First off, I did not leave out the Lamar preview on purpose. I'll have to catch them before the conference tournament in a few weeks. A few of my kids were really sick last week- one almost to the point of hospitalization - so illness continues to interfere with blogging. All are well now and I hope this post finds you well since so many people have been sick lately.
Today, we focus on Texas State since they will be in Johnson Coliseum tomorrow night at 7:00 for an always exciting showdown with our club. When I originally was planning for this post I thought that the match tomorrow was the most important left on our regular season schedule. My thought was - these two teams are tied for the 2nd seed in the conference tourney right now and so if we win, we control our destiny to the #2 seed in San Antonio the rest of the way. Logical, right?
But, here's the catch...and I wouldn't say this in most years: The seeds in this years' tournament aren't going to matter. I mean, really? Other than Central Arkansas (who won't be playing in San Antonio) this conference is totally up in the air. Now, yes, it would be nice to say you had a high seed rather than fall to the middle of the pack, but looking at how the brackets are stacked, I really can't see any advantage in being the #2 over the #3. The winner of 2 vs. 7 plays the winner of 3 vs. 6 anyway.
I think you want to beat Texas State for the obvious reasons, but I also think you want to win so that you can tell yourself that you should have gone 4-0 against UTSA, SHSU, Lamar and Texas State. 'Cause really...the SHSU loss was tough - two match points in Set 4 blown on over passes. Serve receive that night was terrible. I can be a bit more open here on the blog than I could chatting live that night. I thought the back row game really struggled in Huntsville - and it usually doesn't. Beating Texas State would allow us to reasonably tell ourselves that we can beat anyone and really believe it...especially after we show Nicholls in a few weeks that the previous meeting with them was a fluke. It was, right?
So, what about the Bobcats? This was the consensus pick to win the Southland in 2009...over and above Central Arkansas. Wow. Doesn't seem that way now, does it? They are right there in that big pot with us and Lamar - looking at Sam Houston and scratching their heads asking "How'd you guys get up there?". Oh, that's right... the Annacarli.
Here is why Texas State still is just as likely to win the tournament as anyone: 1) Karen Chisum. 2) They tend to do a good job of pulling things together historically near tournament time and 3) They are legitimately deep.
They are NOT like Sam Houston. They do not ride two players and hope its enough. They can survive the off nights by Jessica Weynand if one of several other cast of characters comes up big. They lost to Sam Houston in Huntsville 3-2 just like we did. But, I bet they get 'em in San Marcos next Saturday.
What did the Bobcats return in 2009 that they had in 2008? By way of review from previous posts...
Kills: 59% (9th in SLC)
Assists: 93% (T6th in SLC)
Blocks: 49% (9th in SLC)
Digs: 78% (5th in SLC)
That's about middle of the pack in terms of turnover compared to the rest of the conference. Notice the blocks however...they are not as strong at the net this year as they were in 2008, as two of their middle blockers that were instrumental to their success in years' past have gone. More on that below...
2008: 23-14, 16-3 SLC, Lost to Lamar in SLC Tourney Championship Game
Say what you will about Texas State, but there are two things that are different about them than anyone else in the conference. First, people come to watch them. A lot of people. The Texas State Volleyball page actually provides a link to a national attendance report. At last report, they were 27th in the nation in average attendance. I'll admit, I'm jealous. They have the same average attendance as Michigan and more than schools like Notre Dame, Kansas, USC, and LSU. C'mon...you have to admit... that is impressive.
Second, and I'm not saying this is good or bad - but they run circles around the rest of the conference in terms of non-conference scheduling. Last year, they played Texas when they were ranked #3...and took a set from them mind you. They also played Pepperdine, who was ranked #21. They played and beat Sacramento State which is generally regarded as a strong volleyball school and they also scheduled Baylor - who is in the Top 25 this year and Texas A&M. Arizona - who is also Top 25 this year, Georgia and other California volleyball schools appeared on the slate as well. This year, they've played Baylor, Texas A&M and Missouri from the Big 12 - all of which are currently in the RPI Top 50.
