Ortiz's contribution has been slightly overlooked.  The veteran's scoring tallies are creating a really comfortable environment in which Ortiz can work.  Hitting over .300 in 350-400 attacks and blocking near 100 balls as a freshman?  You don't need me to tell you that will play.  When you stop and consider the efficiency of our middles and combine it with all the numbers we've already gone over from the pins, it is really a bright sign of how far our offense has come in such a short period of time.  When the season started, the defense was ahead of the offense.  But, I think over the last three weeks the offense has started to catch up.  Ortiz is at 1.52 kills per set.  That's an average of 6 kills per four set match.  If she and Harrington kill 10-12 balls total a night and hit over .300 then that's more than enough offensive production there.

Haley Hoang.  On pace for 604 digs and 28 aces.

Wouldn't that be cool?  A 600 dig season!  Read this carefully.  That's only been done six times in SFA Volleyball history.  The last libero to get close was Maddie Miller with 595 in that amazing 2019 season already referenced.  Of all the numbers in this article, this is the pace that I am most interested to follow.  Honestly, I just can't see it happening and that's no slight to Hoang.  She has been fantastic and the whole conference knows it.  She's won WAC Defensive Player of the week three of the four weeks we've been playing.  She's on a Libero of the Year pace, but I think it's reasonable to believe the 5.70 digs per set rate would dip a bit.  That's an astronomically high rate to maintain for 30+ matches.  An even five digs per set is a stellar clip.  If she finishes the back half of the season at 5.00 digs/set, then she'd finish with 562 digs which would be the 11th highest mark in school history.  So, I think really the issue here is whether or not we are looking at a Top 10 record book performance.  She'll need 564 to enter the record books in the Top 10 seasons list.  Any way you slice it, Haley Hoang has been the answer in the libero jersey.  Right now, she's digging balls at a level that puts her among the national leaders.  That's too much to expect to continue.  But wow.. a 600 dig pace!  Amazing.  She's been a revelation.  You know how I LOVE back row and it's been a joy to watch her operate back there.

Maddy Bourque.  On pace for 612 assists and 30 aces.

It surprised me to learn that BOTH of these would represent career highs.  Last year, Bourque had 506 assists and she had 27 aces in her freshman year.   Honestly, I think Bourque can and will play better in the back half of the season than she has in the first half.  Clearly, we are exploring with which setter will start off on the floor against which opponents and at what points in the match, but even if Bourque were to become the second setter in the 6-2, she'd still be on pace to have her best statistical season so far.  So, this whole exercise of projections actually made me feel better about Maddy than any other player that is a regular starter for us.  If she meets the above projection and then repeats it next year, she would have a career total of 2181 assists. The "2000" tally for setters is often a measure of a solid, consistent collegiate career.  You see that particular number recognized around the country from time to time. Now, the 5-1 setters wind up at the top of the record books, but you might be interested to learn that if Bourque finishes with over 2000 career assists she'll rank either seventh or eighth all-time at SFA.  That's a darn good career.  Given I really do think she's got more in the tank and additional steps to take, thinking of her as a Top 10 career setter in Ladyjack history is perfectly reasonable for me.

Jayden Flynn. On pace for 541 assists, 246 digs and 37 aces.

I'm gonna keep this one short and sweet.  If Flynn is even in the stratosphere of those numbers as a final tally to her freshman season then we got a STEAL in bringing her to Nacogdoches.  She has been way, way, way better than I ever imagined.  The weekend at Southern Miss is where it tripped for me.  She was all-tournament there and easily deserved it.  She was the setter of the tournament.  For all that to come together just three weeks into your collegiate career is impressive to say the least.  I'm holding my breath because she really hasn't hit that "rough first-year patch" yet.  If she keeps this up, then we are going really far in the postseason.  Just keep doing exactly what you are doing kid because it's blowing us all away.

