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Saturday, July 31, 2010

2010 Player Profile: Melissa Miksch

We are just about one week away from reporting day and the calendar turns to August. The reality of things is that there will be college volleyball played this month. The club is only a few weeks away from squaring off against a very good Baylor team that bounced around the end of Top 25 lists last year.

This weekend we continue interviews with the veterans and today's virtual sit down is with Junior utility player Melissa Miksch. I know "utility player" is more of a baseball term, but Mel is an excellent passer who gets a lot of time on the back row and is someone who is often brought in to serve before starting her way across the back. Mix that in with the occasional swing from the left side and you've got my definition - at least for this post.

Last time, I commented on Lo's academic accomplishments. Those comments were made by reputation but trivia for the day will be that Mel is the only current Ladyjack that I have taught while doing my "other" job here at SFA. She may be the last one for a while unless we get a math major recruit in years to come as I am teaching less and less in core curriculum courses. I can tell you first hand that Mel is an outstanding student - easily one of the best I had in an introductory statistics class that is fairly well-known to be headache causing.

She took a break from her last few weeks of summer freedom to respond to my questions. A transcript of our Facebook interview follows:

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Your bio on the athletic website says that you were an all-district setter in high school. Have you always been the type of player that has concentrated on being versatile, sort of a “utility” type player, rather than locking in as a primary left-side hitter or L2 or some other label?

Melissa: Throughout club ball, high school, and now at SFA, I have been a versatile, so called “utility” player. My coaches knew I could play almost every position if they asked me to and I was willing to play them too. When I first started volleyball I began as a setter, but eventually I would always end up playing another position. Jason, (my high school coach) always told me he just needed me out there on the court, especially in a setting role. We ran a 6-2 for most of my high school career, and I enjoyed hitting and setting all the way around. As a utility player, though, you have to be ready at any point to go in the game (sometimes you go in cold) and do your job, which can be challenging. But, overall I do like to be a versatile player, because I love being able to step onto the court in any position and help my teammates win the game.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Last year, you were second on the club in digs and digs per set. Do you consider your back row defense and ball control the best part of your game at this point? Is that something you specifically were concentrating on this time last year?

Melissa: I do consider my back row defense and ball control the best part of my game at this point. At this time last year I was concentrating on that as well as every other position I could have possibly been asked to play. Whatever position coach needed me in I was willing to play, and to do my absolute best at it.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Last year at this time, your name came up a lot when I asked coaches about players most improved from 2008 going into 2009. What is the #1 thing you want to improve on during 2010?

Melissa: My #1 thing I want to improve on during the 2010 season is my consistency. I know I have the potential to play almost every position out on the court, so it is my responsibility to show up every game, mentally prepared to perform the best I possibly can.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Coaches and your fellow players often brag on you for your strong conditioning. Is there a specific routine you go through during the off-season to stay in prime shape in preparation for an upcoming season?

Melissa: I don’t think that I can go longer than probably three days without some kind of physical activity. You will rarely see me sit in front of the TV all day long. During the summer I always try to keep up with the workout packet we are assigned to. I sometimes run at the park or do approach jumps in my back yard. My sister (who lives in Dallas) played volleyball in college as well, and whenever she comes down to visit we always work out together. I eat pretty healthy and consume little junk food. In my head I also know that if I take a long break without doing any physical activity, then it will be even harder for me to get back into shape. Just as a side note: When I was 5 years old I had six-pack abs and toned arms. People would ask my mom what kind of work out she would make me do. But, of course, I never worked out at this age…I guess it is in my genes.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: At what point in your career did you learn your jump serve? How long did you use it in practice or work on it until you were confident to use it in matches? Was there anyone specific that taught it to you, or did you just pick it up on your own?

Melissa: As long as I can remember I have always practiced jump serving by myself. But, it was not until my 16’s year in club that my jump serve became effective in games. Ted, (my coach at the time) taught me a lot about how to improve every aspect of my jump serve, including my toss. Along with his good advice, I always remember he would tell me to just “hit the crap outta the ball” when I serve, and that’s exactly what I did. I presume it worked.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Finally, I mentioned above the fact that I have first-hand knowledge that you are a strong student. You still have a couple of years to be here at SFA. But when graduation comes and SFA playing days are done, what do you see yourself doing post-graduation?

Melissa: If it all works out, I plan on becoming a registered nurse and eventually getting my masters to specialize in a specific area of nursing. It is too far down the road to know where I will get my first job, but I will most likely stay in Texas because I love it so much.
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We've still got the last piece in our Southland coaches series to get to your eyes and I've got a few other plans in the works. Illness around my house and deadlines with my real job kept me from posting twice this week. Next week, we should be back on track. Look for two posts this coming week with the second one being....

Next Player Profile: Maddie Hanlan

Previous Profiles:
Carrie Hahn
Laurel Kuepker

Monday, July 26, 2010

2010 Player Profile: Laurel Kuepker

Time to continue previewing each of the veterans as they squeeze whatever free time they have left out of their summer before reporting date hits in just a few weeks. Today's "interview" is birthday girl Laurel Kuepker. I know I've written this here before, but the first memory I have of Laurel was when she came for her recruiting visit. Both Debbie Humphreys and the assistant coaches pointed her out to me before a match and my first thought was "Is she even a teenager?" She looked so young. To be honest - and despite the birthday - Lo still looks really young to me. She's been legal for a year now, but I bet she gets carded for decades.

