The Ladyjacks travel to Huntsville on Wednesday night to face off with upstart Sam Houston State. I am pleased to announce that Volleyball Sports Information Director Ben Rikard and I will be teaming up to bring you a LIVE BLOG from Huntsville during the match. You can access the live blog here or you can click on the sidebar that says "Ben Rikard/Laurel Kuepker Blog". If you can't be in Huntsville to root on the club, then be sure and be with us as www.sfajacks.com and www.sfavolleyblog.net team up to give you complete coverage of Ladyjack Volleyball.
So, let's breakdown these West Division leading Bearkats. You might remember that earlier in the year, I made a previous trip to the other Johnson Coliseum to watch SHSU face off with our first home opponent Louisiana-Lafayette. I try and keep tabs on all of the teams in the Southland, but I'll have admit that I have kept a little closer watch on Sam Houston and Texas State than the others. The reason for this is: I am curious to answer whether Sam Houston is really this good and whether Texas State is really having a down season from what people expected. We'll deal with the fact that the Bobcats shouldn't be written off yet later, the focus today is SHSU.
So, what gives? Seven straight conference wins coming into this week. Best record in the conference this side of Conway, Arkansas. Are they this strong? Well, I'll say this - what they are doing is impressive. Very impressive. For this most part, this team is young. They are making their run through the conference with a little different cast of characters than even they would have expected at this point. Let's begin by recapping the fact that this is actually a very different club than what they put on the floor last year - save for the two soldiers named Ferguson and Kolbe.
What They Return for 2009:
Kills: 52% (11th in SLC)
Assists: 80% (8th in SLC)
Blocks: 42% (11th in SLC)
Digs: 76% (7th in SLC)
Below the median in all four categories. What this club has managed to do is find more than decent pieces to complement the two-headed monster of Ferguson/Kolbe. Its one thing to replace stars when they graduate. Its an entirely different thing to piece in the puzzle around your existing and returning stars and make it an efficient machine. That's exactly what Sam Houston has done, so give Brenda Gray credit. By the way, Gray enters Wednesday's match with 537 career victories, so like our own newest member of the "500" club, Gray has been around the block a few times.
Currently, they sit at 15-10 - as many wins as last year already - and a spiffy 7-1 SLC Record. They have a weird schedule remaining, with four straight home games (SFA, McNeese, UTSA and TAMUCC) followed by four games on the road to end conference play (UTA, Texas State, UCA and Northwestern). I'm guessing they'll win five of those and finish with a 12-4 SLC Record. If they do that, then there is a good chance we are looking at the #1 or #2 seed in San Antonio here. Turning inward for a moment, SFA still has Texas State, Lamar and UCA remaining on their schedule. More than likely, if Sam Houston beats us tomorrow, we will have a hard time catching them the rest of the way. We'd have two more conference losses than them and they'd hold the tiebreaker. Needless to say, the reality of SFA obtaining a top two seed in the tournament probably rests with the outcomes of games this week against Sam Houston and Lamar.
2008 Record: 15-19, 9-7 SLC - Sam Houston finished last year with the 5th seed in the SLC Tournament and beat you know who in the first round. The next day they lost to Texas State in the semifinals. In all honesty, it can be argued that they had only one really impressive win last year and that was against Lamar just a few weeks before the end of the SLC slate. They lost to Southeastern Louisiana and got pushed to five sets by (last years' versions of) Nicholls State and TAMUCC - both at home. Their straight set win against UTSA and the aforementioned win vs. Lamar made some of us turn and look just enough to give them some credit at the end of last year. Of course, they beat us on our home floor when in counted, so in a way, they finished 2008 on the up.
