Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ladyjacks Heat Up Practice in Icy Shelton Gym

106, 108, 110, 106, 106, 106, 104, 104, 104, 104, 102, 102, 100, 106, 104, 106.

The official high temperatures in Nacogdoches this month.

Ridiculous by any one's standards. But the coldest place in Nacogdoches yesterday might have been Shelton Gym. The air conditioner pumped in icy cold air for hours as players and coaches went through workouts - now just eight days away from boarding a plane for Georgia to get this party started.

Various home repair projects involving water and glass have kept me with wallet open and away from campus until yesterday when I took my perch for the first time this preseason on freshly painted bleachers atop Shelton Gym.

A few weeks ago I walked around the new home of the Ladyjacks alone late one afternoon admiring the new lighting, art, paint and scoreboards. I arrived yesterday right at the 3:00 scheduled practice time and got a second chance to see the new artwork up close. Additional panels of the scoreboard had been added since my last visit and a nice new piece of technology for taping and cataloguing practice/match video was in use.

But what I enjoyed most was just seeing the two nets strung up with all the buckets of balls gathered together ready for use. As I walked around the gym I could hear the rumble of laughter from the new locker room as players and coaches were getting ready for the 2+ hours of workouts about to commence.

My notepad had only one line written on it: Allen, Gross, Hall, Hill, Holland, Ivy, Philogene, Randall, Spicer.

A few veterans and coaches acknowledged my presence during stretching. Sabrina Burns - noticing that I was looking around ask me if I liked it all and I half-way lied and said "Sure, its nice".
The newbies aren't used to my attendance yet. But, I didn't need their introduction - I know them all. Faces memorized before ever walking in. Bios read, research done, discussions had. I recognized all nine of them easily.

I focused almost entirely on the new players during my vigil. Randall was impressive - seemingly undaunted by the newness of college volleyball. She looked like she belonged. Holland's athleticism shined in subtle ways - often the first to finish in suicide line short running drills for not "winning" certain practice games that Debbie so often weaves in. Gross and Allen each had their defensive moments at the net that got coaches smiling at each other. Hill's digging and passing caught my eye more than once. Despite returning from a battle with a small illness, Ivy hit a heavy ball. Good things. Lots of good things. There are definitely some usable new parts here.

Most of the drills seemed to have more energy behind them than I recall from last year. A purposeful, spunky, energy was carried from one routine to the next - even fiery at times.

I got a glimpse of "it" one time. Of what might be. Of course, there is no "clock" in volleyball, but the scoreboard chimed off time remaining in drills during the two-net phase of practice. During one of these sessions, Assistant Coach Critzer had three-girl teams working on back row defense while he stood on blocks firing shots down at them. A sort of competition was built around how many balls could be successfully "upped" and passed to a front row receiver. At one point, right as the clock ran to 0:00 signaling the end of the drill, sophomore Monica Pannone made a tremendous dig and the entire gym erupted as the buzzer went off.

A flash of "it".

For that split second I could envision an audience bigger than one in that old rat-hole of a gym. Maybe this is gonna be OK, I thought. I know I'll slowly be won over to this new place. It's just going to be slow for me.

Still, all those new faces. All that uncertainty and moving parts. How does it all fit?

I know this, though: And its the same thing Debbie and I have said to each other for years now. When I left, I knew I wanted to come back. I wanted to see this again. If people will just make the effort to show up at a home match, they'll get "it". They'll want to come back.

You know what? Friday, if you are in Nacogdoches at 2:00 you'll have a chance. The SFA Volleyball Facebook page has posted an advertisement that the scrimmage on Friday is open and free to the public. There was some discussion that I'd get a chance to try out the new PA setup during that practice, but I think I'll be in Houston with family instead. But, if you are reading this and can make it - you should come check it out.

From here on out, I should be at afternoon practices about every other day leading up to the season opener in Georgia next weekend. It's a new season, and things should definitely be different. The hope is that it all translates into more winning and a return to 20+ victory seasons and tournament appearances.

I've missed this. I'm glad its back.

The next post in this space will focus on second year players Leslie Jackson and Monica Pannone. A set of questions to our two seniors - MC and Mel - will go out soon and I am hoping to preview the two of them before the Georgia Southern Tournament. We'll also be going around the league soon as we look at other SLC teams and their own changes and upcoming challenges.

Make plans right now to be in Shelton Gym on September 9 at 6 PM for the 'Jacks home opener against Texas A&M!