Key Losses: Texas State lost three very good players and honestly, they've struggled to replace them. The redheaded bean pole Emily Jones Wilkes is done. This reduces the level of obnoxiousness in visiting stands around the Southland. Jones Wilkes was really a fine player, though. She had 111 blocks in 2008, which led the team and she was third on the squad in kills per set. She and Amy Weigle really haven't been suitably replaced in the middle in 2009 for the Bobcats. Weigle was second on the team in blocks and 4th in kills. Texas State also lost Lawrencia Brown, a fine all-around rotation player who actually led the Bobcats last year in digs per set and finished second in kills and kills per set. So, collectively, Texas State lost three of its top four attackers and its top two blockers. That's a lot...and possibly the reason why they haven't coasted at all through the conference slate to this point.
Key Additions: The Bobcats have many new players, but New Mexico transfer OH Mo Middleton probably deserves to be singled out here. She currently ranks second on the team in kills and kills per set and third in digs. She's hit a mediocre .163 to this point in the season, but she's earned a starting job and is doing her best to shadow Brown's performance from last year, though it will probably fall significantly short. Freshman Lydia Werchan has earned some starts at libero, but has been nothing overly special. The club seemed high on freshman outside hitter Matti Schumacher in the preseason, but to this point a .125 attack percentage and limited time have only been good for 6th best on the club in kills per set. Transfer MB Jillian Wolpman has made fair contributions at times as well. Overall, the losses outweigh the gains and I think the preseason voters and folks such as myself didn't realize quite how different the input and output are in transitioning from '08 to '09. However, the club has so many above average players that it manages to stay in the hunt.
Who To Watch: The star for Texas State is Preseason First Team All-SLC selection Jessica Weynand. She is currently 6th in the conference in kills per set and is arguably one of the conferences best players. She will be the main 'go-to' on offense. But.... here's some trivia for you: Name the only person to make the All-SLC Tournament team the last two years running? The answer is AJ Watlington. Don't lose sight of her tomorrow night either. She has gone unmentioned in this article, but only because it is focusing on newcomers and what was lost. Watlington is a mainstay. She may actually be one of the more underrated players in the conference. She won MVP honors in the 2007 tourney and then was instrumental again in the 2008 run to the tournament championship game. She's third on the team in kills and second in blocks, but is very capable of putting up the best stats in a match on any given night. Finally, Sophomore Amber Calhoun deserves attention too. She has tallied an impressive 0.97 blocks per set and will probably be a name to remember for the next two years when breaking down Texas State.
Possible Lineup: The libero situation isn't overly stable with the aforementioned Werchan and veteran Ally Buitron each seeing time. But on the outside it will be Weynand, Middleton and Watlington and in the middle it will be Calhoun and Melinda Cave. Shelbi Irvin and Brittany Collins will split the setting duties. Schumacher has occasionally started over Middleton, but I expect Middleton at this point.
Final Thoughts: I didn't want to split attention when positing about Debbie Humphreys' recent 500th win post a few weeks ago. But, it should be noted that the Southland boasts Sam Houston's Brenda Gray and Texas State's Karen Chisum as 500-game winners too. In Chisum's case it is 687 to be exact. She entered this season as the 8th most victorious coach among those active in Division I. There was some outside shot at her hauling in #700 this season, but that won't happen until early in the 2010 season. Chisum's impact is major. Consider this: The coaches ahead of her in terms of active DI victories coach at UCLA, Hawaii, Penn State, Minnesota, UC Santa Barbara, USC and Stanford. Impressed? Well, you should be. EVERY ONE of those schools is currently in the Top 16 in the nation with the exception being UCSB which is ranked 27th. My point is that her records sit among schools with outstanding volleyball histories and reputations.
Overall, I think the match tomorrow night is a toss-up. Does that mean it will go five? I hear you sighing...thinking "oh, no...please not five, we don't do good in five set matches." Well, hold on... you might want to consider that Texas State HAS NOT WON a five set match this year. They are o-4 in that situation. Collectively, the two teams are 1-10 in five setters. Something has to give, right?
Our middles are better. They'll get to us on the outside, but our back row defense will be solid and the intangibles are even. So, I'm callin' it: Ashley Bailey has a HUGE night and yes....we win it in five.