Since that recruiting visit, she's made a few digs on the court where I could have sworn she was actually flying. I mean, she has this ability to spring after balls and seemingly stay inches off the ground for a really long time before popping the ball up just milliseconds before hitting the hardwood - usually right to the setter, I might add. Maybe some of my apprehension about a transition to setter last year was out of selfish motivation to continue to watch her as a libero. Her 2008 season at that position was a treasure.

Through the years, Lo will admit she's had bouts with longing for home and struggles with nagging injuries. However, despite being far from home and spending too much time hurt, I, for one, have always found her humorous and good natured about it all As a professor, I'd be remiss if I didn't print that she is an incredible student.

Laurel was gracious enough to respond to my long-winded questions and a transcription of our interview follows:

SFAVolleyBlog.net: First off, everyone calls you “Lo”. Set us straight on when and how the nickname began?

Laurel: My nickname came from one of my old teammates from club when I was 12. We had another girl on the team named Lorna, and we could never understand who Rick (our coach) was talking to between the two of us. She started calling me Lo, and she stayed with Lorna. I don't even think she would remember that she started it. Turns out, Rick never called me that anyway, but pretty much any teammate I have ever had calls me Lo now.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Last year, you shifted from libero to setter. For you personally, which position, libero or setter, presents more of a challenge?

Laurel: Both positions are challenging, and that's why I like them. Both positions come with the responsibility of providing extra leadership. Setters and liberos touch the ball more than any other players on the court, so there's the added risk of having the opportunity to make more mistakes. Being a libero is more mentally challenging for me because honestly, I would rather never serve receive a ball again. It's my least favorite part, but I do it and then after that one pass I get to play defense, which is my favorite part. I like being a setter, too, because you get to outsmart the other team. I love making the other teams' middles look bad when they completely miss a blocking assignment. There's a signature word every middle says when they get tricked by a setter, and I love to hear it, but it's a little too R-rated for print.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: When you came to SFA as a freshman, there was an adjustment period to being far from Indiana and certainly a culture shock of moving to East Texas. Who do you remember as the most instrumental people in making you feel more comfortable living and playing here?

Laurel: When I first came to SFA, all I wanted to do was transfer out. I thought I made a huge mistake and just wished I could go back closer to home. The people who where there for me most were my teammates. They helped me get through my homesickness and trying to deal with a long-distance relationship at the time. Coach B [ed: Brian Yale] and assistant coach Erin [McClanahan] also helped. I talked to them to try to get a better perspective on everything. Actually Erin and I went to Chili's one day, and she told me to just give it a full year. She said it changes a little in the off season, and I needed to experience everything before making a decision. It was still hard for me, but every semester got easier, and I'm so glad I stayed. I've met some amazing people down here that I would have missed had I moved back North.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: I've had the pleasure of talking with your Dad at or before several matches last year. He comes a long way to see a decent fraction of your matches. It that a source of pride for you, personally? Have your parents always been a big part of your volleyball career?

Laurel: I've very lucky my Dad has the opportunity to come to so many matches. It's nice to have someone in the stands who thinks you did awesome (or at least says you did) even when you know your play wasn't that great. My Dad has been on board for a while with me playing volleyball. My other number one fan, my Mom, doesn't have the opportunities to get down here, but she's always at the northern tournaments and will be here for Senior Night. She started me in volleyball when I was 10 and went to every club match I ever played, so they've taken turns in seeing me play at different levels.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Coach Humphreys has used the phrase “player who is like an assistant coach” when describing part of your role. Do you embrace the “senior/leader” label or is that something that comes less naturally than actually setting and digging balls?

Laurel: I absolutely embrace the leadership role, and it comes more naturally to me than the skill set needed for volleyball. Coach tells me that I need to be the coach on the floor. She knows I have already accumulated a background in coaching and can use that experience to help other players on the court. I always tell Coach B that I think we're similar in coaching styles. We're both analytical and try to find the best ways to outsmart the other team. I've really become a student of the game, trying to learn as much as I can, not only for my last season of competition but for my future as a coach.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Fans have also been able to read your own blog entries over the last few years. You chronicle a lot of the time the club spends on the road. When you and your teammates are all together, are there certain characters that emerge on the team - such as team prankster, team bookworm, Ms. Mischievous, shopper extraordinaire, etc..?

Laurel: If you think this interview is long-winded, you should see the pre-edited blogs I write about our travels. If I could write about every funny thing that happened, my blogs would become novels. There are pranksters for sure...namely Ari. One time she and a few others barricaded the door with cups and the water cooler at McNeese so the coaches couldn't get in. Mel and Sabrina are probably the most studious on the bus. MC is definitely the shopper. Plus, MC sits in front of me on the bus, so we have our own inside jokes that entertain us. Yes, we have our own seats on the bus that we always sit in. Coach doesn't assign them but seniors sit in the back, freshmen in the front. That's just how it is. When Ari and I first meet people, we're really shy, but once you get to know us, we can be the loudest ones. MC hates public speaking, but somehow always gets picked for on-camera interviews. She always does it, of course, but it's not her favorite thing. It's fun to see the different personalities emerge and mesh.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Finally, in your bio on the team roster page, I notice an accolade of “All-Duneland” conference for three years of high school. Excuse my poor geography, but are we talking dunes in the desert sense here? Does Indiana really have sand dunes?

