Tuesday, August 31, 2010

2010 Player Preview: Allison Gideon

JJ Jones. Bianca Aranda. Marissa Dorcheus. Wendy Walling. Terri Sherrill. Sunni Williams. Jennifer Fritsche. Whitney Schott. Paloma Bucker. Lauren Adams.

Recognize that list? It is the SFA Top 10 all-time assists leader board. With only two exceptions, I have seen all of them play.

In my mind, Jones and Dorcheus (now Marissa Avery) were the two best. I'm not sure what order I'd put them in.

By all accounts, if she plays the way people around here expect her too, redshirt freshman Allison Gideon has a good shot at appearing somewhere on that list before her playing days in purple are over. Of course, her playing days in purple have just begun. I'll say this though.. she may already be creating her own mold.

Dorcheus? Always in the right spot. Just always got to the right spot. She was quick, smart and knew where to be at all times and could get there. Jones? To me, she was just deadly accurate. I never heard one attacker say they wished JJ would do such and such.. they all bragged on her ability to actually get the ball to the optimal point of contact.

But Gideon? She hits the ball. She is a legitimate offensive weapon and anyone who watched the matches in Waco last weekend was convinced of that. You know what? It isn't just hitting. Allison was able to rack up "kills" by dinking and dumping at just the right times and hitting the open floor spots. You don't have to spike it to be an offensive weapon as a setter (although I think it's cool when setters do that), but you just need to get the defense to legitimately respect you as an attacker every time you touch the ball. I think Allison is going to be that type of setter.

Here's our interview as preparation for this weeks' matches against ULM, Wichita State and Portland.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: What was it about SFA and the possible opportunities here that made you agreeable to redshirt last year? After all, playing opportunities right-off-the-bat may have existed elsewhere, so what was it about coming here?

Allison: Coach Humphreys made it clear from the beginning of the recruitment process that redshirting was a definite possibility for me. After talking with the coaches and my parents about it, redshirting actually seemed to be a pretty good deal. I'd get the chance to be a four-year starter at a great program, and I'd get my 5th year of school paid for, which will hopefully include the start of a masters' degree. Such an incredible coaching staff and team would have made SFA a tough opportunity to pass up, and the fact that my best friend was already high jumping here made it impossible. After a lot of prayer I really felt this is where God wanted me, and after being here a year, I can honestly say that I know that without a doubt.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: What was the #1 thing that you think you learned from last season? What is the primary benefit of the redshirt in your mind?

Allison: Redshirting turned out to be highly beneficial to me as a setter. I was able to get to know each of my hitters, which sets they like and which they struggle a bit more to hit. All that means that we will be able to connect better and more consistently this season. It also gave me time to really learn how the coaches want the offense run. I now have the opportunity to fine tune and improve upon all I've learned, as opposed to having to learn everything in a few short weeks.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: As you've worked with the attackers in practice this year, have you begun to learn little "likes" and "dislikes" that each of them might have? Are you conscious of those things as you choose them to set to?

Allison: I've definitely been able to learn about which ball each of my hitters likes to hit and is most successful with. For each of the hitters, my focus is to keep the ball in the back of the hitting zone, or off the net in other words, but there are certainly things I keep in mind when setting to each particular hitter. Sabrina, for example, obviously needs a higher set, while MC likes to hit a quick ball. I'm beginning to learn the freshmen's tendancies as well. My job is to put the hitters in the best possible scenario in order for them to put the ball on the floor. Of course, that determines who I set the ball to and sometimes how I actually set to them.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: From watching practices, it appears that there are different drills than I remember in the past which are concentrating on attacks from the middle of the court as opposed to on the outsides and also more setting to the back row attacker. Am I off base, or are there a few new approaches or hitting plays being worked on than what I remember from years past?

Allison: You are correct in these observations. We've been working on forcing the middles the ball, especially in transition. The quick ball is the harder ball to defend and is often more unexpected in transition. It is also a great way to set the tempo of the match and create splits in the block, hopefully creating a one-on-one situation for each hitter. Not to mention, our middles are very good at putting the ball down. We have been working on back row attacks, just to add some variety to the offense. The back row can be a very good option, especially when I'm front row and so there is a need to create that extra hitter.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: In an earlier blog post this month, I pondered who might be the best candidate to be the primary strong side hitter in 2011. Whomever that is, you'll be the one setting to them. Do you like what you see out of the freshmen hitters that you are learning to work with? Once KO is done is year, are you confident we will have a strong presence on the outside to replace her?

Allison: Our freshmen have really stepped in and done a great job. They're working hard and are consistently bringing their best to practice, which is exactly what we need. There is no doubt in my mind that we'll have a solid outside presence even after KO leaves. They'll have big shoes to fill for sure, but they're staying aggressive and are not afraid to take some chances, and I can't wait to see what they can do this year and in the future.

SFAVolleyBlog: Finally, if you had to pick one particular set/play to make, which would be your favorite. On the flip side, which set/slot/play is the toughest for you to execute at this point?

Allison: We've actually been working on a new play set with the middles and I'm really excited about it. It is not a difficult ball to set and it is incredibly hard to defend so I think we will be very successful with it. MC and Carrie especially like it because it allows them to approach off of one foot - like a slide - which they both love, all while only staying in front of me. I love it because it is a nontraditional play and I just enjoy being tricky. I don't know that there is a particular play that I am struggling most with at this point, but the first few days, the B's were definitely my least favorite. Recently, we've been connecting much more consistently and I'm very comfortable with that slot now. Really, my biggest focus is keeping the ball in the back of the hitting zone for all my hitters, especially to the middles which is where I tend to try and force the ball back to the net.