Winning 12 of 13 matches is a great early season accomplishment.  It sets the bar high for the conference portion of the season.  Some of the above paces won't be maintained, but some of them might be.  In virtually all cases above, there is either a veteran performing at a career-best pace or a freshman exceeding her young expectations.  All in all, it points to another strong season for the Ladyjacks.  Just how good, just how many wins and just how far this team goes are all things worth anticipating.  We should all be grateful.  It sure beats being 1-12 and looking at the conference slate with dread.  There are a lot of teams that don't know what they have at this point in the year.  But, we have definitive empirical evidence that this team is good, possibly even very good.  Waiting and watching to see if it will be great is fun place to be starting WAC play.

And yes.. we'll revisit these numbers at the end of the season to see if my "under" and "over" hunches were on point or if the paces established half way through held up. For now, enjoy the ride.  This is a fantastic time to be an SFA Volleyball fan.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Old, Unique, and Loud: Reflections on Shelton Gym

I have written versions of this article dozens of times in my head.  Depending upon what emotion was surging through my brain at the time, the words in this ever edited post have ebbed and flowed in my mind throughout the years.  Shelton Gym, the inanimate object that it is, has elicited many feelings in me throughout the years running from disdain to elation.  However, as I reflect on volleyball in Shelton, three things bubble to the surface: that place is old, it is unique and man, is it loud.

Shelton Gym was the home of Lumberjack and Ladyjack basketball from 1951-1974.  There was no volleyball at SFA during that period and while I’m not old enough to have ever seen it in its basketball only state, I have heard plenty of stories.  Colleagues and townspeople have communicated the tales of lines wrapping all the way around the building multiple times while fans waited to buy tickets and enter.  On the weekend nights when it hosted a rivalry game, it was the feature place in town, the center of the campus and packed with students and members of the community thigh to thigh on the bleachers.  Believe it or not, there used to be windows at the top and on the sides of Shelton Gym and it hasn’t always just had seating above the floor.  Old photographs show the evidence of stands right off the side of the basketball court and then stair stepping all the way up to narrow rectangular windows where the sticker banners for volleyball are affixed now.

To hear the stories from the 1960’s and 1970’s during the early 2000’s would put you in disbelief.  That old place?  Once the sports mecca of East Texas?  Hardly, I thought.  I’d listen to the old-timers talk about missing most of the first half still standing in line or folks camping out hours before game time just to get a good seat.  I’d always leave the conversation thinking their memories were stronger than reality.  I had walked through Shelton Gym after arriving on campus in 1997.  I was a brash, young assistant professor focused almost entirely on my research and earning a good teaching reputation.  I could then and can now peer down on the top of Shelton from my academic office.  I’d look at it and just see a big rectangular piece of concrete fit for yoga classes and old ladies doing arm circles at ‘Senior Sneakers’ days.  You could barely see from one side of the gym to the other.  Dark, dingy, and if you got to the right corners and crevices, you’d probably be greeted with a rodent or two snacking on thirty year old popcorn dropped by some co-ed watching the ‘Jacks take on Sul Ross.  To me, at that time, Shelton Gym had no allure at all.

SFA Volleyball had called musty Shelton home from the inception of the program until 1999.  During 1999, the team played a few games in Johnson Coliseum.  I had a toddler son at the time and I attended a few of those matches with him to give my wife a break from the evening routine.  I had a few players in my classes during the 1999 season and they had invited me.  Those few matches at the end of the millennium spurred me on to become a regular attendee.  The club advertised it was moving “full-time” to Johnson Coliseum for the 2000 season and I wondered why they had not been playing there for years.  No matter, I was enjoying watching volleyball and sitting among the parents and fans with my son.  It was fun.  I caught the fever of “SFA Volleyball Family”, but I knew very little about the game at that time.  You know the type:  The person who knows just enough about a sport to be an armchair quarterback but otherwise their limited knowledge is dangerous.  That was me in spades.

For a good five or six years, I attended every home match.  I got to know Debbie Humphreys, her husband Richard and her two kids.  The oldest, Regan, was close to the same age as my son Jacob.  Little did I know that roughly a dozen years later they would graduate in the same class at Central Heights High School with Regan a standout setter and my Jacob the first baseman on the state championship baseball team.  I’d go to matches, talk with players, sit among parents, yell at referees about calls I really did not understand and have a blast. Like now, I’d eat too much popcorn.  I think everyone knows I love popcorn.