Laurel: Yes, Indiana does have sand dunes. That's why I played in the Duneland Athletic Conference in high school, and why my club team was called Dunes Volleyball Club. I live at the very northern part of Indiana along Lake Michigan. We have beaches that erode and build from the wind off the lake. I would liken it to snow drifts in the winter, but considering the audience, I'm not sure if that helps. There's actually an Indiana Dunes State Park.
Laurel even provides a pic for proof!! :------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
A huge birthday shout out and many thanks to Lo for her time in answering my questions. In a few days, I'll introduce you to the new coaches around the Southland Conference. We are almost down to just one month before the first serve of 2o1o.

Next Player Profile: Melissa Miksch

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Dozen In Charge, Part 2

This weekend we continue our three part post introducing you or re-familiarizing you with the head coaches in the Southland. Last week we took a brief look at the three 500-game winners and today we survey five coaches I'll tab the "veterans" of the league.

The first two on this list have nearly 400 total wins each as a head coach, but those victories coming primarily out of the Southland and at smaller schools. The remaining three are veteran coaches whose time in charge has solely or predominately been in the SLC.

As with the first post, I'll try and throw in a personal memory or two along the way in terms of sitting adjacent to their huddles while in Johnson Coliseum or pre/post matches.

The Legends (Chisum, Gray, Humphreys)

The Veterans

Steven McRoberts, Central Arkansas
McRoberts is going into his 6th year at UCA after a slightly longer tenure at Lubbock Christian. McRoberts has 145 wins while in charge of the Sugar Bears and a grand total of 396 victories between his two head coaching stops. If you've been keeping up at all, you know McRoberts has won the last two SLC Coach of the Year Awards and UCA went undefeated in league play last year. Possibly more impressive is that the Bears have lost only one road conference game in the last two years (UTA, 10/17/08, 2-3).

One thing that struck me the first time UCA came to play at SFA while I've worked for the club is that they have an all-male coaching staff. They are unique among conference teams in that arrangement and I've always been curious as to how not having the "female" presence with female athletes works in terms of the team dynamic. Clearly, it hasn't been an issue in terms of the ultimate measuring stick - wins and losses.

I've never had a conversation with McRoberts. He's one of several coaches in the conference - and in this post - that I'm rather positive has no idea who I am. I remember being impressed that he made the trip to San Antonio last year for the SLC Tournament, but I guess I shouldn't be. He's never seemed very animated to me, but I'll admit that UCA's play is typically so good that I am less focused on him and more focused on the beast that is Chloe Smith and all her cronies when they are in town. UCA's eligibility for postseason play now makes it likely I'll have more opportunities to see him coach this year.

Laura Neugebauer-Groff, UTSA
Neugebauer-Groff is similar to McRoberts in that she had experience as a head coach for several years before taking the helm in the Southland at UTSA. She has 380 career wins, with the majority coming as the coach of St. Mary's. Her 124 'Runner victories are highest all time for a UTSA head volleyball coach. She spent 8 years at St. Mary's and has been in charge at UTSA for an equal eight years. Groff probably was the best player among Southland coaches in that she was an All-American at The University of Texas. During her four years of college, the Longhorns won the Southwest Conference Championship each year. She even made the SWC 1980's all-decade team.

Groff easily ranks as the coach I've seen most irritated in our gym. While rather docile last year when she came to Nacogdoches, in past years I have vivid memories of her inflammation with hecklers and being fairly bothered by fans, bad calls, and generally everything around the bench. Much like the interaction between Gray at SHSU and prima donna Carli Kolbe, I've seen some interesting joint reactions between Groff and to-be senior Kendra Rowland. Rowland has always been a player who strikes me as sassy and a few times in Nacogodoches, Groff and Rowland have had a collective- shall we say - tizzy or two.

All that aside, Groff clearly has a really high volleyball IQ (not that these other people don't). She can be loud, and I've heard her specifically one-on-one coach players during time outs with an amazing sense of clarity. That is... not just "here is what I need you to do", but rather "Here is WHY you need to do this and what will happen to us if you don't". I get the impression she is good one-on-one as a teacher.

I'll admit that along with Gibert (below) she is one of the coaches I most like to see come to SFA because you might get a show.

Diane Seymour, UTA
The coach most likely to get seasick reviewing her clubs performances over the years. Up and down, to and fro. Good and bad...reviewing UTA's record under Seymour gives you the feeling of being tossed about on a boat at sea. Witness: 2004 (1st year head coach), 24-7, 15-5 SLC. Good for 3rd place. Next year: 6-21 overall. The following year (2006): 25-10 overall, 2nd place in the SLC. So that strong season is followed up by what in 2007? Another good year! Second in the conference again. Alright, we're on a roll now. Wrong. UTA goes 7-23 in 2008 finishing next to last. Last year, they were mediocre.

From all that ebb and flow its not hard to guess that UTA is basically a .500 program under Seymour (93-89 in six years). Before, I became the public address announcer and back about a decade or so ago, THE road game for me to attend as a fan was at Arlington on the stage. If you've never heard about or seen what is meant by "the stage" then you've missed something. Plain weird. More recently though, I have never been scared of a UTA club coming to Nacogdoches. In fact, during my time court side, UTA has never so much as won a set against us at Johnson Coliseum.

Like Groff, I judge Seymour a really good communicator. I've seen Seymour stay incredibly calm and in "teaching" mode despite getting absolutely blasted off the court a few times in Nacogdoches. I know it will sound weird, but she's taken some 3-0 losses here in Nac with a great deal of grace. Some others on this list probably would have needed an overdose of blood pressure meds before getting on the bus if they had witnessed the destruction that Seymour has here.

