Monday, August 31, 2009

STATS 101: Holes to Fill...Hey! Free Pizza!

Well, classes have started back at SFA and that gives me a chance to take you through a little feature we'll call 'Stats 101' here at the blog. Woah. wait.. stop running away.. hey...FREE PIZZA!!!. There, I got you back. Read on and you might win a free pizza.

All we're gonna do here is look at some percentages. Due to college volleyball having short rosters, the number of players leaving and the resulting number of newcomers can often have a significant impact on clubs from year to year.

There are four basic statistics that are tallied in every match. Now, don't get me wrong, there are more items than this that are kept track of, but kills, assists, blocks and digs are four terms that any volleyball fan is familiar with. Let's take a look at the Southland Conference in terms of the percentage of 2008 stats they return in 2009. The basics here are that the lower these percentages are, the more a particular team has to look elsewhere for contributions in 2009. We'll start with kills:

Percentage of 2008 kills returning for 2009:
1. Northwestern St. 89%
2. Southeastern La. 88%
3. UTSA 82%
4. UTA 81%
5. Central Arkansas 72%
6. Nicholls 68%
7. McNeese 61%
8. SFA 58%
9. Texas State 56%
10. Lamar 53%
11. Sam Houston 52%
12. TAMUCC 24%

As you'll see throughout what follows, Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana basically return the same team they had in 2008. Those two schools lost basically nothing in transitioning from '08 to '09. Notice that we are near the lower end of this scale which accents what Ben and I have been blogging in our respective domains: We will need some outside hitters to step up in '09. On to assists:

Percentage of 2008 assists returning for 2009:
1. Southeastern La. 100%
T2. Northwestern St. 99%
T2. McNeese 99%
4. UTA 98%
5. Nicholls 97%
T6. Central Arkansas 93%
T6. Texas State 93%
8. UTSA 88%
9. Sam Houston 80%
10. Lamar 27%
11. SFA 19%
12. TAMUCC 16%

OK. This is easy to understand. Either a team returns its primary setter or not. The clear division in the numbers is explained by just a few simple facts. Every one except us and Corpus returns their primary setter from 2008. What about Lamar, you ask? Well, their setter Adrianne Meengs got mono last year and had to be replaced. That's why their percentage is so low. It turns out that the numbers above contribute little to my overall point, which you'll see shortly, but consider this: The setter position will be really interesting to look at THIS TIME NEXT YEAR. Seven of the conferences 12 schools have a senior setter as the single primary quarterback. So, there will be a lot of inexperienced setters in the conference starting in 2010.

Percentage of 2008 blocks returning for 2009:
1. Northwestern State 92%
2. UTA 86%
3. Southeastern La. 85%
T4. McNeese 69%
T4. UTSA 69%
T6. SFA 68%
T6. Nicholls 68%
8. Central Arkansas 57%
9. Texas State 49%
10. Lamar 47%
11. Sam Houston 42%
12. TAMUCC 26%

One thing that is emerging is that Lamar lost a significant fraction of their 2008 contribution. I'll admit I hadn't quite realized that until doing this little exercise. Secondly, you've noticed that TAMUCC lost basically everything. That includes their coach as they are the only team in the conference to have a new person at the helm. We move on to digs...

Percentage of 2008 digs returning for 2009:
1. Southeastern La. 99%
2. Northwestern St. 93%
3. McNeese 89%
4. UTA 86%
5. Texas State 78%
6. UTSA 77%
7. Sam Houston 76%
8. Nicholls 75%
9. Central Arkansas 68%
10. SFA 61%
11. TAMUCC 55%
12. Lamar 48%

We came out lower on this list than I would have guessed. That serves as a reminder of how well rounded a player Lauren Railey was. She tallied over 300 digs which was near what a few of the liberos in the conference posted last year. Again, look at Lamar.

Now, can we summarize all this to see what the main points are of all this? Sure, a simple way to do it is to average (or total) the ranks across the four categories. Averaging the percentages themselves may not be the best idea given the split in the setting numbers that we saw above. I'll jump ahead and say that setting really doesn't make much of a difference in the final tally. If setting is removed all together only McNeese and UTSA flip-flop in this final list - all else stays the same.

Final List: Rank of Teams Based on What Percentage of 2008 they return for 2009:
1. Northwestern State [Returns the Most From '08]
2. Southeastern La.
3. UTA
5. McNeese

6. Nicholls
7. Central Arkansas
8. Texas State
9. SFA
10. Sam Houston
11. Lamar
12. TAMUCC [Returns the Least from '08]

Please, understand. This isn't a ranking of a teams' prowess for 2009. Its only a list of what they return from last year. What they return might be great, or it might be paltry.

So, what do we learn? First, notice that a good many of the preseason picks to finish in the top half of the conference are in the bottom half of this list. This may be more evidence for what we've been hearing and blogged about previously: "The conference is wide open". What do I mean? Well, UCA, Texas State, Lamar, Sam and SFA are all "top half" picks, but they have the biggest holes to fill. The middle of the conference from last year returns a core of their players. They are in the position of letting veterans emerge rather than having to count on freshmen and transfers to fill holes. Will that cause the gap between the top and bottom of 2008 to collapse inward in 2009? Maybe. But, I'll vote no on that. However, this is one more way to see the potential parity in the conference.

See, Southeastern La. , Northwestern State and UTA only won only 12 conference games between them. They are returning a lot, but its mediocre at best. Their veterans basically all returning does what? Get them to .500 in conference at best? Even if they make that four or five conference game improvement, it just puts them in the hunt for a tourney spot. That's not enough to leap into the top tier.

Who comes out looking better in this analysis to me is UTSA. They were 11-5 in the tough side of the conference last year and they return a decent amount from their 2008 squad - especially offensively. Remember, the coaches picked Lamar and UTSA nearly dead even in the West and I have to wonder if the one SID that picked them to win the conference was aware of some of what is presented here.

Who comes out looking worse is clearly Lamar. They've got a good fraction of their 2008 production gone. Despite getting Meengs healthy, it is fair to say based on the numbers above that half of their overall production from 2008 is gone.

