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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

2018 SFA Senior Tributes

For each of the last three seasons, I have ended the year with a post summarizing my recollections about some of the conferences' most memorable seniors.  This is the fourth year of jotting down these senior tributes, but in 2018 I am going to separate the SFA seniors from those from around the league.  This season was particularly special to SFA Volleyball and so there will be two "senior tribute" posts this December; this first one dedicated to our four seniors that led our club so well during the year.  Later in the week, we will go around the league for stories and memories associated with various players that I crossed paths with during their Southland seasons.

For now, enjoy these four SFA senior tributes.  Before beginning, I should also give a huge shout out to each of these four ladies' families.  Behind every one of these athletes are parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and extended family that have been so supportive to both myself and the team.  Your dedication to your special athlete on this list and your friendship to me is not overlooked.  Thanks to each of you for all of the conversations and encouragement.

Haley Coleman

There were years when in my boldness I would ask head coach Debbie Humphreys when the next big scoring left-side attacker was going to show up on campus.  Many a good volleyball club of years gone by had dominating middles ,right-side attackers and nimble liberos, but when 2015 rolled around, Haley Coleman was suggested as being the silencer of my concerns.  I read her high school bio.  'Decorated and surely skilled', I thought, but 5'9"?  This is our left-side go-to hitter?  Then, I saw her in practice as a freshman.  Specifically, I saw her jump.  What an athlete.  I have known fewer disciplined players than Haley Coleman during my years of association with Ladyjack Volleyball.  You can read the outgoing bio like I read the high school one.  Sure, sure, you'll find all the accolades: conference honors, player of the week, academic awards, etc.  They piled up like laundry on a freshman's dorm room floor.  Her last two years at SFA, she was consistently seen as one of the top two or three outside hitters in the Southland Conference.  But, what you won't see in the box scores and online articles like this one is character.  Class.  Dare I even suggest, elegance.  Haley Coleman plays an elegant style of volleyball and her character also reflects this rather unique refined and subtle trait.  She holds herself to a high standard and the results have followed.

Haley Coleman is one of the best outside hitters our program has seen over the last decade.  She finishes with over 1000 career points, 2.16 kills per set, 919 kills, 1147 digs (2.70 digs/set) and 96 aces.  I had the personal good fortune of having Coleman in a summer class.  She was one of the very best students I taught that entire academic year.  One story I'll never forget about Haley took place on the road at UIW during her sophomore year.  I went back and looked it up.  Abby McIntyre went bananas that day and had 17 kills, but Coleman chipped in 15 digs, so I thought I'd go interview Haley for post-match comments.  My six questions elicited about a dozen total words with three or four answers being of the "Yep" or "Sure" variety.  The interview was over and she ran to the bus and I was left staring at my recorder telling me that I had a 1 minute 14 second interview to go post.  I realized later on that it wasn't that she was aloof, but rather that she genuinely didn't focus on how good she was.  She didn't get excited to talk about herself like almost all of the rest of the human race does.  Somewhere along the way, Coleman mastered this steady, anchored personality that served her so well on the court for four years.

Coleman recently applied for physical therapy school and I graciously accepted the request to write her a recommendation.  At her senior day, she skirted up beside me at one point and with the smile of someone much younger than her age announced that she had been accepted.  It was a short communication of an accomplishment that wasn't coupled with a long conversation following.  It was simple and filled with a genuine spirit.  That's Haley Coleman.  Gosh, am I glad I got to watch her play. She leaves SFA having made quite the impression on me and most everyone else she came in contact with.