While never having directly chatted with her, she has always been polite to the table and I can offer up a bit of trivia. One of my very best childhood friends married a former UTA volleyball player (Sue O'Connell Amsler) and Seymour was instrumental in getting them together I am told. Small world.

Justin Gibert, Lamar
What can I really print about Lamar? Talk about no love lost. Man, ever since the conference winning streak was ended at their hands in Nacogdoches, its been really tough to stay objective about Cardinal volleyball. You just want to beat their brains in and there a few people who are going to read this and know exactly what I am talking about.

Recall, Gibert is a former assistant at SFA who last year hired SFA standout JJ Jones to be his own assistant. SFA South, they be.

It's undeniable that Gibert has had a good dose of early success in his head coaching career. While 78 wins in five years may not be overly impressive, they always seem to be in the mix of things. Last year's SLC Tournament was a great example. They made me so nervous. Adrianne Meengs played out of her soul during that tournament - posting a ridiculous 15 kills with only two errors, 19 digs and 35 assist triple-double in a semi-final loss to Texas State. I couldn't take it. I had to swallow my pride a bit. I went up to Meengs and her family and basically gushed like a school-girl-in-love-with-quarterback in praise. It was disgusting. But, she deserved the props.

One thing I like about Gibert, is that like Humphreys, he isn't afraid to get the crowd involved. He's excitable and likes to play off the emotion of the crowd. Unfortunately, the Lamar faithful travel well and there have been times when he's been able to stir up Cardinal fans in our house. Gibert - when his team is ahead - absolutely cannot shut-up. It's just not possible. If he's in the lead then every pass is met with "good one" and every set is met with "Yesssss" and then every attack has a simultaneous "boom" uttered from Gibert. Annoying beyond belief.

Gibert is a regular reader here, so I hope he takes my comments in good humor. To be completely honest, I really hope I have more face to face conversations with him during the years. It's not like he's unapproachable. I honestly meant to seek him out at the SLC Tourney, but I talk a lot - and it seemed like I was always preoccupied when he was around. I was probably spouting off stats to Ben at the table while he was trying to work or something and missed my chance to talk w/ Gibert.

He clearly is off to a strong start in his head coaching career and I have little doubt about his ability to continue to run a successful program. But, everyone has to have that one team that just drives you nuts, right? For some SFA faithful it is Texas State, but for some of us.... it is...well, let's just move on....

Julie Langford, Southeastern Louisiana
Langford qualifies as a veteran now as she is entering her 5th year as the head coach of the Lady Lions. Prior to her 34 wins at SLU, she was in charge for three years at Belhaven College. She helped earn SLU a minor dose of respect by squeaking into the SLC Tournament last year earning the right to go home first as the 8th seed having to face Texas State.

Southeastern Louisiana, like UTA, just has never been a match that created much of a buzz in Nacogodoches. Indeed, SFA is 27-2 all-time against SLU with no losses in the Langford era. I don't have much of a memory of SFA/SLU matches and don't have a single recollection about how Langford has coached or interacted with folks. Chances are, I was overdosed on Dr. Pepper in order to make it through the matches we've had with them over the years and just never thought to strike up any form of conversation.

I should end with a more serious congratulations on their tournament appearance last year. When you are trying to build a program, those are the things you use as stepping stones. The Lions are bringing in five new players next year - from five different states. Which is interesting only in that they have no native Louisiana player on their roster. They need a couple of gold mines to develop in their young crop. Time will tell if Langford and her staff will be able to add steps to the one taken last year.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

BREAKING NEWS: Ladyjacks Announce Hiring of New Assistant

Just a quick post here to make sure you read this article over at the official SFA VB website. Today Coach Humphreys announced the hiring of Assistant Coach John Critzer who comes to Nacogdoches from the College of William & Mary. There is no need to repeat details as Ben has an excellent write-up in the link above.

Critzer has a math degree, so I'm sure that will be one of the first things I chat with him about.

Recall that an assistant coaching slot was opened earlier this summer when Erin McClanahan headed to the greater Dallas area to teach and coach at Lovejoy High School.

The 2nd and then 3rd and final posts looking at the head coaches in the SLC will continue this week and next week you'll get to take a gander at interviews with Senior Laurel Kuepker and Junior Melissa Miksch.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

2010 Player Profile: Carrie Hahn


This is the first player profile for 2010 and today's interview is with Junior Middle Blocker Carrie Hahn. Before we launch into the Q&A, we begin with a little trivia: Of the traditional uniform numbers worn by the Ladyjacks (1 thru 15), which was the last to appear on court?

The answer is "14" which hasn't appeared on the court for SFA since 2007. Kuddos to you if in addition to knowing that you were aware that the jersey number in question here was worn by Kelsie Heppler. The first time Hahn enters this year she will make the answer to this admittedly numbers-guy question shift to "11" (worn by the incomparable Shelly Swendig).

Carrie isn't new to SFA. She's been high jumping for the SFA Track and Field squad for the last two years. OK, that's a bit of an understatement. She a TWO TIME all SLC performer who finished 2nd in the high jump in last years' outdoor championships. You can see her full SFA track and field bio here.

Last week I sent Carrie a list of questions and our "virtual" conversation is transcribed below.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: What thought process did you go thru in order to decide to formally become a two sport athlete here at SFA and what were the things that ultimately led you to say “Yes, I’ll play Volleyball here , too”?

