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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Conference Opponent Breakdown: Central Arkansas

It's early in Southland Conference play, but a very important match looms for SFA on Monday night against Central Arkansas. There will definitely be revenge in the air at Johnson Coliseum when UCA takes the floor. I'll remind you that last year the Sugar Bears waltzed into town and handed the 'Jacks their first loss via the broom in conference play since 2001. That night, Central Arkansas hit almost .300 compared to SFA's .145. If you've been following volleyball in the conference even casually then you know the name Chloe Smith. She was the player of the year in the conference last year. Here is the painful thing about reflecting back on the UCA sweep of the 'Jacks last year: Chloe Smith really didn't play well - six kills, six digs, three blocks, hitting .125. It was Jessica Hays and Amicha Williams that did the damage that evening.

Now, to tell the complete story, earlier in the 2008 season the 'Jacks went into Conway and beat UCA 3-1. From that you might infer that the clubs were fairly evenly matched. That might very well have been true. In fact, when the Sugar Bears left Nacogdoches with their 3-0 win in early November the 'Jacks and Bears had identical records overall AND in conference. However, SFA was shell-shocked by the UCA loss and later the next week lost a poorly played match at McNeese. On the contrary, UCA didn't lose again the remainder of their season.

When the 2008 season was over and winter came, I often thought back to the match against UCA. I think it fair to say that the match that night was a turning point - unfortunately for the worst.

This time around, it's too early in the SLC schedule to make that statement. No matter how things turn out Monday night it's far too early to say the tide will be turned one way or another. That being said, the next three matches for the 'Jacks will be a decent barometer for the club. We get UCA at home, non-conference Tulane at home and then on the road for the first time in SLC play against upstart McNeese. Looking at UCA's
schedule it appears their toughest home match remaining is us. If they were to come in here and rock our world, then it is entirely possible that the only bump in their SLC road would then be a duel in San Marcos in mid-October.

SF A Volleyball Sports Information Director
Ben Rikard has let it be known that Central Arkansas was his pick to top the Southland. He gets an "official" vote and I very much trust his judgement. I didn't rank the clubs here at the blog, but if given a preseason vote I, independent of Ben, would have taken Central Arkansas as well.

OK, this is just my opinion here: Right now, I mean at this very moment while I am writing - I think Central Arkansas and SFA are the two top teams in the conference. That is not what I thought going into the year. To be completely honest, we are a little ahead of what I expected and Lamar and Texas State are a little behind how I had them gauged. Texas State will be there when it's all said and done. Lamar? I'm not so sure.

Therefore, in my eyes, the winner of Monday's match will be front-runner in the conference at that point. Of course, it is very, very early. But still... we could be watching the top two clubs in the SLC in Johnson Coliseum on Monday.

So...what do they bring to Nacogdoches? Here is what they return from 2008:

Kills: 72% (5th of 12)
Assists: 93% (6th of 12)
Blocks: 57% (8th of 12)
Digs: 68% (9th of 12)

As you can see, there was a decent turnover from last years' team. Its not like they didn't lose anything from their outstanding 2008 campaign. So far in 2009, they have done an excellent job of finding replacements for the losses you see above.

2008 Record: 24-7, 12-4 SLC - their four losses in conference last year were to SFA, Texas State, UTSA...and rather surprisingly, Texas-Arlington. I'll have to admit - before doing research for this post, I had forgotten about the loss to UTA - so, of course, I looked it up. UT-Arlington was able to hold the Bears to just .160 hitting, well below their season average. Amanda Aguilera for UTA almost had a twenty-double with 18 kills and 19 digs. UT-Arlington came into that match 0-6 in SLC play. Wow.

Key Losses: For as good as they appear, UCA did lose three more than decent contributors from last years' squad. Emily Gordon was third on the team in kills and second in blocks. More impressively, she was second in the conference in hitting percentage. She might have been an oversight in terms of not winning at least an honorable mention from the conference. UCA also loses Natalie Lundquist who was tied for first on the team in blocks per set, 5th on the club in kills and ninth in the entire conference in hitting percentage at .282. Lastly, the Bears lose their libero from 2008 who was Kelly Bence. Bence also was potentially an SLC award snub as she was third in the conference in digs per game - trailing only our own Laurel Kuepker and (sigh) libero of the year Kelsey Jewasko of UTSA (*cough-whatever-cough*).

Key Additions: Basically, to this point, just one: Taylor Hammonds. Hammonds is a freshman from Tomball, Texas and is leading the team in blocks (with an impressive 12 solo) and is fifth on the team in kills. Hammonds is a regular starter and essentially acts as Lundquist's replacement.

Who to Watch: What makes UCA still tough despite the losses being greater than the additions is that some returning players who weren't starters last year have stepped up into starting positions and are playing strong. The two I have in mind here are Evaree Franklin at middle blocker and new libero Cristin Curl. It's not like these two were useless to the club last year. They both saw decent action off the bench for Steve McRoberts team, but this year they are regular starters and they are offsetting the losses of Gordon and Bence, respectively. Despite these two veterans stepping forward, the player to watch for the Bears is clearly Chloe Smith. You won't miss her. She's 6'3" - and she's a big 6'3" - and I mean that respectfully. Chloe Smith is just a big volleyball player. Just surf on over to the
SLC's volleyball page and watch the pictures on the main page rotate around. Ignore the low quality one of Chanel Tyler of McNeese and try not to laugh at AJ Watlington of Texas State in her "I won the lottery" pose. There are two photos of Smith in rotation there. In terms of just being physically intimidating, she is the only player that immediately comes to mind that rivals our own Ashley Bailey.

Also, keep an eye on last year's Freshman of the Year Jessica Hays. She's been a little up and down so far this year. But, when they came here last year, I walked away from that match telling folks that I thought Hays was going to be a candidate for Player of the Year Honors at some point in her tenure at UCA. Given she is one year behind Chloe Smith, that could be 2011. I've said just a few days ago here in another post that Hays and Lamar's Kaci Brewer where the two most impressive visiting players I saw last year. I like Hays a lot - she can do it all: hit, dig, serve.