Key Losses: A lot actually... they lost Haley Thomas who was their top blocker last year and second on the team in kills per set. Sarah Hazlewood transferred to Houston Baptist. Hazlewood was their second leading blocker and fourth on the team in kills per set. Launa McClung, a starter from last year who was fourth in blocks and fifth in kills is also done suiting up in orange as is starter turned back-up setter Megan McNamara. They lost other role players as well. I believe many folks looked at the seniors that were leaving and Hazlewood up and bolting and thought... well, they just have Ferguson and Kolbe and that's not enough. I think that's proven to be a mistake in logic. I think Sam Houston is flying under the radar and people are expecting them to come back down to earth because all they really have is Ferguson and Kolbe. Go ahead, use that logic. I'm sure SHSU enjoys being thought of as the overachievers. I think they are for real. Now, it is true.. all these young players aren't battle tested, so come playoff time, they may not hold up. But as far as sifting back in the standings...nah, ain't happening. Texas State and Lamar have their hands full in the SLC West.
So...who are these newbies that are filling in the slots around the big two...
Key Additions: Well, if I had been writing this at the beginning of the season, I would be singling out Freshman Outside Hitter Kelli Stewart. She was starting at the time I last was in Huntsville and looked to be in a position to play a key role. She got injured and that gave opportunity to another freshman Camille Alfaro. She's hit under .100 to this point, but recently has been integral and is currently fourth on the team in kills. Another freshman has benefited from injury as well as Michelle Miller replaced veteran Kym Loving after Loving went down. Miller may be the catalyst for Sam's resurgence as she currently sits third in the conference in assists per set. She very much seems to have made the transition to the college game quickly and despite Loving being a strong quarterback, Sam may have received a little blessing in disguise by finding Miller to be capable.
Then, there's libero Kaylee Hawkins - another freshman. She wasn't playing in the libero spot early in the season, but she's settled in there in recent weeks. She had some tremendous digs in the match I saw against ULL early in the season, so its no surprise she has been a steady defender. She is listed as an OH, so we may have an eventual six-rotation player here in years to come if they find another taker for the off-colored smock. Believe it or not, early in the season SHSU was using yet another freshman at libero: Jamie Haas. Haas still ranks third on the team in digs as of this writing - although her playing time has diminished. All this without evening mentioning that yes - freshman - Kim Black - has been starting recently as well.
When you factor in all these freshman you can only come to one conclusion: this was an awesome recruiting class for Brenda Gray...especially when you consider Kelli Stewart was one of, if not the, prize recruit they had coming into the year. If they find a filler for Ferguson next year, this team could be really strong going forward.
Who to Watch: Just watch Kolbe. She's one of the most entertaining players in the conference...and part of it is that she plays and acts like a brat. Its what gives her an edge and its what can be her downfall. She's downright sassy. She wears her emotions on her sleeve, but she is dogged and fierce...and she could play for me any day. Yeah, she's probably a little too much for her boots at times - its entertaining to watch her get frustrated because she pouts, but she's good, and its entirely within her reach to be a Player of the Year in this conference at some point. No one in the conference has swung more than her this year - that includes Ms. My Shoulder Is Gonna Fall Off Ridley down in Corpus.
Despite all the supporting cast, this team squarely sits on the shoulders of the brash Kolbe and the underrated Ferguson. At some point tomorrow night, Kolbe will swing for the 1000th time this year - her 979 total attacks leads the SLC. She's powerful - both as an attacker and as a server. Want proof?... take a look at this photo. Look at her head and get a grip on where the ball must be in that picture. Then, realize she is off the net. That is one powerful looking swing. Sam runs a tremendous fraction of its offense thru this two-headed monster I call the Annacarli. Only one team has two of the top five performers in kills per set and its SHSU - Kolbe being third in the SLC behind wonderchild Chloe Smith (UCA) and arm-fall-off Ridley. Ferguson is fifth.
Possible Lineup: Miller at setter, Katie Phillips, Black and Ferguson - all listed as middle blockers. Then, on the outside expect to see Kolbe and Alfaro with Hawkins at libero. That's three freshman and two sophomores in starting slots.
Final Thoughts: Before the season began, I looked at this match up and chalked up one in the win column for the good 'ol purple, red and white. Now? Its gonna be a dog-fight for sure. We have no more time to figure out who we are. They are way hotter than us right now...riding a seven game match winning streak. Beating them tomorrow would go a long way in making a statement to the conference that we should still be considered among SLC elite. If Sam wins? Well, then they rightly should take the attitude of "eat my dust"...all the way to a top-two seed in San Antonio.