Carrie: Choosing to be a two sport athlete was not a decision I took lightly; there was a lot of prayer that went into it. I also discussed it a lot with my family and friends. I was able to talk with my two older sisters who both played in college and get their opinion. After a lot of prayer I felt that God had put a great opportunity in front of me, one that I needed to pursue.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: I know that you and setter Allison Gideon know each other pretty well. When did you two became friends and how long have you known each other? Did you play together previously at any level?

Carrie: Allison and I are best friends! We have known each now for five years. We met for the first time at pre-season camp for our high school where I called her “Fishie” since she was the only freshman on varsity (the name actually stuck for two and a half years!). She was my setter for my entire varsity career and I am so excited to play with her again.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: During your time at SFA, have you “kept up” with SFA Volleyball or were you able to attend any matches in the past?

Carrie: Thanks to Allison, I have been able to keep up with the volleyball team and even get to know some of the girls. Allison and Sabrina [Burns] are two of my closest friends at SFA. My roommate (a discus thrower), one of my fellow high jumpers, and I all attend games when school and track aren’t in the way. Sitting in the stands I have actually missed playing a lot. I have loved watching the girls play and couldn’t be more excited to get on the court with them.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: What do you personally see as your biggest challenge coming back to the game after two years of not playing competitively at a high level?

Carrie: I am expecting the game speed to be a big challenge. College ball is so much faster than high school, so I expect that will be a big adjustment.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: As a volleyball player, what do you self-assess as your greatest strength in terms of your skill set?

Carrie: My favorite thing on the volleyball court is running a slide; it proved to be very effective for me throughout my high school and club seasons. As is turns out it mimics a high jump approach so it is one thing that my body should easily remember, especially since I am jumping better now than I was two years ago.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: So, toward that same point...what are the main differences between training to be a high jumper and training to be a middle blocker? What methods of conditioning are unique to one or the other or are they similar in some ways?

Carrie: Volleyball involves much more agility than high jump. That has been the biggest difference in my summer conditioning. In addition to agility, arm and shoulder strength isn’t as important in high jump. Both sports lean heavily on speed, leg strength and plyometrics. On the flip side of things, I believe that playing volleyball this year has the potential to really improve my ability as a high jumper.

Next up here at the blog we'll continue our three part series looking around the league at the head coaches. The 2nd installment will focus on the veterans of the league that are hoping one day to build Southland resumes equal to the Big 3 of Chisum, Gray and Humphreys.

I'd like to personally thank Carrie for being the "first" to answer a few questions as we gear up for the season. I hope each of you enjoyed hearing a little bit from our new middle blocker. I for one am really anxious to see Carrie and the new freshmen begin to mesh with the veterans during fall practices. Practices begin in less than three weeks!

Our next player profile will be Senior Laurel Kuepker. Maybe we'll learn the true origin of the nickname "Lo" and get an explanation as to whether or not there really are dunes in Indiana.

The first serve ticker is down to 37.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Dozen In Charge

As we close in on 40 days until the first serve of 2010, there are a dozen people scattered around the conference (11, actually) who are working tirelessly to create schedules for fall workouts and who each hope this year will be "their year" to hoist the tournament trophy over head. Ultimately, the players are the ones who dig, set, serve, block and kill their way to success, but orchestrating it all are the respective head coaches around the league.

I penned a fair number of words last year about Debbie Humphreys as she approached her 500th career victory- and rightly so - that was a major accomplishment that places her in a select group. Today's subject is to begin to go around the league and introduce or reacquaint - as the case may be - you to the people who have volleyball head coaching jobs in the Southland Conference.

The coaches can rather easily be broken up into three groups - the legends, the veterans of the conference and the next generation of coaches in the SLC. A few of these next generation coaches have spent quite a bit of time coaching in junior college ranks, but for the purpose of this series of posts, we are considering wins, accomplishments and tenure only associated with the Southland and Division I volleyball.

I am going to do this in three installments, all appearing over the course of this week. Today's entry focuses on the big three in the SLC. These three coaches' accomplishments cast a shadow the others just can't enter at this point in their careers. Indeed, no other mid-major conference in the nation can boast of three active 500 game winners. If you want to talk volleyball coaching in this conference, then you clearly, clearly talk of these three first.

As we go through the three part series, I will also share a small "behind the mic" recollection about each of those that aren't rookies. I hear some VERY interesting things sitting as close as I do to the visiting bench at home games. This isn't a tell-all, but rather just a set of personal observations I've accumulated the last several years. Don't read too much into it, my observations suffer from both the small sample curse and the fact that I only see opposing coaches when they are on the road and generally not coaching in front of a home crowd.

The Legends

Karen Chisum, Texas State
Some time early in the season, possibly even at the Bobcats' first tournament way up in New York, Chisum will earn her 700th career victory at Texas State. She is currently 7th among active NCAA DI coaches in wins and she is about to enter her amazing 31st season as the ring leader of the Bobcats. Possibly the two others listed below will eventually catch her win total, but they've got a lot of volleyball left to coach if they indeed accomplish all that Chisum has. To me, she seems to do a fantastic job of having her girls ready to play night in and night out. It's hard not to respect someone who has won 6 regular season SLC titles, 6 SLC tourney championships and seven appearances in the NCAA tournament.