2018 Coleman & Redmond Senior Interview
Coleman After a Win versus Northwestern State in 2017

Peyton Redmond

Near the end of the 2018 season more and more people would ask me (including Karch Kiraly!) what I thought was different about this team versus those of recent years.  Why was it that this team was able to have such success?  My standard answer in November became "Peyton Redmond".  I'm just going to lay it out there:  SFA doesn't win the Southland Conference Tournament and doesn't play in the NCAA's unless Redmond has the 2018 season that she did.  I told her this several times down the stretch and it wasn't just a "rah-rah speech".  I honestly believe this.  Look, I think everyone understood that our highlight reel players were Daron, Coleman and Hollas.  Makenzee Hanna and Anyia Williams also had matches that made your head spin.  But, take Peyton Redmond out of the equation and I just don't see this team as 32-3.

Across the board, Redmond's numbers spiked in her senior season.  Her 280 kills were a career high, as were her 782 attacks, 26 aces and 43 blocks.  One of the best passers in serve receive the team has had over the last few years, I always felt as though if the libero position ever went in the tank (thankfully, it hasn't for some time now), Redmond could handle playing there.  Shoot, I wasn't even convinced Redmond would hold down her starting spot when 2018 began.  Her junior year numbers took a step back from 2016 when she arrived on campus and dug up over 300 balls.  You can go back and read my early articles mentioning  how nice it will be to have someone this good coming off the bench if needed.  Yeah, so that's NOT what happened.  Redmond was really impressive and due to the nomination process for all-conference honors, she got lost in the shuffle of all of our other great contributors.  To me, Redmond deserves an honorable mention for her "glue piece "role on this 2018 squad.

Redmond was anything but overconfident.  Many times she'd play down the praise I'd give her.  A few times she'd even go so far as to say that she "needed to hear" the positive comments I, or others, would throw her after a match.  There was always a tinge of hesitance in her voice about her contributions, and I would always walk away thinking she didn't realize how important she was.  Peyton Redmond was VERY important.  Her steadiness blew me away at times.  You may not have noticed, but Redmond lingered on the edge of the Southland Top 20 in both kills per set and digs per set the entire season.  You could literally count on one hand the number of outside hitters for which that was true in our conference.  In three years, she amassed 738 digs (which is equivalent to just shy of 1000 for a four year extrapolation) and 517 kills.  Her final dig per set number checks in at 2.49 d/s.

I'm a huge fan of all of our players, but I have to admit:  Peyton Redmond was probably my favorite Ladyjack of 2018.

2018 Redmond & Coleman Senior Interview
Redmond at End of 2017 Regular Season

Makenzee Hanna

Over her final two seasons in Ladyjack purple, Hanna averaged right at 300 points per year, hit .308 and put up .99 blocks per set (230 blocks in 232 sets). Wow.  During 2018, she led all right-sides in the Southland Conference in blocks per set and when coupled with our middle blockers, I have no idea why anyone would try and hit through, around or against that double-team.  Makenzee is one of those players that just had a moment in her career where things just clicked.  To me, that was half way through her tenure at SFA.  She got to play more her junior season and she was ready, putting up a career high 116 blocks.  Going in to 2018, there was little question Hanna was going to be an instrumental centerpiece to the club.  I can't tell you how many times this season I would be conversing with opposing coaches about defending our offense and they would begin to talk about our middles, or Coleman and then say "Oh, and then you have worry about Hanna on the right, too".  Their face would always sulk as if it was too much to worry with.  It was like planning to defend her was a wrench in whatever plan the opposition would come up with. 

Makenzee made this offense complete - as in completely dominant.   A lot of good offenses have a primary left-side scorer and a threat in the middle, but Hanna gave us an option all the way across the net.  A highly efficient option.  Go back and look at those cumulative stats over the last two years.  In 232 upperclassman sets, Hanna committed only 110 errors.  That's not even a rate of an error every TWO SETS!  Incredible.  No, that's just flat out ridiculous. How would you like to be preparing to defend first-team all conference studs Haley Coleman and Danae Daron and then get struck with the problem of having to contain an attacker that you can force into an error roughly once every two sets?

