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:
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.
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.