We've got our two "go-to" players on offense left to preview. MC and KO's interviews will be along in the next week or so.

If you are a student reading this for the first time now that school is back in session, make sure that - besides the home opener, you mark down Wednesday, September 15 at 6:00. We'll be in action in Johnson Coliseum against North Texas on that evening.

Now.. off to get ready for the first home match of the year.. I look forward to this date all summer.

Axe 'Em 'Jacks!

Monday, August 30, 2010

First Impressions

One weekend. Three matches. Obviously, that's not a lot to to go on, but here are a few first impressions.

No matter what happens, the memory of the first set of the year will live large. Wow. What a way to come out of the gate against Baylor. I was seriously pumped up after that one. I mean, here we are starting three freshmen and two sophomores going up against the #27 ranked team in the country in their gym. We get ahead 12-7 by scoring five straight points, then manage to stay ahead until it gets knotted at 19-19. Fold and give in? No. Instead, Sabrina Burns kill to take the lead. They score and take the lead 21-20. Fold and give in? No. Instead, Monica Pannone sends two shots to the floor. After a service error gives Baylor set point do we fold and give in? No. Instead, Allison Gideon decides to strike rather than set at just the right time and we are tied. You want more? Baylor gets up 26-25 and has their second set point? Give in now and be happy with stretching this set out? No. A block by Bottles and Gideon, an attack error by Baylor and then Bottles ending it with a kill and you've got one exciting way to begin a a season.

Yeah, Yeah, I know the other sets didn't go as well as that one, but still - there was some spark shown there out of the gate that holds promise.

Overall, the positives that I saw were that Bottles is awesome as usual and after an off night on Friday, KO played well against Butler and SMU. It actually looked like MC was jumping higher on her attacks than I remember in years past. Maybe it was just my angle, but it looked to me as though she added an inch or two to her contact point.

Other quick positive observations: Pannone was thundering them down on Friday. Not quite as sharp on Saturday, but if MC and KO are leading the offense then players like Burns, Pannone and Jackson can be more complementary, rather than having to lead on offense. That formula was more in play on Saturday - even against SMU despite the three set loss.

Hanlan and Miksch had some ridiculous ups on Saturday. Mel had one in particular where she was basically going backward and just popped one up back over her head that looked like her arm was in this weird contorted angle. Freaked me out.

Gideon has great floor vision. I can remember two distinct rallies in which I saw that Butler was leaving the left front corner wide open with a girl cheating really far over to cover a block on the right front. Both times (and obviously many others that I didn't see), Gideon picked up on it and while jump setting just flicked the ball over her right shoulder barely over the net into the open left front for a point. Many other times she was able to attack on 2nd touch which is something we haven't seen consistently in a very long time at SFA.

Despite not having an obvious answer right now on the right side, there are enough people being auditioned over there (Jackson and Hill a little bit) that I think we are going to be OK until Ari returns.

On the flip side, I thought our block was slow to set up at times giving opponents too many open shots or just one-on-ones. Passing was hit or miss. It probably needs to get better in order to be more consistent on offense. Despite Gideon's attempts to set deep in the attacking zone, at times I thought sets were too far off the net and of course, that in part, can be attributed to weak passing putting the setter in more difficult situations than are necessary. The other part of it may just simply be that despite practices, this is the first Fall season that Gideon has set to our primary attackers and of course, the first time ever she has set to the freshmen.

Debbie seemed like she was cool with what she saw. Overall, I mean. Sure, there were things she commented on that are not going to be printed here, but I think overall, there was enough positive play that she can capitalize on during the next week as we prepare for ULM and our next tournament.

To be perfectly honest, Baylor and SMU are really good teams. The total talent on both those teams probably eclipses us by a decent margin. I should add here that SMU looked really, really good against Baylor. Their block was really effective against a strong set of Baylor attackers. I thought SMU played noticeably worse against us, so in a way, it was disappointing not to finish off a set or two against them in the last match.

Tuesday night is the home opener and if we play even moderately well it should be a quick win. Louisiana-Monroe was 3-30 last year, and so we picked a good home opening opponent. I mean, we are 32-0 all time against ULM, OK? Not taking them for granted, but 2-2 is probably where a lot of folks thought we'd be after our first four matches. I'd like to see the freshmen contribute tomorrow night in their first match at Johnson Coliseum.

Your assignment is to get back here during Tuesday afternoon and read the interview with Setter Allison Gideon and then put on purple and get over to the Coliseum. I'll be piping out the lineups at one minute to 7:00. See you there!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

2010 Player Preview: Arielle Daron

It's time. The season is finally upon us. As I sit and type this, the team bus is en route to Waco in order to get settled in before playing host Baylor in our first game of the season tomorrow night. I really hope many of you reading this can find a way - any way - to support the Ladyjacks. Being in the Ferrell Center with purple on is the best way, but remember that we have Gametracker and the live chat with Ben and I available for you here. I've recently learned that the software that we use for the in-game live chats is smartphone compatible meaning that you can join the chat even if you are in the Ferrell Center watching the match. Ask questions, make comments and interact with other SFA Volleyball fans that are both near and far from the action. Ben and I will be your eyes and ears if you can't be there in person.