When I first became interested in SFA Volleyball, it seemed as though UT-Arlington was the constant thorn in our side. Clearly, now that "honor" belongs to Chisum and Texas State. Certainly a love-to-hate club among SFA fans, players and folks like me, the truth is Chisum runs a top notch program which seems to always be in the mix come crunch time. I love the way Chisum schedules and clearly she does a good job recruiting as evidenced by their website boasting of a national top 50 recruiting class coming in. Scary. One way or another, to win the conference title or tournament, your just gonna have to deal with Texas State. That's all the respect Chisum probably wants. It is well earned.

Chisum has always appeared all-business to me at game time. Despite her focused manner, she is generally one of the visiting coaches who takes the time to say hello to the press table and engage in small chit-chat. I've never seen her get really out of control at Johnson Coliseum. Her coaching demeanor - at least to me - has always seemed a little more level than others from around the conference - even to the point of taking on the air of knowing she's going to get her club to bring it. Some might call it an air of confidence or use other words leaning more pretentious. I don't know about that. I just see 697 career wins and I think that speaks enough.

Brenda Gray, Sam Houston State
Gray has coached 26 seasons at Sam Houston and is another member of the 500-win club as she enters 2010 with 542 wins to her credit. I'll bet that Gray is a master communicator with her players because I think she could strike up a conversation with a flagpole. I was pleasantly shocked during the 2009 SLC Tournament in San Antonio when Gray walked right up to me - starting talking to me like we had been friends for years - telling me that she was an avid reader of this space and then launching into strategy of how to get the most out of her club in the tourney. She was candid, funny and genuinely interesting to talk to.

I've never really held any animosity towards Sam Houston Volleyball...not the way I do against Texas State or Lamar, but I can recall a few matches against Sam through the years that just ripped your heart out. Gray's pretty fiery. I've seen her rip players pretty good during timeouts, but toward that end, I asked Gray specifically in San Antonio about curbing star Carli Kolbe's well documented emotional outbursts. Gray told me she actually likes it when Kolbe gets all bent out of shape and that she doesn't particularly try and reign her in. Instead, she says Kolbe plays best when she's got a chip on her shoulder. Her communication to me that day was very convincing that she knew the makeup of her club well. Almost three decades as the leader of SHSU Volleyball and 500+ wins tells me I should listen more and ask fewer questions when conversing with Gray.

Gray always chats it up with those of us at the table. She seems like a real outgoing type of coach. I'll admit, she's one of my favorites from around the conference. Of course, maybe that has to do with the fact that she's a reader of the blog.

Debbie Humphreys, SFA
I'm not sure there is a lot I could say in a post like this that I haven't said already about Humphreys. I'll remind you she has 508 wins and enters her 23rd season in charge here at SFA. One of the things I've always liked about Humphreys is that she isn't afraid to turn around and ask the home crowd to get a little rowdy. In case you didn't know: Debbie is smart, real smart. I will say that I have witnessed and heard things that will not be recounted here that convince me beyond any doubt that she is a person of integrity. As a university professor I am tuned in to academic issues by nature. I can honestly say Humphreys is looking to recruit athletes that have a fair amount of grey matter between the ears. She is one of the people who makes working at SFA a pleasure for me.

While I am sure her former athletes could tell a more complete story, I will add this: Knowing what I know about Humphreys, I could not imagine a high school recruit not wanting to play for her and play here at SFA. I just hope I have the fortunate fate of learning more volleyball from talking to her in time to come.

Finally, she treats the support staff like me with respect. All I really do is yell names really loud and tell people to stand up for the National Anthem. She always finds time for interviews - win or lose - she always passes around the high fives to players and support staff alike and I get invited to numerous things I probably have no real business attending. Why? Because she sees every little part of the "family" as important. I don't intend on forgetting that any time soon.

Guess what? Player profiles start this week too! Leading off will be high jumper and middle blocker extraordinaire Carrie Hahn. Leading up to the season, I will profile each of the returning athletes (Carrie IS a returning athlete!) with their own interview and post. Like last year, I will do a joint interview of all the freshmen once they get on campus.

Look for Carrie's interview here in a few days!!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Pieces In the Puzzle

Are they better? By enough to create a fortune even better than 2009?

OK, that's not fair. You don't just come back from the dead of winter, start posting on the blog again and ask that direct a set of questions right from the get-go? You gotta build up to that, right? You know, kind of avoid the big questions while generating basic interest and then address this later.

They are the obvious two questions, though. Sure, we won't know the answer until a long time from now. But comparisons are constantly made in sports, so I see no reason to avoid such discussion here even though there is some speculation involved. The pieces in the puzzle will change between now and the first practice on August 9. They'll change again between then and August 27th's first serve. They will change some more once we begin winning and losing and travelling and getting banged up and injured. It's that way for any club.

Penciled in? Well, your gut tells you there is no such thing, but in all estimation we should expect to see Bottles, Owens, Daron and Hanlan run out on the floor under the gold dome of the Ferrell Center in Waco come 8/27. If health is kind to those four, they should all be better. This will be KO's swan song and she and Ari, along with senior Laurel Kuepker will begin their last hurrah. Owens led the club in '09 by a slender margin in kills per set, but she didn't play in 10 of the 37 matches last year. To say we need her healthy and leading on the outside is obvious, so let's dispose of that and move on. She'll get her own preview along with all the others in days to come.