Finally, Robyn Smith - a first team All-SLC selection from last year returns again at setter for UCA. She is as fine as the conference has to offer at that position. Chloe Smith, Jessica Hays and Robyn Smith make for a really solid trifecta.

Possible Lineup: This is pretty much set in stone. The Sugar Bears will almost certainly start Robyn Smith at setter, Hays on the left side, Chloe Smith on the right side, Amicha Williams as the other outside hitter and then Hammonds and Franklin at the MB positions. Curl will be the libero. In fact, we are really only guaranteed at seeing those seven and then DS Chloe Evans who subs in when a choice MB slot rotates to back row. The Sugar Bears other four players see the court very rarely.

Final Thoughts: This team can flat out hit. As of this writing, they lead the conference in hitting percentage with Franklin, Hammonds and Chloe Smith running 2, 3 and 4 in individual hitting percentage leaders in the conference. Robyn Smith leads the conference in assists per set and Chloe Smith has a huge lead on the rest of the conference in kills per set. It is worth mentioning that both Hays and Chloe Smith are excellent servers, finishing one and two in aces per set last year. Hays is currently fifth this year.

But, and here is why this is going to be a dog fight - Bailey and Bottles are second and fourth in the conference, respectively, in blocks per set. The battle at the net between Smith/Franklin/Hammonds and Bottles/Bailey/Owens is going to be big time. Plus, the back rows will not be slouches either with Curl and Hanlan going after balls. On that point, our block has got to be solid and our back row positioning for digs has got to be dead on. Several witnesses to the loss earlier in the week to North Texas claimed that the back row defense wasn't quite up to snuff. Monday night will be a big test for Maddie Hanlan, Melissa Miksch and other hitters like Williams-Roberts and Owens that have back-row responsibility. I think they are up to it.

On paper, I think Central Arkansas has an edge. The fact that the match is in Nacogdoches makes it dead even in my opinion. I think it goes five. We need to prove we can win in a slug fest. Let's get on with it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mid-Season Awards

You may not realize it, but in terms of matches played we are at the half-way point of the season. Oh, I know - we are barely into SLC Conference play and now the number of games per week slows down. But still, in terms of compiling statistics, we are half done. So, below, I am presenting my choices for first team all-SLC based on the pre-conference part of the schedule. Last year, the conference placed 12 girls on the "first team". I will stick by that count. As we go through conference play, watch for these players and we'll see how my opinion changes when we get to November - when it really counts. Then we'll see how the picks made here compare with the coaches and sports information directors.

Just one more prefacing point: I am definitely a "stats guy" - it's what I do for a living. But, I did not just look at leader boards here. Sure, they play a role for anyone that puts themselves in this position. But, I really have looked through and read game wraps and articles posted on other school's websites to try and get a feel for the "whole picture" the best I can.

In alphabetical order by last name:

First-Team ALL SLC (Mid-Season)

MB Ashley Bailey (SFA)
MB MC Bottles (SFA)
MB Nicole Bowden (McNeese)
MB Jayme Bazile (Lamar)

L Cristin Curl (Central Arkansas)
L Danielle Daigle (Nicholls)
OH Carli Kolbe (Sam Houston)
S Adrienne Meengs (Lamar)
RS Chloe Smith (Central Arkansas)
S Robyn Smith (Central Arkansas)
OH Chanel Tyler (McNeese)
OH Jessica Weynand (Texas State)

Just missed: Anna Ferguson (Sam Houston), Sarah Cartie (McNeese), Madison Hanlan (SFA), Priscilla Massengale (McNeese), Emma Ridley (TAMUCC)

Player of the Mid-Year: Chloe Smith, Central Arkansas
Freshman of the Mid-Year: Jayme Bazile, Lamar
Newcomer of the Mid-Year: Emma Ridley, TAMUCC
Setter of the Mid-Year: Robyn Smith, Central Arkansas
Libero of the Mid-Year: Cristin Curl, Central Arkansas
Coach of the Mid-Year: Debbie Humphreys, SFA

Comments: It seemed strange to only include one player from Texas State on the list, but so far they have seemed a little sluggish. That may be due to their grueling non-conference schedule. I think they are about to get it together, so watch for setter Brittany Collins or newcomer Mo Middleton to jump on this list. The thing about Texas State is that they don't have many dominant players aside from possibly Weynand, but gosh do they have a TON of above average ones (Collins, Middleton, Watlington, Cave, Calhoun, etc.).

If McNeese continues to impress, Dale Starr is a good choice for Coach of the Year, but I just can't quite pull the trigger on that yet. The players I have named for them above are veterans and established quality players. I actually think that SFA is in as good a position as anyone in the conference going into this weekend - which is why the mid-year award goes to Humphreys.

Some people could argue that I should have left Meengs off this list. I can't. She is so different than any other setter in the SLC in that she presents herself as an offensive weapon. A tip of the hat to Reagan Daniel at UT-Arlington in this regard too.

Listen, we have some fantastic player of the year candidates here at SFA in Bailey and Bottles, but the best player in this conference was Chloe Smith last year, it will be this year, and probably will be next year. It is entirely possible she will go down as one of the greatest players ever in the Southland. That's my opinion any way. With all due respect to the program that Central Arkansas is building, she is too good for them.

One omission from the above list is last year's freshman of the year Jessica Hays - again from UCA. Last year, I didn't even think it was close in terms of her being the best freshman. Hays, along with Lamar's Kaci Brewer, were my two favorite players to watch from opposing teams last year. I was "wowed" by both of them when they played in Johnson Coliseum. Of course, Brewer was MVP of the tourney last year.