Unfortunately, one of the 'Jacks who will be recuperating an injury and not available for battle this weekend is Senior right-side hitter Ari Daron. All are hopeful that Ari's wrist heals mega-fast and she gets back into the lineup in about a month - possibly sooner.

My timing was bad in that I sent Ari the questions below right before she was scheduled to go in for her surgery. I should have moved this interview up to be more accommodating. For that, I apologize, but Ari was very gracious to get back to me soon after the surgery was over, which of course, I didn't expect.

I remember watching Daron as a sophomore- she got in a few dozen sets at middle blocker - but Ashley Bailey and the emergence of freshman MC Bottles overshadowed her contributions. Last year, I began to go to early fall workouts in order to report on things here at the blog and I was blown away. The advances that Ari had made between the end of her 2nd year and the start of her 3rd Fall were astronomical. She was easily one of the most improved players we had going into last year. Of course, all of you know the rest of the story to this point. She went out in 2009 and backed up what we all saw in practice to the tune of 307 kills. Only Bottles and Owens saw more sets come their way than Daron in 2009. Her .229 attack percentage was third on the team and best among those playing primarily on the outside.

Daron is one of the most versatile front row players we have, so I really hope she is able to get back on the court soon. Maybe the time off will keep her extra fresh for the end of the season when things get to be a grind. We'll need her more in November than right now. Something tells me she'll make her presence known.

Have fun reading the interview...and I hope to see as many of you reading this as possible in Waco or at the very least in Johnson Coliseum next Tuesday night for our home opener against Louisiana-Monroe.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: In addition to volleyball, you were excellent at both basketball & track in high school. You had multiple team MVP and all-district honors as a prep athlete. Was it tough to decide to concentrate solely on volleyball when you were first coming out of high school or did you know for sure you wanted to play volleyball in college?

Ari: Yes it was very hard to decide between volleyball and basketball because I loved them both equally. Every since I was little, my family would encourage me to play basketball in college then continue on to the pros so that they could get free tickets! But, after my senior year I knew I had to chose and I chose volleyball mainly because of SFA. I had my mind made up that if I played collegiate volleyball it would have to be here. For one reason, because I have a family history here. My grandma used to be the head chef and my grandpa was the head custodian and they both retired from SFA. But also visiting the team and seeing the love and chemistry along with the Village dorms played a big role in me coming here too!

SFAVolleyBlog.net: This time last year, when I was watching practices, it was clear that you had really improved a great deal between the end of your sophomore and the beginning of your junior year. Going into this season, what areas are you looking to make the greatest strides in?

Ari: I think there's always room for improvement in all aspects of my game but blocking would remain at the top of my list. It's gotten better but still not where I feel its capable of being. I'd really like to see us all step up a great deal against Central Arkansas this year. We're capable of beating any and every team that we play. I just can't sit well with the thought that they are an undefeatable team. That should be us.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Last year, you had some of your very best games against some of the conference’s toughest opponents. You had a career high 19 kills vs. UCA at home and hit .522 with a team-high 14 kills against Texas State. Are you someone who looks forward to being at the center of things in big matches? Are you someone who wants to get set the ball at crunch time or get a block at just the key point in a big match?

Ari: Yes, I always want to get the ball and I always want my teammates to have the confidence in me that I can and will get the job done when we need it.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: As a senior, you are now in a position to have a big impact on the underclassmen that are coming in after you. Which former players were the biggest help to you while they were upperclassmen and you were just getting started?

Ari: I would have to say Ashley Bailey had the biggest impact on me, on and off the court. She was my friend, my teammate and my "mother away from home"...and at other times was more like a big sister. There are times I sit and think "I don't know what I would have done without her". I still call her on a regular basis to talk or for her to keep me sane. But any issue I had or anytime I needed advice about volleyball, or class, she was the first person I'd call because I knew she'd tell me exactly what I needed to hear whether I wanted to hear it or not.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Finally, in Lo’s interview, she claimed you have the title of “prankster” on the team. The readers were told of an incident at McNeese where you help barricade a door so coaches couldn’t get in. Do you admit to the title of "prankster"? Are there any other famous pranks that you can recall that are able to be printed? Do you have any “partners in crime” on these pranks or do you work alone?

Ari: Yes, I have to admit to it!. But I rarely act alone. Usually if it wasn't me alone, then [former Ladyjack]Emily Franklin had a part in it. There was a night when me, Emily, and [former Ladyjack] Amber Doolittle were at the Village playing Guitar Hero: We would invite teammates over one by one to "see Emily's Halloween costume" and when they went to open the closet door we had someone hiding inside with a water gun and a camera at the top of the closet recording the entire thing. We scared everyone on the team but I think scaring Maddie was probably the funniest.

[Ed. Note: I playfully ask for the video that goes along with this prank, but something tells me... I ain't never gonna get it.]


Remember: Baylor Tournament this weekend and home opener against ULM on Tuesday night at the Coliseum. In case you want to read back over the previous player profiles, here are the links. We have three to go & they will appear in this order: Allison Gideon, MC Bottles and then Kelsey Owens will wrap this series up before going to an all-freshmen Q&A.

Finally. The Season. Let's rock and roll.

