Sunday, August 7, 2011

This... This Should Be Different

You know that feeling of living day to day? You know, those times in your life where you just can't see past tomorrow. That was Summer 2011 for me. Between a car crash that totalled out a vehicle (everyone is OK) and family members being diagnosed with strange and rare illnesses (everyone is OK) and ever changing job responsibilities (I THINK everyone is OK)... the Summer of 2011 was about living one slow day at a time.

Volleyball was so far from my mind this summer. It had to be. The aforementioned changes in job responsibilities will probably at some point take their toll on my relationship with SFA Athletics. I think Volleyball will be immune to these changes, though. Despite having complete confidence that I'd be on the mic come fall, I wondered about this space. I wondered if two years of writing here was gonna be it. Maybe it was time to move on - call the blog a nice phase - and just get back to barking out lineups and hanging around practices like a gym rat. After all, I love SFA Volleyball, but I write basically all day -every day- for many reasons.. I might could let this die. So, I didn't write. All Summer.

But then, the emails came in. From a parent who was bored and had done some of his own statistical analysis. From another set of parents just checking on me and reminding me of their enjoyment from reading posts now and then. Another coach - a frequent commenter here - emailed to ask what was up. Then, a Facebook message would pop up inquiring why I was away.

Hey, I've got no delusions of grandeur here. We average a few dozen readers a day during the season.. nothing huge. But, the encouragement was enough. Plus, now.... now that the summer is about to bid farewell, it is time for volleyball. It is time to write. Time to get back to what I've been doing for years. So, I need to say I'm sorry. I'm sorry for not being consistent in filling this space with even the most basic of news over the summer. I thought I'd do better in Summer 2011, but now, I'll have to aim for 2012 to be the first COMPLETE year of writing. Oh, well, that's the past. On to the future. Let's play. Let's write. Let's get on with it.

SFA Volleyball 2010 didn't experience a whole lot of success. But, 2011 - whether more wins come or not - is going to be a different season.

Changes. So many changes. A new assistant coach. A new gym. Nine new players. Nine! A new conference structure on the horizon. New challenges.

I sat down last week with Debbie Humphreys like I do every year about this time. Assistant Coaches Critzer and Lanford were out of the office, but when I walked in there were Debbie's kids - Will and Reagan - watching TV, playing video games, hanging out while Mom worked on the computer. I had brought some pretty sharp questions with me and instantly I wondered if kids would notice/care/get mad if I pinned Mom/Coach to the wall with a question or two. Chit chat and small talk began our Q&A, but I knew I had to get to some tough stuff right off the bat. As usual, Coach was graceful. Graceful to the degree that I have never been thrown out of her office. Yet. The kids didn't seem irritated with me when I left and I walked out without any bruises.

One thing is for sure. Last year is long gone. I found it interesting that Coach said that after the season she did some "research" into her own SFA Volleyball history. A sort of trying to find out where 2010 fit in her past. But, she doesn't seem regretful. I ask her if there were things involving personnel that she would have changed and she mainly balked. It is clear she's moved on.

So, I decided to throw out a zinger: Is 2011 a rebuilding year?

We talked for probably 45 minutes, but during the entire session, there wasn't a question that I ask that she was any more prepared for than that one. Oh, she is always prepared. But, it was almost as though she KNEW I (and likely others) would be asking that. She gave me a fantastic analogy as an answer that in a nutshell conveyed that storied programs should still be feared and that they don't sit around licking wounds. They bounce back.. and often with a vengeance. I liked it. It was convincing.

We talked about the change in location - from the spacious Johnson Coliseum to the cozy Shelton Gym. I've been working on a post for months on this issue. I'm not the biggest fan of this move, but I'm glad I've held off writing about it. The more I talk with people, the more I am slowly - very slowly - coming around to the idea that this can be a good thing.

If nothing else, it should be louder. That gym - at least before some renovations were done this year - is/was basically an eyesore. Everyone tells me it is a work in progress - a work that will take three years or so and we are only in year one. OK. I ain't going anywhere. Let's give it time. But still, every time I see it, I almost vomit a little in my mouth. I work right next door to this place. Believe me.. it needs a lot - a ton - a lions' share worth of work. But, I digress... I'll write my Shelton Gym piece while they are all out on the road at Georgia or something. That way, it'll be a few days before any of them can come hurl sharp objects my way. The reality is that I am warming up to it all and my comments won't be as slanted as I once thought they'd be.

We talked about all the new players. Holy smokes. Nine new players. I usually attend two practices a week during August, but I am going to have to step it up to get good preseason look at all these new girls. My first visit to workouts will be next Friday the 12th.

One thing is for sure.. there is going to be some serious competition for court time. I love, love, love that this recruiting class was particularly sought out in terms of pedigree and what Debbie calls "athleticism coupled with Volleyball IQ". Love it. We needed to bring in a group of athletic girls as well as some girls who have been to the fight before. Most of these freshman played on very successful high school teams and/or club teams. They are a more battle-tested group than others in recent years and they are used to winning. I really, really like that approach.

Last year, people who asked to remain nameless, would often tell me that SFA wasn't as athletic a club as usual. That they felt we had gotten away from good pedigree. There must be a shred of truth to it.

I will chime in here with a personal opinion: We need to be nastier, meaner, and get a little more pissed off when we lose. I wish we'd play with a little more bravado and carry a tad of a chip around on our shoulders. Last years team was anything but intimidating. It occasionally might have been called soft by some. I think that is in the rear view mirror now. At least, it better be.

Oh, I guarantee you these freshman get knocked on their butts a few times. There will be matches where NCAA Division I volleyball will hit them square between the eyes. But, I think this group, along with our veterans will get up off their can and spit right back in the face of what just pushed them down.

Losing stinks. Nobody likes it. I'm not talking about poor sportsmanship, I am just talking about taking some serious pride in that jersey you put on. Hey, we can all get along and be a "volleyball family" and all that off the court, but how about a little on court swagger and attitude?

The girls have already taken a fair amount of pride in their new home. They've painted, they've decorated. Hey, Shelton Gym is THEIRS. It belongs to them now. Maybe that will translate into a stronger sense of "protect this house".

I'm not trying to stir up trouble here.. but I would love to see some intense battles in some of these Fall practices. How about a freshman thundering one down on a veteran and yelling in her ear about it? How about a veteran rejecting a freshman attack and giving her the look of "not here - not now"? Hey, we can all get along off the court. How about cultivating an attitude of "bring it" right from the start?

Let's be honest. There are more NEW players on this team than VETERANS. Hey, veterans: Make these rookies work. You know how this goes, you can show them the ropes and all that, but how about letting them know that you are the leaders? How about making them feel like they've got a mountain to climb in order to take your playing time away from you? Give them the feeling that you didn't like a season that finished 12-19 and you are out to do something about it. Make them earn it. Metaphorically knock them down a time or two and let's see if they can get up. Build toughness - physical and mental - from Day 1.

These freshman better strap it on, because there are 16 people in Fall camp this year, and last time I checked only six can play at a time. You know what that means. A lot of riding the pine.

You want to play? You better bring it in practice. You used to playing lots of minutes in club and high school? Guess what.. that's minor league compared to this. You a veteran who is hoping to see more playing time? Better not look over your shoulder - there are some young guns in town now.

Intensity. Competition.

This... This Should Be Different.

And, I'd like to say again: One losing season is enough. If it takes all this change to usher in a new winning era?

Fine. This is SFA Volleyball, damn it. Winning is Fun. Losing Sucks.

(Questions out to Pannone and Jackson who will lead off our Veteran Previews!!)