Of course, it's not just the Mak Attack on offense.  Her defense was consistently steady across all four years on the court.  She finishes her career with 345 blocks (.92 blocks/set) while splitting time in the middle and on the right.  That final tally falls just shy of cracking the Top 10 all-time at SFA (Kristy Rhodes, 387). The same is true with her blocks per set numbers as well.

One of the things that really got me thinking about how dedicated Makenzee Hanna was to both athletics and academics is the story of her commute to Grace Preparatory Academy from DeSoto during her later high school years. Grace Prep is in south Arlington, a good 25 miles away from where Hanna lived.  The high school used the college scheduling model for courses and so some days Hanna would shuttle back and forth from DeSoto to Arlington and other days, Hanna would be at home studying.  The overall family commitment to make such a structure work was always impressive to me.  I've mentioned it before in other articles, but another thing I will always remember about Mak is her awareness of others around her.  Many days the first 'hello' I would hear when walking into the gym - at home or on the road - was from Mak. Some people are self-absorbed.  Other people - like Makenzee Hanna - have a sense that teamwork extends beyond the jersey.  Sure, players and coaches earn the wins and trophies, but I always felt appreciated by Makenzee and I'll treasure that and use it to spur me on when feeling marginalized.  Makenzee has the gift of making others feel important.

Oh, and that foot kill... who could ever forget that SportsCenter Top 10 foot kill?  Epic.

2018 Hanna Senior Interview
Hanna After 'Jacks Win 2018 SLC Tournament

McKenzie Brewer

Alright, I'm not going to write this one the way you think I might.  Here's what I believe:  I think a lot of people in her shoes would have walked away.  People that are not close to collegiate athletes have no idea - I mean, NO IDEA, how much time, effort and dedication it takes to play sports at this level.  They don't think about the endless workouts, the off-season training, the bus rides, the nights returning to campus at 3 AM, the weight room sessions before dawn and the list goes on and on.  So, when a backup setter doesn't get in to even half of her teams' sets during the first two years of all that, what would be the natural thing to think? It is worth it?  Should I keep doing this?  Why am I even here?  Do I still love this game enough to subject myself to this?  Now, I don't know - maybe, McKenzie Brewer never ask herself even one of those questions during her time at SFA, but I wouldn't fault her one moment if she did.  Being a setter is tough.  Being a setter at SFA is particularly tough.

But, how about this story, huh?  Setter relegated to backup duty finishes career with 1225 assists and co-directs an offense that goes 32-3 and plays in the NCAA tournament?  Talk about a senior memory!  Of all the senior profiles, Brew's is the one I hope all the incoming freshman familiarize themselves with.  THIS is why you stick things out and persevere.  So you can have half the chance to tell all the stories that Brewer gets to tell for the rest of her life.  Sure, Ann Hollas won Setter of the Year, and she deserved it.  But in reality, isn't that award also a trickle down accolade for Brewer?  Part of what made Hollas so unique in 2018 was her total contribution:  assists, kills, digs.  But, who is making some of that possible?  Brewer.

Why are 5-1 offenses more prevalent than 6-2's?  Because you need more people to be effective to run a two setter offense.  There is more to go wrong - more moving parts, more to juggle.  You know how many times I  heard anyone discuss shifting our scheme back to a 5-1 during this season?  How about zero. Oh,  there were occasional days where one of the setters was off and it crossed coaches, fans and my own minds', but in terms of seriously contemplating a definitive structural switch?  It didn't happen.  Brewer gets a TON of credit for the 2018 team success and her leadership was instrumental in our run to the postseason.