Carrie Hahn
Laurel Kuepker
Melissa Miksch
Maddie Hanlan
Sabrina Burns

Monday, August 23, 2010

Predictions for 2010

You will recall that last year I predicted the 2009 squad would be 22-12 overall and 12-4 in conference play going into the Southland Tournament. The team finished exactly 22-12 overall before tourney, but I missed the conference record by one game as we went 11-5. In case, you need proof, you can click here.

Without any delay, the short n' choppy post of 2010 predictions:

Record Prior to SLC Tournament: 20-11
Conference Record: 11-5

SFA wins the Drake Tournament

Postseason Honors: Owens, Bottles, Hanlan, Gideon all at least honorable mention SLC with one of the above on first team and one on second team.

Most improved for 2010: Sabrina Burns

Freshman With Biggest Impact: Leslie Jackson early, Monica Pannone late

SFA leads the conference in blocks per set

What we'll wish for: Just one more lights out attacker on the left

Watch out for: 10/06 at SHSU and 10/14 at UTA

SFA's Biggest Win: Won't come in the regular season, but in the SLC Tournament

Final Prediction: The SLC tournament is going to be wild...really wild...with at least one game that will be viewed as a massive upset.

That's all. Let's revisit this in November, OK?

Waco on Friday!! If you can't be there live, then join Ben Rikard and I as we use the "Cover It Live" software to bring you an in game live chat for all our matches. Can we go now? I am really ready to see the club play. This tournament is going to be a challenge right out of the gate as SMU and especially Baylor look to be particularly strong. Baylor went deep in the NCAA's last year and by all accounts, a good 2009 SMU squad may be a tad better. Should be good volleyball at the Ferrell Center.

From talking with Debbie Humphreys today, it appears that we'll get a good look at the newcomers in various positions and schemes throughout the weekend. I am all for that. The quicker they get the feel for what NCAA Division I Volleyball is, the better they'll be for conference play.

Friday, August 20, 2010

2010 Player Preview: Sabrina Burns

The first time I met Sabrina was at the 2009 version of the kick-off-the-year dinner at Richard & Debbie Humphreys' lake house. I left that night with two very strong impressions of her. First, Sabrina is very, very polite and second.... Sabrina is very, very tall.

I go about 6'4" in new tennis shoes (just wait, tennis will come up again in a minute) & so its rare that I meet someone of the opposite gender who I look eye-to-eye with in conversation. Tall people actually notice when other tall people start talking to them, because your eye level is...well, level. Now, we've still got Kelsey Owens to preview & we won't bring her beau into this conversation quite yet, because that kind of height is a totally different story. It is VERY weird for someone 6'2"-6'4" to be looking straight up at someone.

Why all this talk about height? Well, Sabrina claims that she's grown over the summer and is now 6'2 1/2". I did some research (yeah, yeah...I'm always looking stuff up like this...so, sue me) and found out that there are only three players in the conference listed at 6'3". I could have named the first two: Chloe Smith at UCA and Jayme Bazile at Lamar. Supposedly, Texas State has a 6'3" freshman named Rachel James.

So, I am lobbying for an official measurement and a change to the roster (by rounding up to an even 6'3").

Whether that happens or not, I can vouch for the fact that Burns play in practice this fall has been the play of someone that tall or taller. I'm gonna go ahead and call it right now (that's how we roll at SFA Athletics)....Burns will be the most improved veteran going from 2009 to 2010. Mark it down: Breakout. She is going to be a force blocking at the net. Oh, and its not like she needs to learn how to swing hard when in offensive mode. If she learns to play with a notch more aggression and fire? Then, look out.

Look, its not as if replacing Ashley Bailey's contributions is trivial. But the killer B's of Bottles and Burns project to make the middle blocker spots solid going into 2010. I'm much more concerned about a second attacker on the outside than I am about what is going on the middle. 'Cause it's not like Hahn and Hill are milk toast once we get beyond the B's.

By the way, if it isn't obvious by now.. I applaud wholeheartedly the switch from RS to MB for Burns. It's not as if she couldn't play on the right, its just that I really agree with the coaching staff that her maximum potential can be realized as a middle blocker. Enough already. The interview:

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Tell me about your recruitment to play at SFA. Was it Erin or Coach B that first saw you play? What was the process of meeting the SFA staff and ultimately deciding to come to SFA to play?

Sabrina: I'm not sure who it was who first saw me play, but I do remember corresponding with Coach B because he was the one who e-mailed me. The part I remember the most was coming to camp the summer before my senior year, and getting to play with some of the team between sessions, and being really impressed with the coaches, the campus, the living facilities, and loving the team and everything just seemed like the perfect fit. My parents and I had been praying about it, and we talked about it after Coach Humphreys made the offer, and there was no reason not to come here. There were lots of reasons to make SFA my college, so I called Coach and informed her that I would love to be a Lumberjack! I really believe that this is where God wants me, so that's definitely a bonus!

SFAVolleyBlog.net: I've mentioned that you claim to have grown over the summer. The tallest players in the conference are listed at 6’3”. Are you going to join me in lobbying for that change on the team roster? Where does the height come from in your family?