What this says to me is this: I am inclined at this point to align my thoughts on the conference more along the lines of the coaches poll than the SIDs. The coaches see Lamar and UTSA as pretty much equal and this analysis has convinced me of that position. Before this exercise, I was more inclined to think of Lamar as the stronger squad. Now, I'm not so sure.

Think for a second. Texas State is a consensus top pick. But then what? Central Arkansas isn't eligible for the tournament. If, and I accent IF, Texas State comes out on top, then the #2 seed could be a major toss up. Now, I'm not writing the Bobcats in as #1 and all that. I'm just saying that if Texas State does win the regular season crown then there could be a real dogfight for the second position in the conference tournament. How SFA, Lamar, and UTSA do against each other could really mean a lot. The fact that we are in the West helps us here. Remember, UTSA will play on their home floor in the conference tournament. That's an interesting twist in all this too. Finally, we shouldn't forget about Sam Houston and McNeese. They could throw a wrench into things as well.

Now, about that pizza. Ok, it's this simple. If you want a free pizza do this:

1. Go join our Facebook group. The link is on the sidebar. [If already a member, go to Step 2]
2. Then, send me an e-mail at with subject line "pizza".
3. Get a friend to do the above two things as well.
4. You and your friend have to come to Wednesday's game. If you don't come to the pizza.

I am the tall guy who sits near the visitors bench. Study my dashing photo and come find me. But most importantly...get loud in the Coliseum on Wednesday at 7:00. Create a huge home court advantage for our girls! See you there!

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Read from the bottom up to read in real-time order.

9: 18 PM

That's a wrap from Hunstville. A closing thought on ULL is that they are not the same team as they were last year. Their freshmen clearly are playing a very big role. They could have easily staged a comeback here tonight and won the whole thing. They won't be a push over in my opinion. But, I think we are a stronger club than SHSU and I'd certainly favor us next Wednesday. But, ULL definitely had some impressive moments. Fogler hitting .364 was pretty nifty. I'll see all of you in Johnson Coliseum on Wednesday night.

9:15 PM

As expected, SHSU and ULL dominate all tourney team.. One player each from UTPA and Southern Utah receieve honors. Krolikowski and Fogler make all-tourney for for them next Wednesday. For SHSU, Kolbe and Stewart named to all-tourney. Stewart must have been honored for previous play...only seven kills in this match while hitting under .100. MVP of tourney was Anna Ferguson.

9:10 PM

For ULL: Freshman Fogler leads all players with 18 kills. Freshmen Krolikowski nets 12 kills and fellow rookie Hanley finishes with 9. Four players on each squad with double digit digs. Lindsay Brown for ULL leads all with 25 digs. All Tourney announcements coming...

9:07 PM

Kolbe finishes it off with two straight kills, 15-11. SHSU wins 3-2. Wrap up in just a bit.

9:06 PM

Stewart knocks one down again.. SHSU 13-10

9:04 PM

Stewart with her biggest hit of the night. SHSU 12-8.

9:03 PM

An ace from Haas and another kill pushes it to 11-5 SHSU...looks like their gonna get it in five

9:01 PM

Great fifth set so far. Very scrappy play - some awesome digs. SHSU leads 8-5 at the switch...has momentum

8:55 PM

Kolbe waking up in set five. SHSU leads 5-3.

8:52 PM

Freshman Fogler for ULL with 16 kills and hitting .345. Sam not stopping her. She also has five blocks. Ferguson 13 kills for Sam, Kolbe up to 11. Frehman Stewart doing nothing. Its all Ferguson and Kolbe for Sam. Libero for ULL Brown up to 21 digs. Here we go to five...

8:51 PM

SHSU gets flat out abused in set 4. ULL wins 25-13. We go to set five.

8:44 PM

Could be headed for five tonight. ULL leads 18-8 in fourth set. The block for SHSU is gone. Their back row is diving left and right and can't get to balls 'cause front row isn't slowing anything down right now.

8:34 PM

Wow. SHSU appears out of gas. ULL off to a 7-1 run early in set 4. Same Freshmen for ULL doing the damage early in set 4. Kolbe still out. SHSU is getting nothing from anybody not named Ferguson at this point.

8:30 PM

SHSU hit -.041 in set three -only five kills in entire set. Bad, but partly because ULL is deflecting a lot of stuff at the net.

8:27 PM

SHSU never really in this set. ULL takes it easily 25-16. Freshman Alyssa Hanley has a nice set for ULL (four kills, two blocks). Freshmen really the story for the Cajuns. Main go to on offense is Krolikowski and then they have three 6-2 freshmen that are doing a nice job at the net as well. Three Leading attackers at this point for ULL are all freshmen (Krolikowski, Fogler, Hanley). Kolbe: no kills in set 3. SHSU leads 2-1.

8:18 PM

SHSU using this set to look at other people since they got behind. Ferguson and Kolbe sitting, as is Loving. ULL leads 18-10.

8:12 PM

SHSU goes to freshman setter Michelle Miller as ULL stretches lead to 12-4.

8:08 PM

ULL comes out strong in set 3. Leads 6-1. One thing I've noticed about SHSU Fresh Kelli Stewart...she doesn't react to every little negative thing they way Kolbe did as a Freshman (and is a little tonight too). Stewart appears calm and cool, even chuckling a few times, even though she really hasn't been effective so far.

7:54 PM

Sam finishes off the set and leads 2-0 at intermission. ULL only hitting .086 thru first two sets. Krolikowski 6 kills for ULL leads team. Kolbe has 9 kills to lead all. Loving with 5 kills from the setter position for Sam. ULL Libero Lindsay Brown has 11 digs & leads all in that category. ULL looking a bit sluggish in second set from a long tourney.


Sam wins a really good and long rally with Kelli Stewart kill.. big momentum builder..leads 23-21 in set 2.

7:47 PM

An effective use of a timeout by SHSU coach Brenda Gray.. after getting behind, Sam rattles off several consecutive points to take lead 16-15 in set 2.

7:30 PM

SHSU completes comeback in set 1 - wins 25-23. Kolbe 6 kills in set, Ferguson a whopping six blocks. Niether team hitting overly well. ULL looks much stronger when Libero rotates up to front row and then out in favor of the twin towers...otherwise block can't hang with Kolbe and Ferguson is my take so far.