Then, after SFA brought back it’s baseball program and I got the job as their public address announcer at Jaycees Field, an opportunity to announce for volleyball emerged. I began working for SFA Volleyball in 2006. I guess I picked a good year as that is one of the dates that lives in Ladyjack history.  That year, SFA won its first, and to date only, NCAA Tournament game against Alabama.  At the end of the regular season, we had senior night in the Coliseum and Coach Humphreys invited me to the reception.  At one point in her address to the attendees she acknowledged my energy on the microphone and felt like some stability had been reached in the public address role.  In previous years, random students would do it with little emotion and often stumble over names and speak too softly.  While surely not perfect, I was confident, prepared, and energetic.  The players, coaches and fans seemed to enjoy the aggressive approach and many of them already knew me from past years’ attendance.  I had broken in and was determined to continue to do a respectable job.

This blog came along in 2009.  The first several years were an adventure.  This was a period was I was really growing in the game. But, at times I would get overconfident and write something completely stupid.  Debbie and I joke about that phase now, but I guess we all still do that from time to time.  There is always plenty to learn and most of us make the mistake of thinking we know more than what we do.  That sort of thing is especially true in sports where everyone has to always be an expert.

During the 2010 season a rumor began to circulate.  This was the last year for volleyball in the Coliseum and we were moving BACK to Shelton Gym in 2011.  Everyone was talking about it so positively.  Coaches, athletic staff, players – they all smiled when they said it.  Now, I have to admit that my first response was extreme disappointment.  I became the Shelton Gym contrarian.  I had enjoyed five seasons working with a strong sound system in this big arena where my voice would bounce off the 7000 plus seats forcefully.  The acoustics were good, the music and sounds clear and discernable.  Now, I was going to call games in that rat hole, I thought?  What are they thinking?  Why do they want to play THERE?  I thought about it far too selfishly, and….


I could not see what was around the bend.  I did not understand what was about to happen and how it was going to transform the fan experience on game day.  I was blinded by my own role and could not see the greater picture.  I’ve learned from that selfishness.  Things in athletics are far more enjoyable – even in the tough times, if you’ll take a wider view of “team” – a more comprehensive look at the greater good.  I wasn’t mature enough in the game to think that way in 2010, but yet I already was entrusted with a decent amount of responsibility and surprisingly, people were reading what I wrote.  I was getting to know a lot of people in the Southland Conference:  coaches, other teams’ players, officials, league office staff.  My preparedness and energy were outpacing my volleyball IQ, but by now, I was more than broken in.  I was entrenched and I just could not see moving to Shelton as the thing to do.

The 2010 season had been a downer.  The club went 12-19.  Only a five set win against Lamar on the final day of the Southland Conference regular season was able to salvage a positive after the team came into that game riding a six match losing streak.  We seemed so far from 2006.  I had little anticipation for the 2011 Shelton Gym startup after a poor season as we tried to rebuild and relocate all at the same time.

Despite my melancholy attitude, the 2011 season started out strong on the court.   A five set win at Georgia Southern was followed by three wins at a tournament in Statesboro, GA.  A 4-0 start and folks were encouraged.  The next four matches were split 2-2 as the team travelled to Monroe, LA and Martin, TN.   A loss in Denton to North Texas put us at 6-3 to start the year.  Then came September 9, 2011.  A 6:00 PM match at a gym-opening tournament against Texas A&M.  The gym filled.  The gym filled completely.  People were sitting along the rails dangling their feet over in a complete circle above the playing surface.  Fans were standing on the top rows and tucked away in the corners.  There was no room for rats.  The air was crisp and the dingy smell replaced by concessions and the drab had been subbed out for electricity. It seemed as though EVERYONE was there despite the gym maxing out at near 600 people. The official attendance that night in the box score was 533, but I bet that was an undercount.  Two referees that have become friends – David Goss and Ron Stahl - officiated the match.  One of the best sports information directors I have ever worked with and fellow baseball nerd Ben Rikard was the scorer stationed just down the media table from me. 

