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!!