Don't forget the names Pricilla Massengale [Freshman] of McNeese and Mo Middleton [Transfer] of Texas State. They'd be my runners-up for freshman and newcomer. Hanlan would be right in there too (for Freshman honors)....I am not forgetting about her.

If our own Melissa Miksch keeps putting up double-doubles in conference, then her name emerges on the awards bubble too.

Finally, after watching freshman Courtney Wypisznyski of A&M-Corpus Christi last week, I am convinced that if she will keep defenses honest by dumping and hitting more, then she could turn out to be a good player. I was really impressed with her size. She looks like she should be an offensive force, but seemed timid in terms of attacking. Any setter 6'1" should look to pick and choose her spots, but she didn't. There is no other primary setter in the conference within two inches in height of her...she needs to use that to her advantage.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Conference Opponent Breakdown: Northwestern State

Today we continue a look at foes from around the Southland. The Demons from Northwestern State will be in Nacogdoches on Saturday afternoon so in this entry we'll focus exclusively on them. Let's get right to this. Northwestern State is an average club at best. That might be too kind.

They return virtually everyone from a so-so 2008 season in which they squeaked into the Conference Tournament as the final seed. Any improvement from last year is going to be provided by veterans taking substantial steps forward. That probably isn't going to happen. Now, to give them their due, they did come into Johnson Coliseum for the 2008 tourney and temporarily stun #1 seed Texas State by winning the first set. Yelena Enwere and Laranda Spann knocked down several balls each and Spann dropped in a few aces and a what-d-ya know... the Demons were rolling. I was on the mic loving every minute of it. The Bobcats won that match in four sets, but each of them were close. The Demons only played seven players that night. It was a decent showing for Northwestern State and they left the SLC Tourney with some level of hope for 2009.

But, I just can't get excited about this team at all. I mean, not at all. Do they get to the 2009 SLC tourney in San Antonio? Yeah, probably. But one-and-done is their destiny. They'll get matched up against Texas State or us or host UTSA and get rocked.

Let's break this club down and give you a sense of what you'll see on Saturday. First, like last time with TAMUCC, let's remind you of what they return from last year:

Kills: 89% (1st of 12)
Assists: 99% (2nd of 12)
Blocks: 92% (1st of 12)
Digs: 93% (2nd of 12)

So, if you recall the
Stats 101 post from late August, these guys and Southeast Louisiana are returning basically everyone instrumental from 2008. Now, returning veterans is fine if you are returning a lot of talent. That just isn't the case here. A step forward for Northwestern would mean a .500 record in the Southland - nothing more. By the looks of their early season struggles, the club may actually be moving backward rather than forward. As of this writing they have played nine matches and won only five SETS. Not good. Now, I've got to give them some props. They lost 3-0 to Central Arkansas - a really good team - and each set was lost by only the minimum two points. In fact, Northwestern State beat UCA to 23 in the first two sets. But, we gotta play to 25, or in the case of game two of that match, 27. That was interesting to see. But, that was at their gym. When they go to Conway, they'll get their teeth kicked in.

They're not going to win here. They have never won here. Shoot, they have never beaten SFA in the Debbie Humphreys era. SFA is a mind-blowing 34-0 against them during that time. You read that right....Thirty-Four-and-oh against the Demons since Humphreys became the coach at SFA in 1988.

So what does their club look like?

2008 Record: 10-17, 5-11 SLC - their best win being their SLC home opening defeat of McNeese 3-2. Recall, we lost to McNeese in Lake Ch...no... stop it. Let's just forget that one.

Key Losses: None really. Angelica Cruz, maybe. She was fifth on the club last year in kills, attacks and kills per set. She was 6th on the team in digs. So, that's not really much to have to replace.

Key Additions: None that appear to be impact players. Panola Junior College transfer MB Brittany Fruge has earned some starts and true freshman OH Nicole Hajka has been in the lineup regularly as well. Fruge has got 10 blocks in nine matches and Hajka has a negative hitting percentage in 147 attacks. So, you know what that amounts to? Meh. Freshman Sarah Jones could turn out to be a decent player. She is second on the team in blocks averaging 0.48 blocks per set. However, as a means of comparison, the leaders in the conference are blocking at twice that rate.

Who to Watch: This one is simple. This team is all about Yelena Enwere. She is a preseason first team all SLC selection and she is easily the Demons best player. Last year, only Kendra Rowland of UTSA had more kills per set. She also finished sixth in the conference in blocks per set and third in aces per set. Megan Dockery is both a decent setter and good server as well - finishing fourth in aces per set in the conference last year. Overall, Northwestern was a decent blocking team in 2008 with Enwere and Spann doing their share of damage to opposing attacks. Markie Robichau deserves mention here too. A couple of years ago, I thought Robichau was shaping up to be a very good player, but for whatever reason, she hasn't seen much playing time of late. Maybe it was that Arkansas State game a little over a week ago that got coach Brittany Uffelman thinking about change. Robichau and Hajka started on the outside. They got 25 swings between the two of them. Total number of kills: Zero. Robichau hit -.231 and Hajka hit -.333. Ouch.

Possible Lineup: Unknown. Lately, its been Dockery at setter, Enwere, Hajka, and Megan Manning as hitters. Manning is a decent back row player as well...at times she's played libero. She's not the main opposite type hitter, but rather a complementary piece when hitting. Then, you've got Spann and Fruge as the middles. The libero of late has been Zanny Castillo. Then again, it's not a surprise if veteran Robichau or freshmen Jones gets the start.