Bottles - a junior. Really? Just a junior. She's been here two years and it already seems like forever. Woah, that didn't type right. I meant it as a complement. You see, she burst on to the scene so quickly in '08 that it just seems like she should be about done, but she's only half way there. Check this out:

2008 (FR) 2.60 kill/set, 0.88 block/set, 0.63 dig/set, .356 attack %
2009 (SO): 2.62 kill/set, 1.00 block/set, 0.67 dig/set .286 attack %

Aside from the slight dip in attack percentage, she's been amazingly consistent. More than you think, though because 2009 consisted of significantly more matches than 2008 (Ike!).

Of course, she's the main middle now. Ashley Bailey (Foster, now) won't be her counterpart anymore. Nevertheless, we should bank on MC and KO being better. We should expect them to take another step or two.

Hanlan's gonna dig 'em. I wasted too many words while ringing my hands in worry over whether or not she'd hold down the back row as a true freshman, so this year, I will carry a new banner of 'In Maddie we Trust'. No telling what we're going to see the next three years from her. I've spent a fair amount of time in the last few days thinking about last year and looking over box scores, stats and articles. Hanlan was amazing. I didn't give her as many props as she deserved.

One of the things Coach Humphreys and I spent a lot of time talking about last week was 'breakthrough' candidates. Last year, she identified Melissa Miksch from spring practices as someone who she thought was ready to shine. Of course, Mel goes out and gets an all-tourney nod early in the year to back Humphrey's hunch up. The person who really stuck out for me last year while watching the August practices was Arielle Daron. Of course, we all know how instrumental she became last year. Her flexibility of moving from the middle to the right really paid off and we should look for her there this year too - again expecting improvement.

So, MC, KO, Ari, Maddie. Great. With those four mentally in my mind filed in the folder labelled "Yeah, yeah", I asked Coach about THIS years step-it-up, breakthrough, breakout, whatever you want to call it player.

Let me let you in on a little secret. Many, many players through the years have told me that Humphreys is more than demanding on setters. OK, maybe that's not a secret. But, it makes sense. The setter is the quarterback, so coaches should focus a ton of energy on the floor general. Allison Gideon might as well be the second coming of sliced bread or banana pudding, or whatever...this girl's been talked up since she arrived on campus last year. I gotta tell you: I'll probably spend a couple entire practices in August just focused on watching the setting alone, because geez Louise, how many more times do I have to hear it about Gideon?

She's the setter. Everything points toward this redshirt plan working out dandy. It is really going to be exciting to see her out there after taking her turn on the bench for a year watching and learning. The setter thing drove me absolutely nuts last year. Buckner was a transfer only having one year's worth of experience at SFA and Lo was hurt. All that after Schott decided to go play with polar bears or whatever they do in Green Bay. But now... we go into the Fall with a setter. Notice, the word "a" in front of setter. By "a", I mean a single starter - a clear starter. Kuepker still has aches and pains to deal with and they'll give newcomer Veach practice reps at the net, but Gideon is the setter.

So, Humphreys sees her as the breakout candidate. I'm sitting there in my chair across from her desk thinking "You would". Actually, its probably obvious that Allison is the most likely to make an impact, but I've got a personal dark horse and their may be others among the newbies too.

One point early in the year last year - really early in the year, I went out to the web to double check something. Yep, the roster says Sabrina Burns is an outside hitter. My little pea-volleyball brain began to cramp. What? She LOOKS like a middle blocker, She IS a middle blocker I kept telling myself in denial. That height, that reach...that's a MB. Humphreys actually had to correct me a few times last year when I'd start talking about the middles and kept including Burns in the conversation. But, not now. Burns makes the transition over to MB during the off-season, and from what I gather from the Spring slate things went pretty good with sophomore Sabrina.

So, if last year it was Mel and Ari, this year, I think we look to Allison and Sabrina as making the biggest leaps forward. Gosh, I hope so, cuz we're gonna be damn good if those two bring their A-game and the quintet of Bottles, Daron, Owens, Hanlan and Miksch take it up a notch.

But, if you're out there reading the new names on the roster card, realize any one of the six could play a role unrealized just yet. I got the feel from Coach Humphreys that they are particularly proud to have high jumper Carrie Hahn on board to fill the slot vacated by Amber Doolittle. While Coach talked up all the incoming freshman, a few words about Monica Pannone left me scribbling notes and underlining her name. When you look at the roster, the L2 position does appear vague and Pannone is in the pot swirling around somewhere when it comes to finding the right person to support on the outside.

Each of the last several years, freshman have really made an impact. Undoubtedly, one or more of the freshmen will be a piece of the puzzle.

It's just fun to get the puzzle out of the box again, isn't it? Then again, not as much fun as seeing it all put together.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Changes Changes Changes

Last year at this time there were a lot of new faces making their way to Nacogdoches to begin their careers as college athletes. I sat in Head Coach Debbie Humphreys' office - all new to this blog thing and all - and we talked about how next year we wouldn't have as many newbies. After all, we had five freshman coming in and only senior force Ashley Bailey, setter Paloma Buckner and designated digger Sydney Milburn finishing up careers.

At least that was the plan.

Oh, yeah. This is college. In college, you have college aged people. College aged people change their mind a lot. They're not a very predictable bunch. But still, you like to road map stuff out, you know - look to the future. When you do that, you pencil in ALL that you currently have knowing full well you are ignoring the truth lurking in the shadows. Namely, change. It just ain't gonna be the way you diagram it up all the time.

Between the five hour drive home from San Antonio as runner-ups in the 2009 SLC Tourney and today pecking at my keyboard for the first time in far t00 long, we've had some changes.