At the half, the Aggies led 2-0 and it appeared opening night would come and go without SFA winning a set.  But, in Set 3 all my doubts, negativity and disdain for Shelton Gym went away in a hurry.  SFA played well in the first portion of the set and nearing its halfway point the ‘Jacks led 11-10.  Then, a kill by Katzy Randall assisted by Paige Holland, an ace by Randall and two kills by Leslie Jackson were the bookends to a monster block by Sabrina Burns and Jill Ivy.  “Raise the Roof” had become a common sports saying by this time, but during all of that excitement I literally thought the building might crumble.  Johnson Coliseum had never sounded the same way as what I was hearing.  The fierce echo, the closeness of the voices, the sound went THROUGH you and it felt as though the crowd was devouring the court like some starved lion out on the Serengeti plains.  It was insane.  It was so loud and so instantly addicting.  SFA led 16-11 and down the stretch, Randall and Ivy took over with the former dropping in a set-winning third ace of the match and the later thundering down two kills in the sets’ decisive moments.  SFA won the set 25-18.

It was one of those moments where you just catch yourself. You just stop – frozen in time.  I remember just looking around in a full 360 degree circle to take it all in.  This is what others had visioned that I had not.  This is what they were talking about and now I understood.  Shelton Gym became ‘Home of the Ladyjacks’ for me after that set.

Now, the aftermath was substantial.  Yes, we lost the match 1-3 and the sound system in Shelton proved to be various shades of pathetic or incoherent depending on which hue you would like to choose.  That 2011 season was a lost one for me on public address.  The old elementary school style speakers hanging in the rafters were meant for bell tones signaling class changes not people announcing sporting events.  Ninety percent of what was said was inaudible.  The echo in the gym with all the yelling fans, squeaking shoes and voices just overpowered the sound system.  I had gone from state of the art to the state of confusion.  Fans would tell me they could not hear me.  We turned knobs, we reset frequencies, we changed cables and microphones.  We tried every configuration of equipment we could, but public address in Shelton Gym just was not meant to be. 

In 2012, the university bought a new set of six speakers and a new sound system for Shelton Gym.  Ten years later, the same equipment is still in place.  All of it produced only marginal improvements.  I was there the day the speakers were installed.  The company that put them in let me do the first ever “mic check” on the system.  It sounded great – until the matches started and the people showed up.  To date, the public address in Shelton Gym is barely passable with words often inaudible due to the placement of the speakers and the unbelievably bad acoustics.

Well, bad acoustics for public speaking, but in terms of intimidation of opponents, the old concrete edifice has proven to be simply perfect.  During the first several years after the return to Shelton Gym you started to hear it when you were out on the road:  “Ya’ll’s gym is loud”, “Shelton isn’t one of my favorite stops on the Southland circuit”, “We can barely hear ourselves talk on the court”.  Over and over and over opposing coaches, players and fans would remark about the gym’s unique configuration, seating, and volume.  I had families tell me that they would have to leave matches because the decibel level would hurt their children’s ears.

From 2012-2015, I continued to just do public address the best that I could.  In 2016, we began broadcasting on ESPN and so my regular PA duties got passed along.  That was a blessing.  I had learned so much more by that time and had forged so many relationships.  The penance of calling PA on a wonky sound system in a brick box of a gym was soothed by new opportunities to call matches on radio and TV.

But ever since that match against Texas A&M my take on Shelton was reversed. Yes, it’s old.  It’s poorly identified with basically no signage.  The playing surface has been redone twice since 2011.  The wooden benches are moderately uncomfortable.  Until this season, it didn’t have power on one entire wall.  The lobby is oddly cluttered with concession booths, cheerleading trophy cases and depressingly small graduate student offices with tile probably laid back in the basketball eras aforementioned.  The whole geometry of the building is just unsettling to this mathematically driven person.  The visiting locker rooms are not right off the court.  I swear that one day one of the light stands in the ceiling is going to fall to the court when an errant dig pounds off the bottom of it.  Let’s face it, on the surface, Shelton Gym is……old.

But it is marvelous.  It is unique.  It is intimate and for over a decade now, it has been home.

Oh, and it is loud.  Very LOUD.

Gloriously LOUD.