Sure, everyone will remember Brew for her humor and laugh.  Teams NEED players like McKenzie Brewer.  Not just as leaders, but as the person who can take the edge off the stress at appropriate moments.  Oh, and how about that serve?  Didn't it seem like every one of Brewer's career 58 aces came at just the right time?  Those two aces against Texas early in Sets 1 and 2 still play over and over in my mind.  So will the career high five-ace match against HBU in the second round of the SLC Tournament.  Check out this stat:  Brewer put up an ace in each of her last 6 career matches and had at least one in nine of her last ten contests.  In the postseason this year, she averaged .85 aces per set.  By way of comparison, half of that rate would easily lead the Southland Conference for the year.
It's one thing to push through the difficulties of being a NCAA D1 athlete when your face is on the schedule card or name is on the leaderboard.  It's another thing to bide your time waiting for your moment to shine - especially when that takes years.  Wear that ring proudly, Brew.  You got the last laugh.

2018 Brewer Senior Interview
Brewer After 1000th Career Assist at SLU

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Links to Interviews: 2018 Southland Conference Tournament

This page will house all the links to all of the audio and video interviews done during the 2018 Southland Conference Tournament.  Each day there will be conversations with coaches and players as they prepare for and react to the matches of the day.  Keep up by following on Twitter as announcements are regularly made there about upcoming interviews and features.

Click the names below to go to our YouTube Channel for VIDEO interviews or SoundCloud site for AUDIO recordings.

Sunday, November 18

AUDIO: Anyia Williams [All-Tournament], SFA
AUDIO: Makenzee Hanna [All-Tournament], SFA
AUDIO: Danae Daron [MVP], SFA
AUDIO: Debbie Humphreys, SFA

Saturday, November 17

VIDEO:  Samantha Anderson, UCA 
VIDEO:  Makenzee Hanna, SFA 
AUDIO:  Haley Tippett, UCA 
AUDIO:  Debbie Humphreys, SFA 

Friday, November 16

VIDEO:  Danae Daron, SFA 
VIDEO:  Kellen Dunn, UCA 
AUDIO:  Ashley Lewis, SHSU 
AUDIO:  Megan Patillo, HBU
AUDIO: Angela Mooney, ACU
AUDIO:  Debbie Humphreys, SFA

Thursday, November 15

VIDEO:  Taylor Cunningham, Sam Houston 
AUDIO:  Mikayla Vivens & Trent Herman, HBU 
AUDIO:  Hannah Brister & Sean Kiracofe, NSU
AUDIO:  Keegan Nelms & Ashleigh Fitzgerald, McNeese

Monday, November 12, 2018

10th Annual All-Conference Teams


I finally got the "preface" to this post exactly as I wanted it in 2017, so I am repeating it now in 2018:

If you scroll to the picks, argue with me and don't read the following paragraphs and bullets then don't expect me to listen to you for very long.

·        This list was published before the official All-Southland Conference teams.  This was published on Monday, November 12.  The conference released the official lists on Wednesday, November 14.

·        I don't do this the way the conference does.  I have claimed for years - staunchly - that coaches have WAY too much control over the official lists.  Get a coach or SID to explain to you how they vote, then go read the tiebreaker rules for conference tournament seeding, then ask me for a syllabus to an advanced calculus class and you decide for yourself which procedures are most unduly complex.

·        I view these as individual awards, not team awards.  I outright reject the reasoning that the order of the standings should dictate how many picks should show up on these lists or that the Player of the Year, Setter of the Year, Coach of the Year, etc. HAVE TO or SHOULD come from the best teams.  If you want to see what a team award looks like, click here or here.  We are honoring INDIVIDUALS here.

·        I am a numbers person.  I teach statistics for a living.  I take notes, talk to coaches, SID's, use my impressions when SFA plays opponents, but in the end we here at the blog live my one mantra:  In God We Trust.  All Others Bring Data.  Numbers matter.. a lot. If you don't like statistical analysis in sports, then your picks won't look anything like mine. I'm happy to defend my reasoning.  Just know you are going to get numbers, if you ask.

And now for the stuff that  I have written for 9 straight years but still need you to know if you are reading this:

Like in previous years, I suspect I will periodically comment on this article over the next week.  People love to debate this stuff and I'm fine with that.  After all, trying to decide who to honor is a noble pursuit and I can appreciate the passion that other fans have for their picks and reasons.  I will indicate updates at the bottom of the post with boldface time stamps.  