Sabrina: Well, I'm technically 6'2'' and a half inch, but 6'3'' is certainly easier to print on the roster! I've been led to believe my height comes from my Mom's side. She had a really tall great uncle or something like that, but I'm taller than both my Mom and my Dad, so the height is from a distant relative.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: I have written before that when I first met you, I assumed you were a middle blocker. This year, that’s the position you are shifting to. Were you always an outside hitter in high school, or do you have any previous experience at MB before last spring?

Sabrina: I started my volleyball career as a middle blocker way back when, and have shifted along the front row throughout the years. As an early teen, when I played club for McAlester, I played in the middle. Then I went to play for Oklahoma Peak Performance in Edmond and I was a left side for a bit. But then I moved to the right for blocking. I played middle for my high school except for my sophomore year, when I played right side. So, throughout the years I've been back and forth across the front row.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: You got in a decent number of matches as a freshman, but appear poised to play an even more vital role on the 2010 squad. In what areas of your game you are looking to make the biggest improvement?

Sabrina: This year I'm focusing on hitting and blocking, in that for both areas I need to keep better spacing. I tend to get too close to the net. I'm also working on my serve, it's pretty decent, just not the most consistent, so if I get that consistency up, I think it can really help the team score.

[Ed. Note: This is something else I have personally witnessed in practice. Early in her first few practices last year, I thought Burns really struggled in serving drills. This year, she's been quite sharp. It's interesting she chose this in her response, because it was one of the things I was thinking when I wrote the question.]

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Finally, I am aware that your brothers are also college athletes – each playing tennis at different programs. Did you grow up in a competitive house athletically? Were there a lot of pushing and shoving one-on-one basketball games or tennis grudge matches or things like that?

Sabrina: Yes, we are a fairly competitive household. We never really played basketball, but there were definitely tennis grudge matches. I remember a time when I was consistently able to beat my younger brother, which was a long long time ago. But, I remember the first time I officially lost to him was in a family tournament that we had in Colorado while we were on vacation - I was so mad. Now he can hit a serve over a hundred miles an hour, so I don't feel quite so bad. He would also stay after volleyball practice with me and my mom and as she tossed me balls he would block me...well, try to block me mostly! We've also had jumping contests and races, so it has been a lot of fun having my brothers there so we can push each other and compete.

If you can't be in Waco next Friday night, then be sure and navigate your way over to the SFA Volleyball Official website right before game time and join Assistant Media Relations Director Ben Rikard and I in a live chat during the match. If you are a new fan, or parent/relative/supporter of one of the new players, then you will probably really enjoy this. We are able to keep you posted second by second about the match, answer questions from readers as they come in, supply you with plenty of stats and analysis, and generally give you the best description we can since we will be right there court side for the entire night. It's great fun, so make sure you are with us in the chat room. You don't need any special software or anything. It's easy...just grab your computer, get to the 'Jacks volleyball website, click on the box that Ben will set up and you're done.

At a minimum, I will pair with Ben or go solo on these live chats for the away games in Natchitoches and Huntsville in addition to this weekend. Plus, we will do all our games in the Southland Tournament this way too. Ben may travel to other games, or he may not as his job demands. He'll let you know in his blog with Laurel.

I think we may get player previews on Allison Gideon and possibly Ari Daron in before Waco. That will leave MC Bottles and Kelsey Owens with the attention during the week the semester begins and we have our home opener against Louisiana-Monroe (31st at 7 PM). I've got another article I've been writing about players to watch at other conference schools, but that may have to wait a week or ten days. A group-style all-freshman interview will hit in early September.

Check back often and Axe 'Em Jacks!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Random Untitled Post

Let's see....since the time of last post I've managed to crash my wife's van, make a parenting mistake that got one of my kids dehydrated to the point of almost blacking out and then acquiring this massive head cold that causes me to walk in random directions. Nice.

In just another day or two, we'll preview the (taller) Sabrina Burns in order to get you even more ready for the season opener which is only nine days away at this point.

Over the last couple of weeks, I've managed to catch three afternoon practices and I'll probably get in tomorrow's as well. Yesterday, I managed to stagger up to my perch at the top of Shelton Gym to watch practice. I was in this terrible mood from my headache and I kept thinking: I hope nobody talks to me - just nobody talk to me. I remember thinking that over and over until about a half hour into the practice when I suddenly realize the obvious: No one is going to talk to you because you are at the top of the gym by yourself. Yes, I've been that fogged over the last few days.

The practices have been great. I went to four or five last year and I honestly think the three I've seen this year were better than all five or so I saw last year. Plus, I must say that its been educational. Coach Humphreys voice carries more than Yale or Critzer's in the gym so when she starts teaching, I can typically hear everything. I can recite for you the proper body positioning for serve receive by heart. Don't ask me to illustrate.

Most every drill in practice is "points" based. Do this for "100 touches" or "first group to 30 points wins this drill" or "we play this drill to 10 with points off for balls touching the floor or errors"....or some scheme like that. I don't remember as much of that from my visits last year, but I really like it and it seems to work well. The girls treat every drill as a competition and it's amazing how there is no wasted time at all during the workouts. Breaks are short and focus is maintained for hours at a time. Pretty impressive.

I've had a couple people ask me about the freshmen. By the way, we will do a freshman interview once the season begins. Let me just say this about the newcomers: yes, at times, even my fairly untrained eyes see things that reinforce that they are new to college volleyball. But, there appear to be some pretty cool customers in this bunch. It will be interesting to see who individually emerges with more playing time, but as a unit, I like what the collective contribution projects to be. By that I mean, I can look at the six of them and be confident that we are gonna get something good THIS year. From whom, I'm not completely sure. But, as always, I've got a legal pad with me at practice scratching down questions and thoughts for future conversations with coaches. I'm really anxious to see the newcomers in game situations.