7:25 PM

Anna Ferguson taking over - SHSU ties it at 21.

7:20 PM

When the Libero rotates out, ULL is running a successful block tandem with Freshmen Mandi Gavin and Bethany Fogler...both 6-2 and doing a good job at the net. ULL leads 18-16 first set.

7:14 PM

ULL plays with a pretentious swagger...bench very talkative and a bit of a smug feel to the whole club...don't like it. ULL leads 12-10 first set.

7:05 PM

SHSU starting two freshman... Kelli Stewart from the strong HS program at nearby Magnolia and Libero Jamie Haas.

6:59 PM

Sam has broken with recruiting tradition...only one blonde among five newcomers

6:54 PM

ULL just took off warm up tops...its official.. they've got some of the ugliest black and red jersey's I have ever seen....hideous. I hope they wear these fashion messes Wednesday so everyone can get a look at the horror.

6:50 PM

Two Rajun Cajuns to watch for.. Freshman OH Ariel Krolikowski (hit over .300 so far) and JR OH Amie Goodwin. They've been the two go to hitters for ULL's first three matches in this tourney. SHSU PA announcer just tried to do the starting lineups with 11 minutes left on the clock...rookie.

6:37 PM

ULL pretty sloppy in they've got a guy assistant coach who is trying to prove how hard he can hit to the girls during drills...bouncing all around like a jelly bean. Goofy.

6:19 PM

UTPA is about to finish off Delaware State...match has been pretty bad. Delaware State in particular is very weak. A few folks starting to file into the Coliseum. Time to grab some pre-game chow.

5:46 PM

Watching Delaware State play UTPA... Delaware State has a girl whose 6'5"..and here's the weird thing...she's from Spring (north of Houston). That's a long way from home...and a lotta local schools that decided to that tells ya something. She's a legit 6'5"...I am standing a few feet away from her.

5:00 PM

Set up here in Huntsville. Here's a recap of this week's action around the SLC to get you primed for tonight's live blog. First, off the 'Jacks leave the state of Illinois with a 2-2 split as again today we win one and lose one. In our last game of the tourney, host Northern Illinois swept SFA 3-0. Amber Williams-Roberts led the way for the 'Jacks with 13 kills. Elsewhere around the SLC this weekend:

Central Arkansas: Beats HBU & loses to Rice...playing Oklahoma later tonight.

Lamar: Lost to Cal State Fullerton...plays Idaho and Appalachian State later.

McNeese: Beats Arkansas-Little Rock and then pulls off a nifty win against SEC foe Mississippi State...plays Jackson State later.

Nicholls: Lost all three matches played (Rice, Oklahoma and Houston Baptist)

Sam Houston: Has won all three matches played so far (Southern Utah, UTPA and Delaware State)...playing ULL later tonight.

SE Louisiana: Lost all three matches played (Baylor, Indiana, and Houston)

TAMUCC: Beat Norfolk State yesterday, lost to UTEP today...playing Texas Southern later.

Texas State: Lost all three matches played albeit against tougher competition than most. (Missouri, Ole Miss, and BYU)

UTSA: Beat North Texas yesterday, but lost to Northern Colorado earlier today...playing SMU now.

UTA: Lost to both Oral Roberts and Illinois State earlier...playing Gardner-Webb tonight.

Northwestern State: Couldn't get any friends to play with them. No matches until next week.


Later today we will get started with our live blog from Huntsville covering our first home opponent Louisiana-Lafayette against host Sam Houston.

The 'Jacks just beat Western Illinois 3-1. SFA was able to go to their twin setting approach with Lo picking up 22 assists and Buckner dishing out 18. Three 'Jacks in double-figure kills and the team hit an impressive .311 for the match. Hanlan scooped 19 digs and one very good sign in my opinion was that Daron was integral to the offense with 10 kills against only 2 errors while hitting .348.

SFA plays host Northern Illinois at 2:00 before flying back to Texas. I am still in Nacogdoches, but will head to Huntsville shortly. We will update you on SFA/NIU when I arrive.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Club Starts Season in Chicago, Blog Heads to Huntsville

Yes! The season is finally here. The team flew into Chicago earlier today and then made their way over to the Northern Illinois University campus for a workout in DeKalb before kicking off the season Friday morning at 10:00 AM. You can follow all the action (4 matches in two days!) by utilizing Gametracker on the NIU Volleyball web page.

The schedule for SFA Volleyball and for you as a fan are both about to get busy. After the matches on Saturday, make sure you are right back here at as we will be LIVE FROM HUNTSVILLE, TEXAS. We will recap the 'Jacks performance in DeKalb and then take you through an evening match between Louisiana-Lafayette and Sam Houston State. U La La will be our first home opponent next Wednesday, so most certainly - mark that on your calendar too. WE WANT YOU TO BE A PART OF THE HOME OPENER NEXT WEDNESDAY. Wear purple and be really loud. I am already stoked about piping out the starting lineups and point calls so we can get the Coliseum rocking next week.

We will get started with the LIVE BLOGGING on Saturday at around 6:00 PM. The LaLa/SHSU match is scheduled to start at 7:00. Last year, the Ladyjacks beat the Rajun' Cajuns twice - each time by a 3-0 sweep. Saturday, we'll get a chance to see if they have what it takes to put up a better fight this year.

We will be back on the SHSU campus later in the year for another live blogging experience when the Ladyjacks invade prison town for Southland Conference play. That match is slated for October 21. SFA's Strongest Presence on the Net will get over to our sister city of Natchitoches on November 5 and blog live from that conference tilt as well.

We've got you well covered, so gear up and get used to more frequent posts and information coming your way now that the season is underway. Also...make ABSOLUTELY SURE you are over at the Volleyball page at the SFA Athletics Site and also check out Ben Rikard's Blog here. You'll see our blogs' logo on the official site's page right below the button for Ben's Blog. We are definitely partners in covering the Ladyjacks. There is absolutely no doubt that between, Ben's Blog and that we cover our club as well as any program around. We've added a link directly to Ben's Blog on our sidebar. Remember, that's also where you'll get to read Setter Laurel Kuepker's thoughts throughout the year. Don't miss it!