Final Thoughts: The formula is simple. Enwere is the only player that can consistently hurt you on this team. If you know where she is at all times, then there isn't enough of a supporting cast to really do any damage. Just force other players to get involved and Northwestern will hit a paltry .100 and you'll cake walk. Right now, opponents are hitting .223 against them. As well as they were able to hang in against UCA, the Bears still hit .248 against them. You can already see it coming can't you? Bailey, Bottles go boom-boom. Despite our need to solidify the contribution from our outside hitters, this isn't a team that is going to stop us offensively - no matter where on the net we attack. We should easily hit over .200 -probably closer to .250 or .275 - and win in straight sets.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Conversation with Debbie Humphreys

Earlier today I sat down with head coach Debbie Humphreys and had about a half-hour conversation. What follows is a highlight of some of the things that were discussed. I am not a big fan of structured questions and quoted answers to said questions. I sent the freshman some questions and basically "arranged" their answers as a conversation and I'll do that again with players later in the year, but for now...I am trusted to convey things accurately and I appreciate that.

I did NOT bring up the fact that Humphreys is now just nine wins shy of 500 for her career. However, you can see that I have added a countdown to the right of this article. Just so that I can get mad props in a few weeks, recall that before the season began and in this post I said the 500th would come at Corpus Christi on October 12. Don't get me wrong - I hope it comes nine games from now. But, don't be surprised if my prediction turns out right. I'm good like that.

Before I get into this, I must say that coach and I have known each other for many years prior to this blog's existence. In fact, I have counted her a friend since before I "worked" for the team and was "just" a faculty member at SFA with no ties to the Athletics Department. Why bring this up? Because in academics, colleagues often discuss things in a very strong tone with each other. We expect our statements to be challenged by our peers - especially being a scientist - and we expect to have to defend our positions strongly. My fondest memory of this afternoon was at one point when in response to one of my questions she told me there were "just things I didn't understand". She's right of course. A coach is the person who knows her squad so much better than anyone else. In fact, the difference between the knowledge a coach has about her squad and the knowledge anyone else that's NOT a coach has about the squad is an abyss.

I love that Debbie is free to tell me that I don't understand. She knows I'm not going to react negatively to that. She knows I am trying to learn and convey information to each of you. I don't mind being told I don't understand stuff...I am told that in one way, shape or form each day as a scientist anyway. It was actually refreshing to be reminded of just how much I don't know. That just spurns me on to learn and to keep asking questions.

We are almost done with the "tournament" part of the season and I asked Coach Humphreys about her philosophy of scheduling teams to fill out the non-conference part of the slate. She said she wants to schedule "winnable" games, but only if the team plays at a very high caliber. I find this a a reasonable approach. Some squads try and schedule an absolutely brutal non-conference schedule, but coach indicated she certainly wants a challenging schedule, but she wants to be able to construct a schedule where if the team plays at a high level they come out at least at .500 - hopefully above. That's exactly where we are, so I think she is pleased with the progress so far. Some squads like to schedule weak teams to build confidence. Humphreys indicated she wanted no part of scheduling powder-puffs all through September.

Humphreys was clear about the need for leadership to emerge on the left side. Toward that end, we may see Arielle Daron in a little different role than what she has played to this point. Also, getting Kelsey Owens back at OH will help in terms of leadership coming from somewhere other than the middles. I spoke to Kelsey through e-mail and also asked Debbie about her this morning. The news is good. She is practicing and may very well get worked in spots that are picked and chosen over the next two days - possibly in just front row rotations. It will be good to get her back as her absence has a trickle down effect on other spots on the court.

We talked about the Tulsa tournament at length and especially about the match against the Golden Hurricane. Recall that the 'Jacks got whipped to a tune of 25-9 in the first set. Humphreys was quick to point out how positive it was to see the team fight back after such an embarrassing start to the match. SFA most definitely could have come away from Oklahoma 3-0 if the fifth set against Tulsa had went our way. The "fighter" mentality inherent in this team appears to be vastly different from last year. Humphreys cites this resiliency as a big difference in the makeup of the 2009 team versus the club from 2008. That's a really good sign. There were a few times last year where I felt like we might as well play best of three rather than five. The team is more confident they can battle -and win -in matches that go to four or five sets.

We also discussed the tournament which begins tomorrow. One highlight of the tourney will be the Saturday night match against Miami(OH). I, personally, am really anticipating that match. When talking about them Humphreys scanned through pages in folders she had prepared on opponents. When she found the info concerning Miami(OH), she was clearly communicating her preparedness. She mentioned who they had lost and who they had retained. She also called this team a "legit" top rung program. In my opinion, this is the type of team SFA needs to play well against - and defeat - to make the statement that anyone in the SLC could go down when we bump heads with them. Humphreys was also complementary of new TAMUCC coach Tony Graystone. It will certainly be interesting to guage the differences between this years Islander squad and the team that was downright terrible last year.

Finally, I asked coach about specific players and their roles. Daron was volunteered by Humphreys as a point of discussion and clearly her emergence has eased the pain of not having KO. Give an assist to Melissa Miksch in that regard as well. There is little doubt that Miksch will continue to get valuable court time. After being a leader in early matches, Amber Williams-Roberts has struggled at late - now only hitting .080 on the year. I ask Humphreys how she plans to get Amber rounded back into form and she mentioned needing to see her practice at a high level. We all know what Williams-Roberts can do. Look for her to slowly regain a more central role if she can show prowess in practice and in selected rotations in upcoming matches. It was mentioned several times that the middles - Bottles and Bailey - are essentially carrying the team offensively at this point. One of the things needed is higher production on the outside. Daron, Miksch, and the freshmen duo of Sabrina Burns and Emily Franklin were all mentioned as in "the mix".

Finally, I asked about the setter situation. All involved know I have been...hmmm...what's the proper way to say it... OK, "curious" about the use of both Kuepker and Buckner in the setter role. Paraphrasing, I conveyed a sense of dismay over the assists in the first game last weekend going virtually exclusively to Buckner, they being split between Lo and Buckner against Texas Tech, and then back to just Buckner against Gonzaga. Basically, I was saying "what is the deal here?". That's where I got the line about there being things I just don't understand! Basically, the injury to Owens has had an effect on how Kuepker and Buckner are to be best used. See, with Owens out then that implies there is one less passer on the court. Lo is a good passer. So... since Owens isn't able to be in there to pass, Lo is needed more at present on the back row to aid in getting balls to the setter rather than setting the ball herself. Fair enough.