Some quick hits on the veterans: Gideon (yeah, OK, she's not a "veteran" yet) is going to be just fine. So smooth. Burns is better this year. Possibly quite a bit better...I think she's going to be a monster at the net. KO says she's feeling fine, so we know what that means: Pain for those not in purple. Like all teams, this one needs good health, but I just don't see any regression in the returners.

One thing has hit me like a ton of bricks, though. I know we are gearing up for 2010, but I guess I have the luxury of shifting time frames around in my head rather than coaching or playing - two things that require focus on the here and now. I was hit with this question:

"Who is going to be our L1 next season? Who is going to be the go-t0 on the strong side in 2011?"

When I pondered that, I realized that (both obviously and still amazingly to me) the answer will come from what we see this season. Unless someone changes position, it appears the answer is either Miksch or a current freshman (or a freshman recruit).

I think I'll have fun pondering that question and it's possible answers as the season goes on.

Two other things I don't want to forget to mention: First, about a week before my final post on the conferences' coaches it appears that Nicholls had indeed hired a new coach. Her name is TeAna Tramel and she comes to Nicholls after being an assistant at Washington State for two years. It turns out that this was announced on the conference website during the time I was doing the coaching series. I just didn't see it. Most of what appears in the news section on the conference website is duplicity - the articles just being lifted from school athletic websites. But, Nicholls "old" athletics website is still up alongside a new revamped version and in all the confusion I missed the announcement. At any rate, Nicholls doesn't come here to play until next year, so a formal welcome will have to wait.

Lastly, you should be
over at the official site reading Ben's positional previews. As always, they are well done and informative. Ben and I are both planning on making the trip to Waco next weekend. At this point, it does appear that we will do a live court side Internet chat for each of our matches. These were well received last year by parents and fans and each of us enjoyed doing them, so they'll definitely be back for this year. Ben may handle some, I may handle some and a good fraction of them we'll do together.

I got my degrees at Baylor and SMU - two of the teams we play on opening weekend. So while I don't have huge allegiance to either athletically (especially volleyball), it will be good for me to get back to Waco. It is where both my parents were born and where I spent many days growing up. I loved going to college there, so it will be a pleasant trip down memory lane. I graduated in the Ferrell Center, so it's always a trip to be back there wearing different colors than green and gold.

Check back here on Friday for Sabrina Burns preview!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

2010 Player Profile: Maddie Hanlan

Whew. Gotta tell ya: I am just glad Hanlan isn't boycotting the blog or planning to give me a cold shoulder the next three years she steps on the court for us. When setting up the following interview, I danced on eggshells a little bit by trying to make it abundantly clear that I am definitely a Maddie Hanlan fan.

Last year, it just took me a while, you know? I know, I know: I was told by everyone who was anyone that Hanlan would step in - cool as a cucumber - dig balls, play libero, we'll all be happy. Trouble is: I am a scientist. You know..I'm a 'in God we trust - all others must bring data' kinda guy.

So, last year right before the SLC Tourney, I am sitting on this very couch upon which I am typing up this interview and I begin to review stats and match files. All the sudden my memories combine with the numbers on the page and I remember having the "a-ha" moment & thinking: Holy crap. Hanlan is good. Hanlan is really good.

I walked around my own house expecting my two-year old daughter to point at me and start up with "Nanny, nanny boo boo.. I told you so, I told you so". It was like I had discovered something that everybody else knew before me and now I was going around embarrassed. I was thinking that total strangers would walk up to me and say "Hey, aren't you that PA dude who writes that web-thingy? Dude, why aren't you cool with Hanlan at libero - she's awesome, bro!"

Of course, all the while I was thrilled Hanlan was succeeding. She was a vital part of our season last year and should be again this time around. The fact that she responded to my questions with a "thank you" and an humble acknowledgement that she had large shoes to fill when she stepped in last year just iced things over. In #7 we trust... all others better hit the ball another direction.

Here's my Q&A session with the Ladyjack Libero:
SFAVolleyBlog.net: You are coming off a year where you set an all-time SFA record for digs by a freshman. Talk me through how someone who so early in her college career is recognized as a great defensive player can get even better.

Maddie: Well there is definitely always, always, always room for improvement, so I try to do some self-reflection after each season to identify specific skills I could get better at (which usually turns out to be all of them). Hopefully, a year of experience with the team and in this conference will help me improve in areas like reading college-level hitters, being better prepared for practices, game and travel routines, knowing some of my opponents (and teammates) tendencies to help me anticipate plays better. I know I have lots to learn and lots to improve on so hopefully I can keep building on everything that happened my first year.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: What is that one thing about your freshman experience that was really hard, but that this year you are saying to yourself “I know what to expect out of that now”. What was the biggest adjustment that you had to make coming from Arlington-Martin to SFA?