Next week we will get you introduced to the new freshman on our squad and will recap all the Southland Conference action on this opening weekend. We will also get you geared up for the home opener on Wednesday and the very high caliber Missouri State tournament which will follow next weekend.

You will also get to go to stats class with me for the first time as we introduce our 'Stats 101' feature to the blog. This will present a non-technical, but numerical look at at Southland Conference volleyball. We'll tackle topics that are informative and easy to digest...nothing fancy - everybody gets an A - it's just a glance at how numbers can help us understand the game just a bit better. I'll give you a preview: You'll learn which conference teams retained the majority of their court presence and which teams have the most to replace.

For now, make sure and join us Saturday night right here in this space as we scout two future opponents and tell your friends to be in Johnson Coliseum on Wednesday night at 7 PM!!

Finally, Happy Birthday wishes go out to assistant coach Erin McClanahan [pictured above]. Here's hoping she gets to celebrate after getting a few in the win column tomorrow!

Monday, August 24, 2009

2009 SLC Volleyball: Is it Really Wide Open?

Last week the Southland Conference put out the preseason polls. Yes, pollzzz...plural. See, the coaches have one poll and the volleyball sports information directors at each school also have a separate vote and poll.

One thing I keep hearing and reading from around the conference is that the conference is "wide open". You read over at McNeese's website - coach says "its wide open". Scan over to Texas State and Karen Chisum says "its wide open". Our own Coach Debbie Humphreys has used the phrase a few times. I'll preview each of our conference opponents in the coming weeks as SLC play draws nearer, but if you haven't already done so - scan the
polls. Note that in both polls there is agreement on the top five teams - albeit not in the same order. There's SFA and Central Arkansas as the consensus top two in the SLC East and in the overall tougher West side of the conference we see Texas State, Lamar and UTSA bubbling to the top.

But is it really "wide open"? In terms of those five clubs, could any one of them win the NCAA bid? I dunno. I tend to think the road to the big dance runs though San Marcos - they appear to be the "favorite" (if there is one). But, I will say this... I would not be surprised one bit if Central Arkansas has the best record in the conference when its all said and done. Now, they are still awaiting eligibility for postseason tourneys due to their being new to the conference, but UCA could be scary good.

So, what about us? Can we vault back to the championship game of the SLC Tourney? Sure. I can see scenarios where we do. So, what do we have to do?

1) We will have to show we can play with Central Arkansas. A split of our two games with them at a minimum. Hey, each team won the road game last year, so we should be able to do this, right? But... they racked us up in Nacogdoches and you can be sure the veterans remember. It was Senior Night and it was a big disappointment - Lauren Railey's
1500/1500 milestone aside.

2) Take care of our home court - and get a big win against Texas State in our only regular season match with them. Of the three top ranked teams from the West, we travel only to Lamar. Beating Texas State and UTSA on our own home floor goes a long way to making a convincing case that we belong in the top tier.

3) Absolutely no - and I mean NO - let downs against the weak sisters in the East. Yes, I recall the McNeese game in Lake Charles last year, but
their own story about the game called it an upset. That kind of stuff cannot happen this year if we are going to contend for the NCAA bid.

If the above three things occur, then we should be right in the hunt for top billing in the conference. If none of those three things happen, then this isn't a five team race at all and more than likely Texas State and Lamar wind up in the title game.

Predictions, you ask? See, this is the great thing about writing a blog. I can do this sort of thing. If I write for the Nac newspaper or other entity, then I just shy away from that sort of stuff. I'm not shy.

Going into the SLC Tourney:
Season: 22-12
Conference: 12-4 (in the top half of the seeding for the tourney)
Debbie Humphreys gets her 500th career victory in a rout at Corpus Christi on October 12.

What do you think? After the quick sets then sound off if you like in the comments.

Quick Sets From Around the Conference: Central Arkansas and Lamar kicked off the season by having their current girls play an alumni squad in an exhibition game. I still say that's a bad idea. Lamar actually lost a set to the alumni. That's got to be just a tad bit embarrassing, right? Even if it is recent alumni....The title of Northwestern State's article about their kick-off-the-year celebration said that they are trying to "turn the corner on a winning street" Uhh? What in Hades does that mean? "Turn the corner on a winning street"?Follow me here... if you are on a "winning street" and you turn the corner, then aren't you off the winning street and on some other know.. not the winning one that you were on? That metaphor is just plain stupid. I don't get it....This time of year every coach or player in the conference says "We have good depth" or "I like our depth" or something like that. "Depth" is just one of those pre-season buzzwords everyone likes to use whether its true or not.....One name to remember... Bianca Sauls of UTA. She only played about half of 2008 due to injury and UT-Arlington really wasn't any good last year so she's a bit under the radar. But a careful look at what she was able to do while healthy points to a pretty darn good player.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

2009 Veteran Previews: Sophomores

This is the last in a series of three posts focusing on the returning Ladyjacks to this year's squad. The start of the season is fast approaching as the team heads for DeKalb, Illinois this time next week. It will be a semi-homecoming for three of the 'Jacks as Kuepker, Buckner and Franklin all call home within 130 miles of DeKalb - albeit in three different states.

Next on tap here at the blog will be interviews with our freshmen and comments on the recently released Southland Conference preseason polls (we are picked fourth or fifth depending on how you count). Also, since most of us won't be able to root on the Ladyjacks up North, we'll do the next best thing and scout an opponent: Make sure and join me next Saturday night, August 29 at 7:00 as I'll be in Huntsville to blog while watching Sam Houston take on our first home opponent, Louisiana-Lafayette. Our girls will be flying back to Texas at that point, so we'll be able to discuss our first four matches pre-game in Huntsville. Now, without delay... capsules on the three veterans beginning their second year in purple.

1 MC Bottles 6-0 Middle Blocker

Well, that didn't take long now did it?

I gotta admit something, here. I study more now than ever before. Volleyball, I mean. See, I'm writing this super-duper terrific blow your mind blog now [insert a wink and two thumbs up here] So, I uh....need to know stuff better than ever before.