Former assistant Erin McClanahan leaves for the greater North Dallas area after having spent five years with Humphreys and Assistant Coach Brian Yale. Erin is young and vibrant and this is great opportunity for her professionally. In some ways, people in her specific position and stage in life are meant to move on. I can honestly say in five years I never heard one negative thing about Erin. Now, there may be players and colleagues snickering right now reading that, but I personally never heard anything but positives about how she related to the athletes and went about her business.

I'll admit I really liked being around Erin. She was one of the first people to pass along a compliment to me one day after a game my first year on the mic. Oh, and she is responsible for the" BRRRRRRian Yale" growl that has become customary. Unless Brian puts me in a headlock, I will continue that growl into next season in part as a way of continuing to include Erin. Erin's main memory of me is probably catching me air drumming in fine fashion while behind her at a traffic light. I get preoccupied while driving like that. She got a chuckle out of my headbanging. She is funny, downright goofy at times. Just all around likeable. OK, enough.. she's not dead... I gotta move on from this "tribute".

There are changes in terms of players too. Emily Franklin and Amber Doolittle are gone for varying reasons, but the blog wishes them nothing but the best. It's always a bit mysterious when players leave for what they see as greener pastures, but then again there are many forces at work here. They both have their reasons for leaving the program and that will suffice for me.

In addition to changes via subtraction, there are corresponding additions as well. Five newbies again. There will be three new outside hitters thrown straight into the Fall fire. All are freshman. Lauren McDaniel, who hails from where McClanahan is headed (Lovejoy HS), will join the ball control proficient Monica Pannone and 6'1" Leslie Jackson. Two new middles will also be on the court with one being freshman Lindsay Hill and the other current Ladyjack all-SLC high jumper Carrie Hahn. To replace the spot vacated by Milburn, the 'Jacks will also welcome Meagan Veach who doubles as defensive specialist and also has setting experience.

Other changes include only having 10 home games on the slate and temporarily taking a break from hosting our own tournament. We will transition back to the SLC West resulting in only three out of state conference trips, one of which is just a skip across Toledo Bend to Natchitoches. Several new coaches now populate the SLC, and the tournament - with Central Arkansas now eligible - shifts to nearby Huntsville in late November. More on all that in future posts.

I sat down with Coach Humphreys last week to discuss all of the above changes and other issues. I'll post concerning that discussion in a few more days.

Thank yous are in order. This blog is a one-year old now and so its time to start more solid food. My hope is that the analysis is better, the coverage of our team is better and that you enjoy reading here more and more. Surprisingly, I got both the occasional pat-on-the-back from other coaches around the conference as well as good constructive criticism. Fans, parents, current and past players all seemed to notice this space a little more than I expected. A sincere thank you to all who surfed over here. Just know I am always open to your suggestions.

I know for a fact that opposing team's coaches and players read here, that our own athletes and their parents read here and that just volleyball fans in general around campus stopped in from time to time. The comments are always welcomed. Anyone who spends time talking to me knows that my commitment to SFA Volleyball is sincere. I like this. I enjoy the fans and the coaches and the players. I will never have the smarts, the experience or the analytical ability as it pertains to volleyball at the level that the coaches and players do. I know that. I wouldn't want to be pretentious regarding that in the least. But, I'm not clueless either...and I study. Hard. And I read... a lot. I don't know how many people can say they read all the articles printed on all the conference teams' volleyball websites last year. But, if you're asking for raised hands, then your count just increased by one.

Several times folks have told me that this blog provides a "fan's perspective" - one different than that of a coach or parent. Well, duh. I'm a fan. Yeah, yeah, I have access to people other fan's don't, but still... most coaches and occasionally players think fan analysis is whacked, and I have playfully been accused of "being on drugs" during a few posts, but I'm just trying to do what I can do - bring readers a different view and a little closer to our club. I'm really thick-skinned (the necessary quality of being a scientist), so other's disagreeing a little or a lot with what appears here just comes with the territory of writing about sports.

The goal remains simple: Promote SFA Volleyball.

If you are a student reading this, then you need to go look at the schedule for 2010 and mark the home games down. Get in the gym and watch this stuff. You will be back.

If you are related to a new player in some way... a parent or brother or sister, then look for me at the gym. I want to get to know you. Humphreys' always talks about "family" when it comes to SFA Volleyball. Your daughter just became part of a really cool extended family. Hey, if in this family I equate to the fifth cousin three-times removed, then surely you and yours are going to be well taken care of.

Despite the changes, some things here at the blog will stay the same. I will preview each player leading up to the season. We'll give conference run downs and let you know what is going on with other teams around the SLC. We will blog live from selected road games again. I hope to do more pieces this year about the players themselves - more interviews and Q and A's. We'll at least get some audio streams up here - you know, kinda like SFA VolleyRadio or something. We are still working on video. That has been tough. If anyone knows anyone who is willing to video interviews, games, etc. and has some editing skills then please let me know. I will try once again to get the SFA Radio/TV group to help with this - I think it would be a big addition to the site. I also want to pay homage to the past and include interviews with past Ladyjacks - some of which I still keep up with thru e-mail, Facebook and the like.

Finally, speaking of Facebook: Make sure and join our Facebook Group and you can also sign up for Twitter Feeds. Please, shoot me a line at greg@sfasu.edu with any and all suggestions. The posts will be regular starting now until the end of the year.

56 Days Until First Serve.