Maddie: Well first of all, just thinking about two-a-days last year scared the living daylights out of me so that definitely was a challenge. I know what to expect during the first two weeks now so all the anxiety or at least most of it will subside I hope (I have my fingers crossed). Other than that I think the hardest thing was adjusting to being away from home and doing absolutely everything on your own. It sounds nice and all but it takes more getting used to than I ever thought. I was really glad to have MC [Bottles] as a roommate to help me figure some things out about my first year of balancing volleyball and classes.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Last year, as a freshman, were there any things that the upperclassmen made the freshmen do in order to “earn their stripes”? Any rituals or rites of passage that you had to go through? Are there any things that are just “left to the freshmen” to do that now you won’t have to do anymore?

Maddie: Yes, being a freshman comes with responsibilities such as setting up the nets and carrying the dirty clothes and extras bags at tournaments. Unfortunately, the sophomores have to do some of that too so I think I’ll be stuck with these extra little duties for one more year, but they are not too bad. Also there are only so many chairs in the Shelton Gym [ed. note: practice facility] locker room, so of course the elders got to sit in those and I often found myself sitting on the floor in the back. I don't mind, though. I know my time will come!

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Your 40 aces last year far and away led the team. How would you categorize your serve and is it the same type of serve you have always had or have you experimented with different ways to serve and settled on the style you are using now?

Maddie: I would call my serve a jump floater and now that I think about it, it has always been my go-to serve. I started jump serving in the 8th grade and loved it. Once I figured out jumping and hitting made my contact point almost as high as a front row players’ standing serve, I was sold. That and I've always felt that a good floater is the toughest serve to pass consistently. Although sometimes I will get into little slumps where it’s just not working, and will occasionally change to a standing floater, I will always go back to the jump floater.

SFAVolleyBlog.net: Finally, rank the skills most necessary for a good libero. For instance, is footwork more important that being in the correct position? Is reading the attacker more important that those two? Lateral quickness, what?

Maddie: I think to be a good libero you need to have great discipline, read hitters and situations well, be really consistent in serve-receive, and be willing to do just about anything to keep the ball off the floor. Every coach I ever had drilled into me the importance of discipline. You must know your defensive assignment and get to the right spot every time. If you try to do too much and just fly around the court diving for balls it seems every ball hits the floor. The defense has to work as a unit and everyone has to be disciplined within their assignment. Reading the hitter is also very important and I think the most fun because it’s like a game within a game. Liberos need to serve-receive consistently well to keep the offense going. Also, just as important as any skill, a libero has to be tenacious. "Just keep the little white ball off the floor" is what one of my previous and favorite coaches always said and I think that sums it up as well as anything what the libero position is all about.

It's reporting day! Sunday night is the annual kick-off-the-year social/dinner and I'll have a short report on that next week. This will personally be my first chance to see and meet all the new players and I really look forward to that. First practices will be on all their minds as Monday morning they get started bright and early with two-a-days.

My plan is to take in a practice on Thursday of next week sandwiched between major deadlines in my real job and a weekend vacation with my son.

I've got a call in to a former Ladyjack that I'd like to reintroduce all of you too in another week or so, but in the short term will try and have two posts in the next seven to ten days and they will be....

Next Player Profiles: Arielle Daron and Sabrina Burns

Previous Player Profiles:
Carrie Hahn
Laurel Kuepker
Melissa Miksch

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Dozen In Charge, Part 3

Today's final installment in this three part post will primarily serve as an introduction to the Southland Conference's new head volleyball coaches. As you might expect, the programs represented here are in somewhat of a rebuilding mode. McNeese might not be in quite the same place as these other schools, but still we aren't talking about clubs that have had a lot of recent success here.

The title of this series is actually a bit of a misnomer. At least, I think it is. Chris Laird resigned as the head coach at Nicholls on the 21st of June and the university announced that a search would begin shortly there after. But as of this writing, there has been no official announcement of a hiring on their webpage. The short-n-sweet announcement that Laird was bye-bye can be found here. That's as sterile as it gets. I'm sure there is a story here that I don't know (or maybe even care to know), but Nicholls' athletic website isn't exactly known for gushing with informative articles. Most folks know that the higher education facilities in Louisiana have faced all sorts of budget issues and suffice it to say that I'm not terribly surprised at either a) the lack of information available to the public or b) the fact that the position, if filled, isn't advertised.

So, that dispatches with Nicholls. We have McNeese, Northwestern State and Texas A&M -Corpus Christi remaining on our coaching tour.

In case you missed the first two articles (shame on you), you can click on the links below:

The Dozen In Charge, Part 1: The Legends

The Dozen In Charge, Part 2: The Veterans

Generation Next:

Tony Graystone, TAMUCC
Actually, Graystone is not a new coach in the SLC. His post at TAMUCC began last year and he's got one win in his home gym to show for it. The Islanders went 9-22 last year under Graystone and have got as far as any program in the conference to climb in order to gain some measure of consistent respect. To be more positive, TAMUCC did have some decent matches in SLC play last year. I specifically remember them stretching Sam to five sets in Huntsville and they tallied a sweep of Southeastern and Nicholls near the end of the conference slate. Those two wins were probably their highest quality though. I mean, wins against Alcorn State, UT-Pan American and Centenary don't do a lot for me.

Take a look at their
2010 roster. Notice anything? There is a whole lot of "FR" on that list. The only seniors on the team are "shoulder tear waitin' to happen" Ridley and personal fave Jessica Jennett. The offense last year consisted solely of Ridley and now Junior Jessica Korda. Those two accounted for a whopping 65% of the teams' total kills. By way of comparison, our top two in kills last year (Bay and MC both had 362 each) accounted for 40% of the balls finding the floor.