Last year, the first time I actually SAW the new freshmen was about an hour-and-a-half before the home opener. Oh, I read about them and knew all the basic facts, but I hadn't watched them practice or sat and talked with coaches the way I have this year. Of course, last year the freshmen had to wait far too long to play in front of the home crowd because of a little problem called Ike. So, imagine my surprise when we finally get in Johnson Coliseum and Bottles hits .647 with only one error and blocks eight balls in her first ever home match.

I can still remember glancing down at Ben Rikard (SFA's Volleyball SID) during the match. He easily anticipated my about-to-be comment about Bottles play and without a word out of my mouth he says "Yeah, she's that good."

Yes, she is that good. First-team All-Southland Conference as a freshman says so. Third in the SLC with an insane .356 hitting percentage says so. Seventh in the SLC with 0.88 blocks per game says so.

Here's the scary thing: She's going to get better. Bottles just toys with people when running the slide. She's just murder on that type of attack. At times, virtually unstoppable. Defensively, she just always seems to get to her spot.

Kristy Rhodes, Middle Blocker: Southland Conference Player of the Year - 2001
Brittany Burton, Middle Blocker: Southland Conference Player of the Year -2004
Traci Rohde, Middle Blocker: Two-Time SLC First Team Selection (2006, 2007)

Do you see just a wee bit of history here? Can Bottles leave SFA in 2011 with her place in SFA Volleyball lore equal to those three? Probably so...and then some. If she manages good health during her three remaining years in the program, most folks close to SFA Volleyball would tell you she just might eclipse them all.

You know what's amazing? Watching the team - you just KNOW Bottles is a leader. It's very clear. She has the respect of everyone else involved. Rock Steady. To me, she is the most likely player we have on any given night to just come out and take over. There are going to be nights this year in the Coliseum where Bottles just lights people up. The match high for kills last year in the conference was 24. I am on record right now for saying MC puts up 25+ at least once this season.

Last week, I wrote that our other starting middle blocker, senior Ashley Bailey, has Conference MVP potential. The same is clearly true about Bottles. It's especially true when you consider she's got three shots at it. I'm sure she'd trade it for three SLC championships and eating Chipotle at the NCAA Tourney a few times, but any prestigious individual accolade MC garners during her career should surprise no one.

Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Rhodes, Burton, Rohde, Bottles. Sounds good to me.

5 Amber Williams-Roberts 5-9 Outside Hitter

You want a sleeper pick? Right here.

The list of veteran outside hitters on this team: Owens, Williams-Roberts, Miksch. Owens was profiled last week and she is as crucial a player as any to just how far the team goes in '09. Mel is previewed below. Amber got in about half of the actual games the club played last year (55) and swung .157 with 90 kills. All of those numbers should go up in 2009.

The 'Jacks outside hitters killed 872 balls last year. 64% of those kills belong to folks no longer wearing a jersey. It is no secret that the team has a big task in filling the spots vacated by '08 seniors Lauren Railey and Shelly Swendig. KO will take one of the OH spots, but the others are a little less clear.

That being said, Williams-Roberts becoming more of a go-to option on the outside would really be a nice complement to the attacks provided by Bailey, Bottles and Owens. Think of it this way: In football, if you have a pair of wideouts, a tight end, and a running back that can all catch the ball at various depths on the field, then what does that do? It opens the offense up. The quarterback has multiple targets and he can pick and choose how to slice up the defense.

Same thing, here. Bottles and Bailey are going to catch no one off guard. Everyone we play knows that they will get their sets. But see... Owens and Williams-Roberts could really open things up. Kuepker is smart. Buckner, too. If they get good passes and can just put two hands above their heads and start picking and choosing which slots at the net to put the ball in - and we get consistent success from the middles and the outsides...well, hello San Antonio - we'll have a side of guacamole with that top seed.

My point is: Williams-Roberts improving creates options. Options prevent defenses from keying on our middles.

A possible lineup card (granted, brought to you by, not Debbie Humphreys..and remember.. I'm 484 victories behind):

S Kuepker/Buckner
MB Bailey, Bottles
L Hanlan
OH Owens
Plus 2

Now, here's the great thing about that "Plus 2" and it also happens to be the great thing about Humphreys filling out the card and not me: she's got a lot of different combinations to look at for that "Plus 2".

Williams-Roberts and Daron
Williams-Roberts and a freshman OH
Daron and a freshman OH
Start Buckner at S and Lo on back row plus one of Williams-Roberts, Daron, Freshman.

See what I mean? In the end, you just need to find one of those that really works and you hope more than one does in case of the unforeseen. Watch for these various combinations and others during the tournaments. Humphreys will more than likely get a good long look at as many different rotation possibilities as she can to settle on optimal places for everyone come conference time.

But when you think about who the seven girls will be that start out on the floor, its easy to envision that Williams-Roberts name would be in there. She doesn't have to be in the top three on the club in kills, she just needs to step up and handle more rotations. She, along with KO, needs to be a viable option so that we have a true outside presence to complement our dominance in the middle.

I will add this: My only mildly trained eyes tell me that Williams-Roberts is indeed improved. She has looked really good in a few of the practices I've seen. Plus, one thing I just love about her - she is always smiling. Not goofing off...just keeping it light while working really hard. I admire that.

She will be an integral part of SFA Volleyball's success before she's done here. Right now? Maybe so. She's a good sleeper pick.

15 Melissa Miksch 5-9 Outside Hitter

OK, so I was over at Popeye's sucking down some chicken the other day and they've got all this crazy writing all over the wall. One of the phases written there in this fine establishment was "A little a 'dis...a little a 'dat".

A little of this. A little of that. That's Miksch. She provides depth on the outside. Humphreys raves about her improvement. Hey, she's really a good passer which makes her a more than adequate option for rotations where she can play on the back row. Oh, yeah.. that serve. Pretty darn nifty.

Everyone knows I'm a baseball guy.. and when I think of Mel, I think of utility players in baseball. You know what? Those are the kind of players that coaches love. You know at a minimum that she is going to get short bursts of court time to provide stabilization in one role or another. A little sluggish on back row tonight? "Oh, Mel... check in please." Need a big serve to gain some momentum... "Psst. Miss Miksch to the scorer's table....Miss Miksch to the scorer's table". She gets a hot hand on a few attacks? Let her roll.