Personally...and here's where my understanding may diverge from reality...I'd just assume Buckner be THE setter and Kuepker play DS. I mean, Hanlan, Lo and Miksch are mighty good back row players. We talked about whether or not attackers would prefer to hit from one setter. Humphreys saw the general logic in that argument, but said with this specific club she wasn't overly concerned with that. She mentioned that in the past there were situations where two setters proved to be disruptive to attackers, but she doesn't see an issue with the hitters on this team adjusting to two quarterbacks. Clearly, the amount of time Lo spends - if any - directing the offense in certain rotations this weekend will continue to be a "curiosity" of mine. It's amazing that she is so versatile.

Get out to Johnson Coliseum. C'mon out and root the girls on. I've got eight matches to call in two days. I've gotta pace myself so I've still got the energy left for Saturday night against Miami(OH). Hope to see you there and I especially hope we capture four wins in just forty-eight hours. Axe' Em 'Jacks!!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Conference Opponent Breakdown: A&M Corpus Christi

This is the first post among several that will give each of you a look at the 11 teams the 'Jacks will face in conference play this year. Most of these posts will preview several teams at a time, but today we'll look at Texas A&M - Corpus Christi. The reason for this is that they will be here this weekend for the Ladyjack Invitational Tournament. Our match with them will not count in the conference standings, but since they are the first SLC team we face this year, we'll examine them more closely in this entry.

This was the worst team in the Southland Conference last year and consequently they have cleaned house. A reminder of what the Islanders return from 2008:

Kills: 24% (12th of 12)
Assists: 16% (12th of 12)
Blocks: 26% (12th of 12)
Digs: 55% (11th of 12)

So, basically anyone who generated stats at an acceptable clip is gone. One exception is last years' Libero Kandyce Nielson, but as you'll see below, she hasn't played recently.

Cleaning house included letting coach Kimberly Martinez walk out the door and hiring Division II success Tony Graystone. Graystone comes from West Texas A&M where he was incredibly productive. Whether or not that translates to W's at the D-I level is yet to be seen. However, the Islanders have already won five matches this year. The significance of that number? It's one more than they won ALL OF LAST YEAR.

In the years that I watched Martinez coach she never really had control of the club. The team looked like and acted like it was going to lose. It will be interesting to watch Graystone's court mannerisms and how he handles the club in-match. Remember, my courtside station is closer to the visitors bench than to our own. I hear a lot of interesting stuff sitting where I do and it is an easy exercise to watch visiting coaches interact with their club during timeouts and before sets. In years' past the TAMUCC players were aloof to Martinez's guidance in-match. I will watch for what level of respect Graystone will be given from his players. Surely, it will be higher than in seasons gone under Martinez.

2008 Record: 4-22, 2-14 SLC

Key Losses: Lauren Paslay (not really, she's a student assistant now). Paslay, in my view, was TAMUCC's far-and-away best player over the last few years. Last year she led the club in kills and blocks and was second in digs. The Islanders also lose setter Molly McCabe who was third in the conference last year in assists per set. Other notable losses include Kasey McBrearty, Beth Fionda and Amber Benjamin.

Key Additions: Other than Grayson, there are three notable newbies for TAMUCC. First, transfer Emma Ridley from Tulsa appears to be a nice catch. She currently leads the team in kills. Ridley wasn't a bench warmer at Tulsa either: she was second in kills her freshman season. She represents a fine addition to a club that desperately needs a shot in the arm. Freshman Courtney Wypisznyski takes over at setter. Clearly, I'll have to practice saying that one before they play Friday. The job has been hers all season as she has been the starting setter in each match the Islanders have played. Lastly, freshman Ariel Carlson is leading the club in blocks. Carlson went though quite a climate change having played her prep volleyball in Minnesota.

Who to Watch: The go-to's on offense will be Ridley and veteran Jessica Korda. Nearly 2/3 of the team's kills have come from one of those two. Carlson will get a few swings too, but primarily look for Ridley and Korda on the outside. In recent matches, freshman Shannon Hullum has had her moments off the bench as well. The team is hitting .161 at this point and allowing a hitting percentage of .209. Believe it or not, that offensive production represents an increase from 2008 when the team hit an abysmal .145 for the entire year. Also watch Wypisznyski simply because true freshmen setters are rare. The back row is a bit up the air. Kandyce Nielson would have appeared to be in line for the libero jersey this year after her performance last year, but at present Grayson has increased the playing time of Sophomore Tamara Wostal. While I haven't confirmed it, Nielsen may be hurt. She didn't appear at all in the recent weekend tournament at Houston Baptist.

Possible lineup: Ridley at OH, Megan Luber and Carlson in the middle, Wypisznyski at setter, Jessica Jennett and Victoria Sookiasian on the back row. The libero of late has been Wostal. Look for Korda to rotate in early taking the place of one of the DS's in order to hit.

Final Thoughts: When you are as bad at TAMUCC has been the last few years, you've got no place to go but up. Cleaning house and starting over with a new coaching staff was probably the right thing to do. They'll improve, but probably not substantially so. They are in the tougher West Division of the SLC and its easy to see them losing all of their games against West opponents save possibly UT-Arlington. Against the East, they might could get by Southeastern Louisiana or Nicholls, but those games are on the road. Last year, the Islanders didn't win a road match at all (and only one at a neutral site). They are picked to finish last and I see no evidence to disagree. Maybe there will be a silver lining. Maybe Ridley will earn conference honors and possibly Wypisznyski will garner some level of support for Freshman of the Year, but quite possibly I am just trying to be optimistic and end on a high note. They could beat Alcorn State this weekend, but I suspect Miami(OH) and SFA will sweep them without a major effort. A little research on the five teams TAMUCC has beaten so far leaves me unimpressed. That being said, they are stepping in the right direction. But, don't you have to be when you are coming off a 4-22 season?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

3 UP, 3 DOWN

After nine games the 'Jacks stand at a respectable 5-4. This weekend they invade Tulsa, OK to repay a favor by playing in the Raddison Tulsa Airport Invitational Tournament. See, two years ago, Tulsa came to Nacogdoches to play in our tourney, so this is the return trip. Along with the Hurricane - oh excuse me - Golden Hurricane (I still don't get that), SFA will face Debbie Humphreys' alum Texas Tech and West Coast Conference member Gonzaga.