Graystone definitely has the quantity part in his 2010 recruits, but they may have some quality in there too. PrepVolleyball.com ranks their recruiting class among the top 100 in the nation. I'm not sure how much of that has to do with there being seven early signing period girls and two later addition freshman to bring the newcomer total to nine. Ridley, Jennett and Korda are the only non-freshman/sophomores on the team.

So, yes, Graystone is building. Graystone knows what it feels like to win a lot of games though. At one point while the head coach at DII West Texas A&M he won 100 of 106 matches. He reached 300 career victories faster than any other DII volleyball coach in history. I'll leave it to you to be impressed or ask if the competition at West Texas A&M was significantly better than tumbleweeds. I'm inclined to fall on the fence and reserve complete judgement until around 2013 when this signing class blooms.

Terry Gamble, McNeese
Gamble continues the theme of coaches successful at smaller programs. Not like McNeese and TAMUCC are "larger programs", but we are talking DI volleyball as oppose to the junior college ranks where Gamble is a semi-legend. Gamble accumulated 751 victories in the JuCo ranks - good enough to get him elected to the NJCAA (look it up) volleyball coaches Hall of Fame (who knew!). There are a few junior college national championships on his resume too.

I'll miss Dale Starr. Man, that guy was a trip. The veins in that guys head would bulge and he often looked like he was going to go over and bite the ear off one of his players. That guy could get after it. The really astute reader will know that I actually liked (like?) the McNeese team more than most. You can
re-read this post here to see what I mean. Warning: that is the post that some think I wrote while stoned.

Yes, I think Nicole Bowden and Priscilla Massengale are good. They graduated their setter (Sarah Cartie, who was also good) so it remains to be seen if Gamble will get anything out of sophomore Becky Bekelja or maybe they'll turn to - you guessed it - junior college transfer Danielle Kraci.

One thing Gamble will have to address is tanking down the stretch. The Cowgirls were horrible at the end of the 2009 season losing their last six conference games to lose out on a tournament berth due to a crazy tiebreaker rule. They were 17-13 last year, but they started the year 13-2, so you do the math. They lost back-to-back five set matches on the last two days of the season at home against Nicholls and Southeastern Louisiana.

Gamble's been a head coach for 15 seasons prior to being hired as head wrangler of the Cowgirls. With all (due?) respect to Midland Lutheran College, St. Clair County Community College and Iowa Western Community College, I just don't think the past is overly indicative of the future here. Chanel Tyler and Sarah Cartie aren't on this team any more and I think that loss will mean more for 2010 than the coaching change. Like Graystone, Gamble will need time. In a few years, we'll see if McNeese has consistently found the postseason. That will be the measuring stick for Mr. Gamble in Lake Charles.

The Hernesman's, Northwestern State
I guess they figure it's going to take them both to turn this around. Northwestern State won three (as in "3")times last year and didn't win a set in 13 of their 24 matches. So who can blame former head coach Brittany Uffelman for leaving the bat cave (
this is a must re-read by the way) and heading back to her roots in Wyoming. Actually, Uffelman did a decent job. Last year was the last in five that NWLA hadn't made the tournament. She is the only coach to ever lead a Demon team to the SLC Tourney.

I have to admit I chuckled a little bit when I read that Northwestern had hired a married set of co-coaches to run the squad. To be fair though, while an undergraduate I majored in a department that had hired several married couples and my home department right now at SFA recently hired a married couple. So, if it can work on the academic side, why not here? Right? [I guess?] [Maybe?] OK, whatever.. moving on...

So, thus begins the Hugh and Stepanie Hernesman era at Northwestern State. Hugh is a former head coach at Hardin Simmons (with again.. a fair amount of success like Graytone and Gamble) and they each have had stints as assistants at Ball State and Wisconsin-Whitewater. I just like typing that: Wisconsin-Whitewater. Wisconsin-Whitewater. It just sounds so wunderful and weefreshing. Wisconsin-Whitewater.

The Hernesman's will bring in three freshman and one transfer to add to a core of returning players from last year. This will be a baptism by fire for the coaching duo as there doesn't appear to be a very rosy outlook for 2010. We open conference play against them in Natchitoches. I admit I'm planning on going. Albeit more to watch the two-headed coaching approach and scout out the bats than be entertained by Demon volleyball.

Despite a fair amount of sarcasm in this post, the truth is that one of these programs - or maybe all - will receive a decent shot in the arm over their coaching changes. I think the transitions will be rough in a few cases and maybe some of these programs won't get the gain they are hoping for.

But who knows, you gotta start somewhere. I mean, these coaches are experiencing a lot of "new firsts". First recruiting classes at their new schools, first fall practices, first meetings... they are in a honeymoon period with their new schools and of course, we all know honeymoons are fun. But when the honeymoon period wears off, it will all boil down to wins and losses - just like it does for any coach of a college athletic team.

I sincerely look forward to meeting these folks. Additionally, I truly wish them success..and I hope it comes fast. We all can agree that if these coaches succeed, then the conference as a whole benefits. The better the teams in our conference get, the more respect the Southland gets in general. So, I wish them all the success they can garner. Except when SFA comes to town or their girls step foot on our floor. In those two cases, I wish all you new coaches a pleasant nightmare.