Recall,  I actually pick "teams". The conference does not do this. Typically, the conference puts 12 athletes on the first team, six on the 2nd team and has 6 to 9 ladies listed as honorable mention for a total of 24 to 27 folks recognized. I will have three teams of seven for 21 girls honored and then a list of the players I considered for the lists and "just missed".

As I have said each of the last nine years: There are seven starters each night for any particular team, so we will pick seven athletes per team. Each team below is required to have a setter, libero, two middle blockers, two hitters and the seventh player can be a 'wild card' that can either be an MB, OH or RS.

2018 SFA All-Southland Conference Teams and Awards:

First Team:

OH Haley Coleman, SFA
RS Samantha Anderson, UCA
MB Taylor Cunningham, SHSU
MB Danae Daron, SFA
MB Kaitlyn Grice, UNO
S Ann Hollas, SFA
L Channing Burleson, NSU

Second Team:

OH Mikayla Vivens, HBU
RS Makenzee Hanna, SFA
OH Haley Tippett, UCA
MB Savannah Allen, UCA
MB Anyia Williams, SFA
S Kendall Bosse, ACU
L Madison Wallace, SHSU

Third Team:

OH Bethany Clapp, UIW
RS Hannah Brister, NSU
MB Paige Havel, McNeese
MB Kennedy Shelstead, ACU
MB Kayla Davenport, HBU
S Madison O'Brien, HBU
L Lillian Drever, ACU

Just Missed (in order of position played):  OH Katelyn Mueller (ACU), Peyton Redmond (SFA), Keegan Nelms (McNeese), Tomar Thomas (Lamar),  RS Breanne Chausse (SHSU), RS Marybeth Sandercox (ACU), S Madison Greene (AMCC), L Madelynn Miller (UIW)

Player of the Year:  Taylor Cunningham, SHSU
Setter of the Year: Ann Hollas, SFA
Libero of the Year:  Channing Burleson, NSU
Newcomer of the Year: Kennedy Shelstead, ACU
Freshman of the Year:  Bethany Clapp, UIW
Coach of the Year:  Debbie Humphreys, SFA


Reaction to Official SLC All-Tournament Lists and Other Comments:
6:30 PM, Tuesday, November 14

What a great thing today to see all of the lists released from the conference office and then see each club get a chance to send out announcements about their honorees!  Then, of course, all the announcements about signings for 2019 were exciting as well.  But, there is a LOT more of 2018 left and a good fraction of it happens in just a few days.

I thought the official "1st Team All Conference" list as voted on by the coaches and SID's was really good.  There are just one or two picks on that list of 12 athletes that I see differently and it is obvious which ones they are by reading my original post above.

I've learned through the years that it's best not to specifically say who I believe should be "lower" (people can infer) on official lists, but instead try and champion the players that I think should be "higher".  Toward that end, the name that stands out to me is Kaitlyn Grice.  I thought this was a strong year for middle blockers and a down year for six-rotation outsides in the Southland.  It just amazes me that someone can be 8th in the nation in total blocks and not make 1st Team All-Conference.  This sort of thing has happened before and I think it's embarrassing.  Nicholls had a libero several years ago named Kaylnn Egea that finished top five in the nation in digs and didn't even make honorable mention.  Things like that should not happen in my opinion.  Kaitlyn Grice is a first team talent without question.  You missed that one, folks.

I don't like playing the "home team" card at every turn, but the other selection that is too low is SFA's Makenzee Hanna.  Condering Hannah Brister as primarily a RS this season, Hanna was tops among all right sides in blocks per set and Samantha Anderson was 6th and Brister was 7th.  Hanna was second only to Anderson in attack percentage among all right sides.  Hanna's block rate would have been 8th among middle blockers which is amazing when you think of it.