Next week at this time we hope you all will have cleared some weekend space to join us in Johnson Coliseum for the Ladyjack Invitational Tournament. The 'Jacks will get in two games next Friday (2:30 and 7:00) and two more next Saturday (12:30 and 7:00). Keep the 18th and 19th reserved for supporting the girls.

Its only been eight days, but it already seems like forever that the club played at home. I really, really dislike these long spells on the road. This one is a 17-day span away from our home court and unfortunately, we've got another 17 day span in October on the road too. I know schedules are made under all sorts of considerations, but that doesn't stop me from thinking that a weekday match stuck in the middle of those road swings would aid in overall support from fans. Ugh, I digress.

What we're gonna do here today is look at the first nine matches and play "3 Up, 3 Down". I've read through box scores a few times and looked over game stories and had a conversation here and there with folks, and here are my takes for three of the more positive signs early in the season - followed by three things that we'll want to change going forward.

I'll take the approach of saving the best for last.... so not to accent the negative, but in the spirit of ending on a high note.. we begin with:

3 DOWN:

1. Team Attack Percentage: .189
You might remember from a previous post that the conference as a whole hit .192 last year. Simply put, I don't think this club is going to play deep in the postseason if they are an average attacking club. Now, Owens getting hurt didn't help things, but the team has got to get balls to the floor at a better rate. The team hit .237 last year. We are a quarter of the way through the season (that feels weird to even type) and the club will have to hit approximately .253 the rest of the way to match last years' percentage. Balls have to be knocked down at a bit more consistent clip to wind up with a high seed in the SLC Conference Tournament in November. Our leading attacker in terms of total kills and attacks is hitting .120. If whoever leads the team in attacks at the END of the year hits .120 then we will be an average team in terms of the standings. To put things a different way, the leading attacker on this team WON'T hit .120. You just won't give that many swings to a person hitting that low. Need proof?...The lowest hitting percentage over the last decade for a Ladyjack leading her team in attacks for the year is .183.

2. Too Many Service Errors
Yes, its true that we have 13 more aces than our opponents (40-27). However, that advantage is nullified when we look at the free points we are giving opponents. SFA has committed 64 service errors as opposed to 45 by our opponents. There's some simple math here. That's 'Plus 13' on aces and 'Minus 19' on service errors. Bottom line here is that the serving isn't helping us win matches at this point. By way of comparison, last year the team had substantially more aces than opponents while simultaneously having LESS service errors than the competition.

3. Matches like UC-Davis Can't Happen
Look, I know UC-Davis is a good club. But the truth is, we played better against Missouri State and Missouri State beat UC-Davis earlier in the tourney completed last week. Granted... Missouri State was on their own floor, but still, you get my point. Say what you will, but getting beat 25-14, 25-14, 25-13 is getting spanked. We were down 8-15 in each set - never really in any of them obviously. UC-Davis only committed six errors on 88 total attacks for the entire match. If you take the starting middle blockers out of the equation, SFA hit a ridiculous -.121 in the match. Without Bottles and Bailey we had only 10 kills coupled with 17 errors. To be an elite team in our conference, poor outings like that have to be kept to a minimum. That match took 66 minutes which is all you really need to know about it.

3 UP:

1. Back Row Defense Appears Solid
Ok, listen. Go back and read my previous posts on the Kuepker switch and the trust in Hanlan at libero. If I'm gonna shoot straight on the things above, then I have to be truthful down here too. I have been pleasantly surprised at Maddie Hanlan's adaptation to the college-level libero spot. I know, I know.. all the coaches are thinking "Nanny nanny boo-boo - we told you". It's not that I didn't trust what I was being told, but hey - Libero is the chief of the back row. Trust it to a freshman when you had one of the best liberos in the conference already? Just count me skeptical. Until now. Hanlan's averaging an even 4.00 digs per set and throw in Melissa Miksch at 3.54 dps and things look mighty secure on away-from-net defense. Hanlan's the #1 reason I am itching to see the team get back home. I want to see all this for myself - and I want the fans to see it too. The one game we've had at home both Hanlan and Miksch had 18 digs in just three sets. Getting that one exposure to that kind of production has left me antsy to see the back row play again. Hanlan and Miksch right now have me at the top of their fan clubs. And yes, I can hear the "What took ya so long?" comments from the coaches about now as well.

2. Daron hitting .268 - leading the team
When I did Ari's preview capsule back on August 14, I wrote "how scary are the middles on this team if Daron contributes significantly?" Well, Daron deserves every bit of playing time she is getting now and the middles on this team are really, really scary good. Daron's career hitting percentage coming into this year was .067, so I don't have to elaborate on just how much of an improvement we are witnessing here. She's already racked up more kills and attacks in the first nine games than she did in either of her previous seasons. We are watching a breakout and the benefits are going to be felt deep into the conference schedule. The thing is: This club does have the cast of characters to knock down balls. We've just got to find out who to set the ball to and in what frequency. Daron has stuck her hand up as if to say 'I can handle a heavier role'. I say we continue to give it to her. Daron's (along with Miksch's) improvement is a big reason we should be optimistic going into conference play in a couple weeks - along with getting KO back.