If you have one thing you do, and you go cold on your one thing any given night, then what? You might as well sit your fanny on the pine. But see, that's not Miksch. She's not going to lead the team in kills or digs - although, she'll keep her share from bouncing off the floor. But, she is going to be an option for a spark.

You're loony in the head if you think these type players can't make a difference in a match. I hate to keep bringin' this game up, but last year against Lamar, Genevieve Gladle drops in two consecutive aces forcing a timeout from our side. Lamar goes on to put up four aces in that first and ugly set. We kicked their tail the next two sets, but we know how it ended. Those aces in that first set made a significant difference and without the momentum they provided, we might have very well wiped them back to the refineries 3-0.

Miksch isn't a big hitter or flashy blocker. She's not 6-3 and she's not overly vocal. She's a solid, sound volleyball player. She's got a little of this and a little of that. She was 5th on the team with 1.62 digs per game last year. I mentioned it when previewing Daron last week and it's worth saying again. Depth is good. Miksch fits in on this team in so many ways.

A good heist has to have the main burglars and a few lurking conspirators to pull everything off. Let's let MC, Lo, KO and crew be the criminals. Mel will do just fine being an accomplice to the crime.

Friday, August 14, 2009

2009 Veteran Previews: Juniors

This is the second of what will be three posts which profile the veterans returning to the court for SFA Volleyball this season. The senior previews are below these and the sophomores get their turn in the spotlight next week. We certainly won't forget the fab five: the freshmen on Debbie Humphreys squad will get showcased in a different way than this. More on that next week. But without further delay lets look a little closer at the third-year players.

3 Laurel Kuepker 5-6 Setter

"There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right
direction." - Winston Churchill

Back in 2006 when All-American Stephanie Figgers was on her way to 756,215 digs or whatever I would often lament about how we were going to replace her when she finished her four year stint at SFA. One day before a match one of the coaches took me aside and told me to look over in the front row of the stands. "That girl right there....there's our replacement for Figgers over there" - I was told. "That girl" was sitting with her father taking everything in during a recruiting visit and I swear she looked all of 14 years old. "That girl" was Laurel Kuepker.

Kuepker wore the libero jersey in her first ever collegiate game and collected 22 digs in a tournament win against Montana State. That was then...this is now: Newsflash - Setter from '08 bolts for cheeseland and Lo's gonna set instead of play libero.

Fine. I trust Humphreys when she says that Kuepker can handle it. Hey, assistant coach Brian Yale ran an offense while at Bowling Green. Assistant Coach Erin McClanahan has a couple thousand assists in her past as a player. They know. These people know. Couple that with Lo's intelligence and the fact that setting is in her past as a prep player and I am totally a believer.

However, I'm a numbers guy and the numbers say this will be quite a task. Kuepker eventually gave way to veteran Jami Hill at the libero spot in '07. The team benefited - Lo benefited. It took some pressure off and ultimately paved the way for Kuepker to excel last year.
Let's just get this out of the way right now: Kuepker got robbed. I mean, held up at gunpoint and robbed. Kuepker gets "Honorable Mention" SLC? I nearly flipped out. Seriously? She leads the conference in digs per game, accounts for three of the five times ANYONE in the conference goes for 3o digs, earns defensive player of the week more than ANYONE in the conference and friggin' Kelsey Jewasko of UTSA gets libero of the year? Oh, yeah.. and after the conference crowns Jewasko what does she do in her one tournament game: 12 digs (4/game). Kuepker? 33 digs (6.6/game). Have I made my case? Nothing against Ms. Jewakso, but that voting was a joke. Plain and simple.

So, Kuepker is leaving a spot on the floor where arguably she was the best in the conference. That's guts. That's coaching guts. Hey, consider this: Kuepker averaged 3.75 digs per game as a freshman and a translated 5.34 digs per game as a sophomore (recall, we gotta adjust for playing to 25 now). Figgers averaged 4.1 digs per game as a fish and 5.39 per game as a sophomore. Now, I am not saying Lo would have been the second coming of the libero deity that is Stephanie Figgers. I am simply saying Kuepker's record at libero isn't drastically different than Figgers at this point in her career.

So, is it Schott leaving or Hanlan coming that is the principle component here? Both? Or, is it neither - maybe Lo would move to setter if Schott stays and Hanlan goes elsewhere. Only three people know the answer to that and I'm not going to make a habit of second guessing those three.

Facts are facts: Kuepker led the conference in digs per game and could (should, gosh doggit) have won Libero of the Year. Schott was second in the SLC in assists per game. Replacing all that isn't like flipping a light switch. Then again, consider these words:
"Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past
or present are certain to miss the future. - John F. Kennedy"
In Lo we trust. Kuepker is the future. Fearless prediction: It wouldn't surprise me one bit if someone as smart and savvy as "that girl" thumbs her nose at the '08 voters and brings down the house in '09. And if she does? Her place in SFA volleyball history is pretty much "set".
10 Kelsey Owens 5-10 Outside Hitter
To me, KO is the key.

Middles? Dominant. Should be good to go.

Setters? We've covered that. Kuepker and Buckner give every sign they can shoulder that load. Also, my ears hear and eyes see newbie Gideon getting praise. Check.

Hitters? Someone...maybe TWO someones... have got to step up. Big Time.

Back row will be and has been discussed elsewhere. Its got question marks too but this team needs its hitters to take giant leaps forward if its going to hover atop the SLC standings.

I will tell you right now where my eyes will go in the boxscores during the first few games of the season before I can witness things first hand in Johnson Coliseum: Row: Owens. Column: Hitting Percentage.

Owens' career hitting percentage is .160. She hit .190 last year. The conference as a whole hit .192 last year.

If someone asked me to make a list of what this club has to do to make sure it goes farther than one game in the SLC Tourney, then the first thing on my list is "Owens has to bring it. Night in. Night out." If Owens breaks out and starts throwing down on people, then look out - this team is going to be good. Really good. If KO hits .190 again? Meh.

If you've been halfway paying attention, then you know this team has no senior OH's. So, here's your default leader at outside hitter. Will Owens lead this team in attacks? If you had to guess right now, she'd be your choice, right? It's not unreasonable for a leading attacker on a club at this level to swing 1000+ times. Owens' had 559 attacks last year. It looks as though she's in for a lot more ice on that shoulder after matches.