This is a case of the process denying strong teams multiple high picks.  When coaches rank nominated players (nominations = dumb and ranking them = dumber), then voters are more inclined to choose a first or second ranked player from a second or third place team rather than a third or fourth ranked player from the top team.  I think Hanna easily makes second team if the system were different, but I've spent 10 years lamenting a system that forces coaches to think "What's my best chance at getting award X or honor Y" rather than just making the pool of possible players to vote for the entire rosters.

Hanna barely missed 2nd team, but it didn't deserve to be close.  By the way, if you think carefully about what I just wrote in the above paragraph, then I believe you'll be able to figure out why the libero voting fell the way it did.  I mean, who else does Sam Houston have to nominate other than Cunningham and Wallace?  Chausse is a fine honorable mention, but I think voters are thinking "SHSU finished third in the standings, we've GOT to rank more than one of their players really high".  That sentiment coupled with NSU fighting to make the tournament easily explains why Wallace was 8th in the voting and Burleson was 11th.  I could be wrong, but I'm betting the folks at SHSU listed Wallace second in their nominations. So, Wallace is the go-to for voters looking to recognize the teams' third-place standing with more than voting Cunningham first and then letting their other players sift down to 2nd team.

There are LOTS of official second team and honorable mention selections that are total head-scratchers to me, but I'll just leave all that alone because any time we get down to the 20th to 30th picks there are going to be reasonable differences of opinion.

Let's talk about outside hitters for a moment.  I think if you consider both the players' statistics and team impact, there are only four six-rotation outside hitters that truly merit high consideration.  In order of my preference these four are Haley Coleman (SFA), Haley Tippett (UCA), Mikayla Vivens (HBU) and Bethany Clapp (UIW).  After those four, I see a pretty steep drop off at the OH position.  So, I was really, really pleased that all four of these ladies were first team.  I would have been perfectly happy if these were the only four on the ENTIRE lists to separate them from the second pack. Again, whomever you would place in that second tier is substantively down the ladder in terms of their 2018 performances in my book.  That isn't to say they aren't good players - they are.  But my second tier of OH's included Mueller, Nelms, Thomas, Redmond, Smith and Rogers - all really nice players.  I mean, you can read what I think about Mueller in my "sophomores" post below.  But, none of those players seems to have had the impact that the first four have had, so I would have preferred a wider gap in the official lists to separate the top tier.

By the way, 3-rotation outsides don't tend to merit much consideration for all-conference lists and I agree with that.  All of the aforementioned OH's were primarily used in six-rotations during the year.  But if you were picking a "best" three-rotation OH, then the numbers support only Katelyn Elliott of McNeese.  I'll bet you didn't know that among ALL outside hitters, Elliot was top-10 in kills per set, hitting percentage and blocks per set.  Her .218 attack percentage was second only to Clapp among outsides.  I came VERY close to putting her on a list. She had an under-the-radar good year.

The official Newcomer of the Year pick, Ehize Omoghbo of UNO is a good choice.  I went back-and-forth between her and Shelstead for a couple days. As far as the other individual awards, it is clear that I would have preferred Burleson for Libero, but no one can deny the impact that moving Wallace to libero and playing Cunningham six-rotations had for Sam Houston.  I pin that honor more on the decision making of Brenda Gray, however.  That was a fantastic utilization of their talent.  Without those two individuals in those two roles, the Bearkats aren't a top seed in the tournament.

Finally, I am thrilled that the voters see Hollas and Bosse as the top two setters this year.  To me, that was obvious. I already had half an article written if one of the two of those didn't win setter of the year. Good thing I could just hit "delete" and spare you the massive rant and statistical onslaught that you would have been dealt!

This now marks many years in a row that I have had an overall positive thought about the official lists.  I know that I personally am doing more digging, reading and talking about players than ever before.  It is encouraging to know that the official voters take seriously their role of making these selections.  Generally, the league is doing a great job with honoring these athletes.  Good work, voters!!