3. The two-headed setting attack is working
Many matches so far have seen the assist totals be evenly split between Kuepker and Buckner. I think this is evidence for the twin approach. Kuepker setting while the spot is in a back row rotation and Buckner setting when the spot jumps forward appears to be a good call from Debbie Humphreys so far. I've got a lot of questions about the setting position that I want to ask in weeks to come. I'll do an entry just on the setters at some point with the answers I get, but for now... this dual approach appears stable. One other tidbit from being in practice: More than a couple of times, I have watched assistant coach Erin McClanahan work with the setters. She often turns to one of Buckner and/or Lo and complements them on their decision making and distribution of balls. I am learning that the "smarts" of distributing balls to attackers in the proper way is underrated. Both of our setters seem to understand how to do this really well. They don't appear to just do things in a cold, formulaic way. They appear to do a good job of "taking what the defense gives" and optimizing the distribution of the attacks per teammate. The more I think about that job, the more difficult I realize it is. Buckner and Kuepker appear savvy in that regard.

Next week, I will begin previewing teams for conference play and soon I will try and have another set of interviews with both coaches and players. As always, if you have an idea - let me know. Recently, I have rekindled old conversations with former Ladyjack players. I am planning on taking a look at some of SFA's history and re-introducing you to some of the players that used to grace the court while wearing purple. At some point next week I will try and pass along an update on Kelsey. I am planning on talking with her directly when the team returns from Tulsa.

Finally, and I meant to do this weeks ago, thank you to those of you that spoke to me after the ULL match with kind words about this blog. Several fans and parents were complementary of the effort being made here. I truly appreciate that support. I also want to say this to any prep player that might just happen to be scanning sites like this: we are unique in how much coverage we give our team. Go check how much effort is being put out at other Southland schools to cover their squad. Read the game wraps and you'll see that Ben does a way better job than his competition when it comes to writing up stories at sfajacks.com. Then, go ask yourself if other schools we compete against have a forum such as this for their team. The answers you find should tell you something about SFA Volleyball.

Friday, September 4, 2009

All is Mel in Springfield

Talk about stepping up. Outside Hitter Kelsey Owens goes down - the very player I've tabbed as one of the major keys to our success - and what happens? Melissa Miksch decides to take over. Wow. I am loving it. Let's check out Miksch's last three games... all in three days time mind you:

Wednesday against ULL: 18 digs (career high which didn't even last 48 hours)

Friday morning against Mississippi State: A double-double on 11 kills and a match high/new career high 23 digs.

So what do we do for an encore?

Friday afternoon against Memphis: ANOTHER double-double on 12 kills, 14 digs.. and oh yeah... we'll just go ahead at hit a ridiculous .550 (12-1-20) while we are at it.

It is non debatable that Miksch has just had her best three days as a 'Jack. The fact that she and Arielle Daron are stepping up in Kelsey's absence is a tremendous sign. Fellow blogger Ben Rikard pointed out earlier this season that in a conversation with Coach Debbie Humphreys that Miksch was singled out as possibly the most improved player on the squad from last year. Based on what I have seen in a half-dozen or so practices I've attended told me that Daron might possibly deserve that label. Hey, there is room for everyone to be right here. To know that Mel and Ari can play like they have lately is a fantastic sign so early in the season.

No KO? Well, we want you back soon for sure. But for now...no worries.. all is Mel.

The Ladyjacks take down the SEC's Mississippi State 3-1 and then sweep Conference USA's Memphis. Tomorrow's scheduled victims are UC-Davis and host Missouri State.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

2009 Freshmen Inteviews

The SFA Volleyball squad, coaches and travel personnel left for Springfield, Missouri early this morning and hopefully are chillin' in their hotel about now. They'll need their rest after playing here in Nacogdoches yesterday and four matches on the horizon in two days starting tomorrow. Since the girls will play on the road the next two weekends, we can use their time away to introduce you to the five new freshmen that you'll see when we all get back to the Coliseum on September 18 and 19 for the Ladyjack Invitational.

Before we get into this, I want to thank the freshmen so much for being willing to sit down and pen these answers. We did this electronically (so, they didn't really use a pen, I guess) and their schedules are unbelievably tight. I really appreciate their time and have found each of them really polite and accommodating. They are getting used to being "college athletes" - doing interviews, having to respond to various requests, dealing with media relations folks and participating in other formalities are new to them. The fact that they graciously answered these questions voluntarily in the middle of a time where they HAD to do other things is not overlooked here.

In case you've been under a rock, the cast of characters here is:

Madison (Maddie) Hanlan (#7, Libero, Arlington, TX)
Sabrina Burns (#8, Outside Hitter, McAlester, OK)
Emily (Em) Franklin (#9, Outside Hitter, Oregon, WI)
Amber Doolittle (#11, Middle Blocker, Arlington, TX)
Allison Gideon (#12, Setter, Georgetown, TX)

VolleyBlog: In practices it appears the freshmen are already blending very well with the veterans. Have you had a chance to spend time with your veteran teammates off the court?

Allison: We have actually spent a lot of time together as a team. We've done several team dinners and a team movie. We get along really well and always have fun together.

Sabrina: The "veterans" are amazing! They are all really nice and inclusive, we have gotten to hang out with the team, going to the movies, football scrimmage, playing games at one of the girls houses, and eating together of course!

VolleyBlog: Amber, speaking of the veterans, what are the things that impress you most about the veteran middle blockers on this squad? Do you consider it an advantage to your development to be a young middle blocker with such successful college MB’s to work with and learn from?

Amber: The way they play and their demeanor impressed me. Middle blockers have hard job and they do it well. I do think it's an advantage to my development because they don't mind to take the time out to show me or tell me what I need to correct or congratulate me in practice.

VolleyBlog: I've been able to watch several practices and noticed the veterans' support. This is for any of you: To this point, what would you say is the main difference between college-level practices and the practices you went to with high school or club teams?

