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.