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.