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?