Thursday, October 20, 2011

Conference Opponent Preview: Nicholls State

Cue the Party Music: This is SFAVolleyBlog's 100th post of all time! Amazing to think that I've been able to ramble on this long and more amazing that the readership continues to slowly & steadily grow.

This century mark post will take a look at the 'Jacks Saturday opponent: The Colonels from Nicholls State. It's been a while since we've seen Nicholls in Nacogodoches. Last year, we made the trip there and lost in five sets while committing 41 attack errors. In 2009, we swept Nicholls in Johnson Coliseum in the final conference match of the year, but the match in Thibodaux that year will live in infamy.

On the afternoon of October 9, 2009, I got a text message from Ben Rikard, SFA Volleyball main contact and currently the Assistant Director of Media Relations at SFA. Loosely, the text read "We just lost.. TO NICHOLLS!! Thing was... I already knew it. I was staring blankly into my laptop reading the numbers on the screen from StatTracker: Nicholls 15, SFA 10. Ugh. After the final point flashed up, I thought to myself: "We don't lose to Nicholls"... and then a fraction of a second later my phone buzzes on the table next to me with Ben reminding my brain that we just did.

The recap on the Nicholls website had then head coach Chris Laird basically drooling all over himself. The article found about 10 different ways to say the same thing. 'We've never beat SFA while I've been coach', 'This is a great win for our program over a quality opponent'. 'SFA is a great program and we were able to get past them', 'This is the first time in a long time that we've beat SFA'...blah....blah...blah... 'Did I mention that we don't usually beat SFA and we just did...first time since I've been coach.. they are quality...'

Ugh. Stop. Don't make me barf.

It was terrible.

Hey, Nicholls State Volleyball has definitely made strides in recent years. Some old timers may remember that in 2003, Nicholls had to forfeit all their wins over gross academic fraud cases and take an 0-33 record for playing an ineligible player. But, more relevant to recent is a fact I'll bet you didn't know: Nicholls has made the conference tournament three years in a row.

In 2008, we hosted the tournament and they were the 7th seed losing to Lamar in the first round. The next year, while we were in San Antonio, they pulled off the upset of the tournament beating Sam Houston in the first round (they were 7th seed again) before losing to us on our way to the championship match. Last year, they were the 8th seed and lost to UCA in the first round.

Despite my picking on the 2011 team for scheduling one of the most puny non-conference schedules you could possibly imagine, this is still a team that scares me each time we play them. I think it was that 2009 upset that has stuck in my brain the last few times we've played.

The thing about Nicholls is that they really don't have a marquee player. Probably their best player from last year was libero Danielle Daigle. Make no mistake: Daigle was a quality NCAA volleyball player. She was even ranked nationally at times based on her dig per set numbers last year. I'm not going to get deep into it, but it is absolutely clear that current coaches and or athletic administration and Daigle had a major falling out. Hey, you can Google it like anyone else, but the facts are that she didn't come back for her final year and instead left Nicholls and took an assistant coaching job at a Catholic high school in Houma, LA. Needless to say, all of that is unfortunate and ultimately, despite what some may claim, represented a step back in the teams' talent level and overall quality. Proof? There are 12 teams in the conference and Nicholls doesn't have a player (their libero - if they have one - more on that later) in the Top 10 in digs per set.

Last year, outside hitter Jennifer Brandt made my 3rd Team All-SLC team. The conference did not vote her a similar honor. I think Brandt is probably their best player, but Nicholls really spreads the offense around evenly. JUCO transfer middle blocker Sarah Terry has created a mini-buzz and is worth keeping in check at the net. She is currently 3rd in the conference in attack percentage at .331. I think that's pretty legit, but you do have to remember that all offensive numbers for Nicholls are skewed due to their poor quality of opponents from early in the year. Now, in Terry's defense, she has hit .309 in conference matches, which if she qualified for the leader board would still place her in the top 10.

Another player that several people this year have independently told me that they admire is Senior OH Rachel Yezak. She is probably the most likely player on the team to have a 'big match'. A six-rotation player, Yezak actually leads the team in digs as well as being 2nd behind Brandt in total kills. Yezak and transfer and Thibodaux native Kathyrn Stock have put up nearly identical numbers. Stock comes from both an athletic and influential family in the Thibodaux area, with many of her siblings also being able to play at the college level. Her sister also played volleyball at Nicholls.

One other sure starter for Nicholls is Junior middle blocker Jessica Addicks. She, like Brandt and Yezak, have historically held down the reputation as good, but probably not first tier, players when compared to counterparts around the Southland. Check out this comparison (all numbers are from 2011):

Player A: 178 kills, 1.96 kills per set, .241 attack %, 86 blocks, 0.95 blocks per set
Player B: 168 kills, 1.81 kills per set, .234 attack %, 91 blocks, 0.98 blocks per set

Those are equivalent numbers, huh? Pretty much dead on.

Player A is Jessica Addicks and Player B is our own Sabrina Burns. Now, you know.

So, Terry and Addicks at MB, Brandt and Stock on the outside and Yezak typically on the right side. That about covers who will do the attacking and blocking. The other two positions to discuss are setter and back row defense and that's where it gets foggy.

In some matches this year, Nicholls has used two setters: Senior Jordan Karst being the primary and Junior Nancy Taylor being the 2nd. Karst has started 16 matches, Taylor has started 6 and transfer Junior Nicole Lund has started three times. Now, these starts aren't mutually exclusive across Nicholls' 25 matches. For instance, several times they have run Karst and Taylor out there together. To give you an idea of the assist distribution, Karst has 530, Taylor has 218 and Lund has 107.

In the last five matches, Karst and Taylor have both started in three of the matches, while in the other two cases its just been Taylor. Now, there could be some injury issues or particular defensive alignments going on here that I don't know about since I haven't seen any tape, etc. But, the point is.. this isn't a slam dunk one-setter offense. So, who knows? In their last match against Southeastern earlier in the week, they won 3-2 and Karst had 49 assists and Taylor had 12. They both started in the first two sets, but then in the last three sets it was just Karst who saw the floor. Final analysis here: Uhhhhhh. ?????????

Finally, on to libero: Try and follow along, here:

Five matches ago: Sophomore Jennifer Dunn starts, but is replaced by fellow sophomore Carley McInnis for the rest of the match after the first set.

Four matches ago: McInnis starts, but after intermission, Dunn takes over for the rest of the match.

Three matches ago: All McInnis

Two matches ago: McInnis starts, but after intermission, Dunn takes over for the 3rd. You still with me?

Last match against Southeastern: All Dunn

Are you serious?

Final Analysis: "Dr. Daigle.... Dr. Danielle Daigle... please report to the court and don the libero jersey, please. Paging Dr. Daigle.... please report to the court and take over at libero as soon as possible."

Look, I know chemistry and stuff is important. But, hey... when dealing with players that make a difference:


'Cause otherwise... look at what a fine mess you got going on over on the back row. All you are doing is putting on a fashion show for the rest of the league. Overall, Nicholls is middle of the pack when it comes to team digs per set in the conference. But individually, no one on the club averages three per set. For comparison, wonderkid Maddie Hanlan averages five per set.

Prediction: SFA 3, Nicholls 1.