Maddie: The main difference is the intensity. High school practices were much less intense but in college the practices require 100% every minute.

Amber: The attitudes in practice are a lot different than high school because everybody has a positive attitude instead of complaining about practice.

Sabrina: The main difference between college level practices and high school practices for me is that the college practices are more structured and more position specific and higher energy.

Allison: I'd have to say the biggest difference in practice is the speed of the game. The game is just so much faster now, it takes some getting used to. There is also a higher level of competitiveness in practices.

VolleyBlog: Emily, as a very successful outside hitter at the high school and club level, what is the primary thing you feel you have to improve on or add to your game to continue to be a successful player at the college level?

Emily: I feel that I need to continue [working] on my blocking technique in order to be consistent. And instead of hesitating towards the ball i need to just go for it. Other than that i feel like I am learning new things everyday and will continue to grow.

VolleyBlog: Our program has had a recent run of fantastic recruits at libero which adds to our excitement of having you here at SFA, Maddie . Are there a couple of things you are specifically trying to improve on to assure your success at libero this year?

Maddie: I am trying to improve all areas of my game such as passing and defense and I am also trying to be an excitement factor for the team - always trying to rev everyone up.

VolleyBlog: Sabrina, you’ve worked a lot in practice on the right side. In your past as a high school player and/or club player, have you spent more time on the left or right?

Sabrina: In club I mainly played right side, although I had a bit of time as a left side, but its been mainly right side for the past two years. In high school I played middle for three years and right side one year.

VolleyBlog: Allison, would you say you are more of an “attacking” setter than most? Clearly, putting attackers in the best position to hit is your first job, but when you are on the floor, do you consider the club to have one additional hitting option in yourself?

Allison: I've always been taught to be an offensive weapon as a left-handed setter and I love doing it, it's one of my favorite parts of the game. There is always room for me to be more offensive but for the most part I try to keep myself an option as much as possible.

VolleyBlog: Sabrina, clearly you have strengths as both as a hitter and as a blocker, but what do you enjoy most: coming up with a big kill or a big block?

Sabrina: Man! That is a tough question! I don't know an honest answer to that because I LOVE both! Both are helping the team win... I do like connecting with the setter to get a kill! But I'd say that both make me REALLY happy!!!

VolleyBlog: So, Amber...What was the #1 reason you chose to come to SFA as opposed to going somewhere else to play?

Amber: I chose to come here because just watching the team in practice you could tell that they bond well. Other teams have winning seasons too but they don't get along with their teammates and I didn't want to be involved with that.

VolleyBlog: Same question to you, Maddie. What was your #1 reason?

Maddie: I loved the campus and the small town feel. I also loved the high level of play.

VolleyBlog: Emily, you came a long way to play here. What would you say was your #1 reason for choosing SFA?

Emily: I chose to go to SFA because of the team. They made me feel welcome and wanted. The second reason that I chose to come here was because of the campus - it is beautiful.

VolleyBlog: What about you, Allison?

Allison: My best friend actually high jumps at SFA, so that's what got me looking here in the first place. It's just a great school, I loved the atmosphere and it seemed like a great fit with the coaches and the girls on the team.

VolleyBlog: Thanks again to each of you for making yourselves available for this Q&A session. We'll keep this short and we'll have plenty of opportunities throughout your tenure here at SFA to chat with each of you specifically. Have a great time on the road.. play well and we'll get everyone rockin' when you get back home for our tourney.

Fans, make absolutely sure that you are back in Johnson Coliseum on Friday, September 18 at both 2:30 and 7:00. You'll be able to root on these freshmen as well as the rest of the squad as we battle Alcorn State and The University of Houston.

We'll post again after the weekend with a look at things around the conference and a recap and analysis of SFA's performance in Missouri. Hopefully a trophy and some All-Tourney honors make the long bus ride home a tad bit more comfortable!

Get well, KO!!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

'Jacks Sweep UL-Lafayette in Home Opener


SFA held UL-Lafayette to .084 hitting for the night and Sophomore Melissa Miksch had a career high 18 digs in a 3-0 sweep in the first match of the season at Johnson Coliseum.

After the match I talked with Coach Debbie Humphreys and she was quick to point out the solid play of Arielle Daron - a player the 'Jacks will be counting on more in 2009. Daron knocked down 6 balls with no attack errors. Just like in the NIU tourney, Daron was a valuable contributor to the offense. MC Bottles led the 'Jacks with 12 kills and Freshman Maddie Hanlan matched Miksch with 18 scoops of her own. SFA had seven total team blocks with Senior Ashley Bailey assisting on five blocks and Daron assisting on three.

Before the match I talked directly with the injured Kelsey Owens. The news on her appears positive. More than likely she'll be out for the upcoming road tourneys, but her timetable is in weeks, rather than months. That bodes well for having her back before conference play.

Miksch and Freshmen Sabrina Burns may be in-line to pick up the slack in KO's brief absence. Of course, Miksch's defense keeps her on the court for many rotations anyway. Burns killed four balls in nine attacks with only one error (.333). Miksch had five kills on the night to go along with her solid defensive effort.

The team was shaky in the opening set, but the hitting percentage improved after each switch, so that was positive. It was nice to see the team get a win when Williams-Roberts wasn't at her strongest (-.029). Amber was our offensive leader at various times last weekend, so getting her back on track in Missouri along with solid outputs from those mentioned above should put us in a good position to be competitive all weekend long.

The main thing is we got the "W". Hanlan did a great job passing and the serve-receive error tally was only one...the lowest of the year so far.

The team was certainly not firing on all cylinders, so its exciting to think what might happen when KO is back and we get a handful of players that really catch fire.

We'll post the Freshmen interviews here tomorrow. If you were in Johnson Coliseum tonight - thanks for your support. If you were in Nac and weren't there then shame on you. Make sure you get to the tournament we host on Sept. 18 and 19.