The Kuepker switch can go fine. Hanlan can pull a Jewakso. Bottles and Bailey will see your attack and raise you a solo block and still, if Owens is so-so it ain't gonna matter much. She's going to have to lead.

I know we are focused on 2009, but since I believe Owens is the #1 key, consider this: Suppose Owens (and Williams-Roberts) really step up this year. Suppose Kuepker is honky-dorry at setter and Hanlan is really a wonderkid. Imagine 2010. Despite losing Bailey wouldn't this team be really set up for 2010? Bottles. Owens. Kuepker. Williams-Roberts. Hanlan. If that's most of the core now and they are good, then doesn't it stand to reason that they'd be great in 2010? That's without even mentioning Daron/Miksch and the fact that one or more of the other freshman from this class may contribute in a meaningful way. I know I am getting the cart ahead of the horse, but my point is: However good we are in 2009 - and we could be really good - I think we'll be even better in 2010.

I like KO. I really do. She's the one player I've got my fingers crossed tightest on. I really, really want to see her become one of the top outside hitters in the conference. Start the count to 1000 now. Let's find out.

4 Arielle Daron 5-10 Middle Blocker

You see that picture over there? That's Kasey McBrearty of A&M Corpus Christi in 'fail' mode. Return to sender with love from Ari and Bay.

I really hope one of my most common phrases from the mic this year is "Blocked by Daron and Whomever" I won't actually say "Whomever", I'll say whomever actually got the block assist.. oh, you get it...

Depth is good. This team needs players like Daron. If she's your third best MB, then you are really, really deep in the middle. I know its early in the practice season, but I've watched a couple of afternoon sessions in the past week and Daron is one of the players that most impresses me. She's Middle Blocker gravy. I think we all know Bailey and Bottles are the main dish.

Man, how scary are the middles on this team if Daron contributes significantly? In a couple of drills in practice last week, Humphreys had Daron and freshman Sabrina Burns working with the outsides taking four-sets against one blocker. Daron's really athletic and if she becomes versatile, then obviously that gives the coaching staff more options on how to integrate her into schemes. I am really curious to see how she gets used this year and she's one of the players I am most anxious to ask Humphreys about. Like Sophomore Melissa Miksch, she may not go into the year asked to shoulder a major load, but if those two push the players ahead of them on the depth chart a little, then that's all the better.
Once during practice, I heard Humphreys yell out "If you can find that one thing you do really well, then do it over and over and make it your way to contribute." It may have been just coincidence, but she was facing directly toward Daron and Miksch standing side-by-side in line. It was almost as if Humphreys was affirming the importance of role players - and who knows what might happen in the course of a season - roles change.
Despite getting in just 42 sets last year, Daron virtually tied Shelly Swendig for third on the team in blocks per set. That's a good sign - when she was in there, generally speaking, she was blocking well. All signs point to improvement. Depth is good.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

2009 Veteran Previews: Seniors

This is the first of three posts which showcase the veterans returning for 2009. Today we focus on the seniors that will take the court for Debbie Humphreys squad. Over the weekend, we'll turn our attention to the juniors and the sophomore class gets all the attention during the middle of next week. Oh, you can be sure we won't forget the freshman. With five of them, we are going to try and do something special to introduce all of you to the newcomers.

13 Ashley Bailey 6-0 Middle Blocker

100+ blocks. Mark it down - it's as good as in the books. Don't believe me? Then consider that Bailey has been amazingly consistent at the net since returning from her redshirt season in 2006. Realize that any comparison between stats put up in 2007 and 2008 has to adjust for the sets being played to 25 for the first time last year. In 2008, Bailey led the conference with an even 1.00 block per game while tallying 91 total rejections. Translated to 30 point sets, that's equivalent to 1.20 blocks per (30 point) game. In 2007, Bailey posted an essentially equivalent figure of 1.22 blocks/game. So, at the net, you know what you are going to get. She leads a core of middle blockers that will be as solid as any crew in the Southland Conference. Mix Bailey in with '08 SLC First Team selection MC Bottles and throw in the depth provided by Arielle Daron and opposing hitters are gonna have to get used to their attacks landing on their own side of the floor. That's without even factoring in any bonus contribution the 'Jacks get from 6-2 freshman Amber Doolittle.

The real leap forward by Bailey in 2008 wasn't in terms of defensive presence at the net. Instead, a complete player emerged as evidenced by more efficiency on offense. Her .298 hitting percentage was second only to Bottles on the club and really represents the step forward made from 2007 when she hit just .165. Kills per game stayed fairly constant going from a translated 2.24 per game in '07 to 2.35 per game in '08. Its the efficiency that made the difference - a feature Humphreys surely hopes to see again in '09.

There was always the potential for this. Bailey was often labeled as "raw" prior to her injury - her athleticism from day one on campus was undeniable. The difference now is that the raw power is harnessed and she clearly has become an all around force. She's imposing and intimidating... and she's an anchor. At a minimum expect a performance equal to her SLC Honorable Mention campaign in 2008. An even modest step forward and she's in the running for 1st team honors and SLC Player of the Year.

Her overall career numbers may not rival what Bottles totals will be by 2011, but that's only because Bailey played in the shadow of Traci Rohde until last year. Along with Bottles, she is as steady a contributor as the club has going into 2009. She's got no question marks hanging over her head like a few of her colleagues. Reliability is what to expect and she's got the ability to put the team on her shoulders - as broad and as strong as they are.

2 Paloma Buckner 5-11 Setter

During late October of last year primary setter Whitney Schott was fresh off a career high 62 assists in win against Sam Houston. No matter. Buckner was called on in the next conference match and responded with 41 of her own against rival Lamar. It was a very emotional match as the 'Jacks jumped out to a 2-1 set lead but ultimately had to watch Lamar celebrate a comeback win on our home floor. That match was the beginning of a shifting back and forth between Schott and Buckner as the primary play caller the rest of the year.

You need only know two things about how that setting seesaw eventually played out: 1) Humphreys went to Buckner in the decisive fifth set in the SLC Tourney game against Sam Houston and 2) Schott is probably now mixing in figure skating with setting on the frozen tundra that is Wisconsin-Green Bay.

I get the feel Humphreys genuinely trusts Buckner in an obviously more visible role this year. She won't have to carry the lion's share of the setting duties with teammate Laurel Kuepker trading in the libero jersey for her quarterback assignment alongside Buckner. Just how much time on the court Buckner gets in '09 is still unclear. But, I've got to believe that the combination of Buckner and Kuepker will be productive and the distribution of playing time looks to be fluid depending upon Kuepker's effectiveness in her new role. Be sure: Buckner is more than insurance against Kuepker's transition. Buckner would probably do just fine running the whole show - that probably won't be how it plays out, but its got to make the coaching staff comfortable knowing they can go with a twin attack of Lo and Buckner when necessary.

As I see it, Buckner's role is influenced to some degree by what freshman Maddie Hanlan can handle on the back row. Humphreys would like to see Hanlan contribute significantly at libero. If she can do that, then not having Kuepker in the off-colored jersey is a more comfortable proposition. One has to wonder if the club would be tempted to go back to Lo at libero if Hanlan needs more time before assuming a large defensive role. If so, Buckner would stand to benefit from increased time at setter. All signs point to Kuepker's role truly having shifted, but this is August and what really matters is what Humphreys sees as the best personnel to trot out on the court come November.

Buckner looks to make a significant contribution in '09. To what degree is the only issue. The bottom line: I think everyone involved sees the total contribution coming at setter as superior to what the club got last year.

6 Sydney Milburn 5-7 DS

Defensive Specialists don't get enough credit. All work, too little glory. The game is based around getting this ball-thingy over the net and they're the ones that play farthest away from it. "Back Row" players they're called. Where do you want to be at a concert? Front Row or Back Row? See what I mean. It's not fair.

For my money though, I still say the play I want to see the most is someone diving face first into the hardwood with arm extended saving a ball from going off the floor. Even the statistical term implies it's dirty work: the dig. Gotta love it. That's Milburn's job. Back row defense.
Trivia: Take away the fact that Lauren Railey can't put on the uniform anymore and that the aforementioned Kuepker has assumed the role of setter and who does that leave as the returner with the most number of digs per game?
Winner-winner chicken dinner: That'd be Milburn. Of the five freshmen that are just getting acclimated to college volleyball, only Hanlan is a back-row specialist. The club doesn't have near the DS depth that they do in the middle front - and maybe they don't need it, but when I scan the roster and only see "DS" twice that tells me that Milburn may very well see the court more in '09 than she did in '08. Hey, just like Buckner, Milburn was on the floor when the last set of the season commenced. She saw action in all five sets that night. Hopefully, she can build on the 12 digs that she put up in the final match of 2008.
One interesting note: At the team dinner last Sunday, Coach Humphreys chose Milburn to end the night by telling all in attendance what they could expect from the team in 2009. That told me something. Whether on the floor a ton or not, Milburn is a senior - and with that comes the expectation of leadership. She seems to be up to the task. Make sure and yell just a little louder when she digs one off the floor while crashing into press row. Remember, DS's don't get enough credit.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Setting Out on the 2009 Season...

They're coming. From Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin & Oklahoma: they're coming. From closer places such as the greater Austin and DFW areas....they are coming. Some of the girls are already here; others are literally driving in as I post this. But, they'll all be here - veterans and newbies - by the mandatory reporting date of Sunday evening.

A meeting last week with coaches to talk over ideas for occupying the space you are reading was filled with an eager vibe. At the end of last year, head coach Debbie Humphreys wrote that the clubs' final win-loss record of 20-9 was not up to par for the program. During our meeting, I floated out the possibility that such a statement might just be "coach speak". Humphreys stuck by her words while making one thing crystal clear: there is an expectation that the veterans on this team will take substantial steps forward. Additionally, the newcomers won't have much time to exhale once practice begins since they will definitely be integrated in a meaningful way from Day One. The overall goal? Let's just say it is not 20-9.

Both coaches and players have got a lot of work to do over the next few days. That countdown to the right of this post is under 20 days now. That's not a lot of time to get five newcomers blended in with the nine returning girls.

We've got a lot of work to do here at too. But first, if you haven't noticed, Assistant Director of Media Relations Ben Rikard has begun his own chronicle of the team over at the
official site. He's also announced that Laurel Kuepker will handle the player blog duties this year. I'm thrilled this feature is continuing because of the inside nature of the player blogs: learning new vocabulary, memorizing every freaking La Madeleine and Chipotle location in Texas, figuring out where I should be shopping for my wife- these are all things I've learned over the years reading the player blogs. Hey..those player blogs have raised my game. I got called out one time in a player blog for mispronouncing a girls' name...see if I make that mistake again! [Oh, I will].

Plus, you won't want to miss Ben's spin on Ladyjack Volleyball. He's an excellent writer and if you don't read his "Weekly Releases" then you are about to get some serious homework assignments from yours' truly.

So, what's on tap here at Sunday night is the kick-off-the-year team dinner (I'm on the invite list and I'm stoked about that). The team will practice twice a day beginning all next week and I'll be in attendance at least twice during those sessions. I'll check in with you next week concerning those activities and we'll also begin a series of 2009 Veteran Previews. The seniors will be the focus in the first installment. Check back here early next week to read the capsules on Bailey, Buckner and Milburn. But in the meantime, spread the word about our Facebook group and Twitter follows. Mark your calendars for the home opener on September 2 at 7:00 against Louisiana-Lafayette.

Quick sets from around the conference: UTSA and Lamar are having Alumni games against their current girls right before the regular season starts. Sounds risky to me....The article on the SHSU website announcing their girls' have returned to campus mentions beating us in the SLC Tourney in the very first paragraph. Fine. Ya know what: See ya October 21....Texas State is going to make players available for autographs after their meet-n-greet night. Hooray! Just what I always wanted: a Jessica Weynand signed headband. Not....UTSA is going to go to Hawaii this year. Expect them to lose a few to transferring next year... Half of the conference is advertising the Chop House Cheddar Burger from Whataburger on their sites. Stop it already....Oh, except Nicholls - they've got ads from an Anheuser-Busch distributor followed by ads from Coors and McDonald's...all wrapped up with an ad for a local hospital underneath them all. Coincidence?