Sunday, October 9, 2011

Re-Evaluation: There is Still Enough Time

Time for a little reflection. Are the 2011 Ladyjacks meeting expectations from before the season? Are they a disappointment to this point? What?

I'm going to go against my personal grain a little bit here. I'm used to - both in posts and in audio recaps like SLC5 - going heavy on the stats for my justifications. I think I could make a statistical defense for my points in this post, but I choose not to for the most part. I am going to go with my eyes and with my gut this time.

Are we underachieving? On par? A conference tournament team? Rebuilding? Reloading? Organized? Confused? I'll try and address most of all of this under the caveat that I always lay down: I am a self-trained volleyball semi-expert, with the massive emphasis on "semi". I am a fan. And I am perfectly happy to be disagreed with.

My overall gut reaction to the 2011 Ladyjacks is that we have slightly underachieved to date. To go from out of the tournament last year to top of the conference this year is too much to ask. I had early season conversations with coaches and players whose themes were "Why not us and why not now?". Fine. Love it. Don't shoot under the mark. Go for broke. I get it.

Problem is: There was little chance of this team dominating the conference. Why? Not enough returning strength. Plus, the 2010 recruiting class hasn't produced a solid-every match type player and the 2011 class just brought in can't be counted on to make a dominant impact.

Toward these last two points:

I don't understand what this team wants Les Jackson to do? At the beginning of the year, she held down the right side. But now, Ivy has assumed this role and I don't think we know what to do or how to use Jackson now. She played a lot as a freshman and was assumed strong enough to garner a lot of court time early, but lately it's hit-or-miss with playing time for her. I just don't see a plan. I'm confused. She's got a role, right? What is it?

Pannone just can't be 100%. I'm not giving anything away by writing that. How can you watch her and think she is 100% healthy? Most every match I've seen her play in recently, she is noticeably limping in late sets. So, what do we expect her to do given that she isn't healthy? She didn't play against Southeastern La. so maybe this point has finally been realized. But still, there were times when I've wondered why we have even tried to play her? Not because she hasn't got innate skills - she does. I mean, she's probably the best overall player from the 2010 incoming class. But, why put her out there if she is physically limited?

And thus ends any production from that recruiting class, 'cause the rest of it is gone. We are paying for that recruiting year being a bust. Too strong a word? I think not. Jackson and Pannone are good players, but only two of five players brought in for 2010 on the current roster isn't good. You don't need two of five each year to be retained.. you need (on average) two of five each year to start and become integral.

As far as the freshman go - we've been over all this before, right? There are some nice pieces here. Holland has done a good job at setter. From what I heard and read about her coming in and from what I've seen, I think she is just about as advertised. It is clear that Randall, Ivy and Gross all are collegiate quality volleyball players. So far, I think about Gross what I think about Jackson: What are we doing with her? One day in the lineup, the next day out. One day first off the bench, the next day deep on it.

You know, we all recognize that this team has struggled with consistency. That's the mark of a young team. But, its tough to establish consistency when the majority of players on a team don't have a definitive role with only 10 games to go in the season. I think, more than anything, that points to why we aren't headed for a top seed in the tournament. Good teams have players that step up, take roles and establish enough consistency that when one or two poor matches come along, the coaching staff has enough faith in those players to leave them in their role and keep going. Frankly put - this team doesn't have close to that. And I think all involved share a little responsibility.

Rest assured. If we lose a couple of matches in a row... the lineup and player usage WILL be different the next time out. I am fine with that while we are playing tournaments. I am not fine with that half way though conference play - which is where we will be this week.

What are you saying, Greg? Just let players not play well and keep throwing them out there? Yes and No. No, in the long term, but Yes, to a degree, in the short term.

I am saying that we have not had enough players step up and claim roles while also saying that I believe we are mixing and matching our rotations and players way too much.

As an example: the role of the three rotation DS? First of the year: Hill. Middle of the Year: Hall. Last two matches: Spicer. The problem with playing the "hot hand" is that those hands don't tend to stay hot. Figure out who the best person is for the role. Put them in there and let it ride a little longer than a week before shuffling the entire deck again. Ok, enough on that.

One big problem in 2010: Not enough offense. Has this really changed in 2011? Look, has it not been established yet that SFA needs a power left side hitter? I'm talking a high-jumping, aggressive, beat you down, I'm coming after you - you son of a gun - cannon armed, left side hitter. Hey, despite the loss at Louisiana-Monroe earlier in the season, I swear that anyone who watched that match or a tape of it would say that Katsy Randall fit that bill that night. I have had THREE coaches at other schools talk to me about her performance in that match.

But, the big question is: How much of Randall's inability to replicate that is her own health with her foot and how much of it is her youth and inexperience?

The bottom line is: For whatever reasons you want to point to - We still don't get enough from our left side hitting. Not even close. Say what you will about hitting percentage. We've chronicled that statistic's positives and negatives in this space before, but look.. what do you think we are hitting from the left pin? Go look at it. It's got to be less than .119, which is what Randall is hitting on the year. Bottles, Burns, Jackson, Holland, and Ivy have next to no attacks from the left pin. They are the only players hitting above .119 on the team averaging more than 4 attacks per match. So, that means if we could look at all the attacks from the left pin, we are probably hitting around .100 or .110. That doesn't need any additional comment.

So, what about the returning starters? I guess that represents Bottles, Burns, Hanlan and Miksch.

Bottles offense is pretty much in line with the last two years, but her blocking is down.

Burns' numbers are up all across the board. She deserves a ton of credit. She is clearly a better player now than at any time prior in her career.

Liberos are sometimes tough to evaluate statistically, but Hanlan's dig numbers are higher now than at any time prior in her career. I think she looks solid. Like Burns, I can't see her being the issue in terms of the teams' underachievement.

Miksch's numbers are down. I think she is the type of player that really suffers when her role isn't stable. But, if she is going to play back row rotations only, then her dig per set numbers can improve.

So, what do we take from all this? Shared responsibility.

As a whole, our Seniors could play a tad better and more consistently.
As a whole, our young players are getting valuable experience in their first year, but should never have been counted on to change a 12-19 (5-11) season that much.
As a whole, our decisions as to who has what role should be defined and some greater faith cast when things fall off the track for a match or two.

I know this post could be categorized as primarily negative. But, get serious. We are 3-4 in the SLC. Look at the remaining conference schedule:

Home: Texas State, UTA, Nicholls, TAMUCC, UTSA
Road: Texas State, UTA, McNeese, Lamar.

How many total conference wins to secure a tournament birth? Eight? Maybe, Seven? Do you see four or five games in that lot where we would be the favorite?

Well, actually, yes. Yes, I think I do, but barely.

Look, I hope we go 9-0 in conference play the rest of the way. Everyone knows that. Nothing less should be the goal. It would be unbelievably awesome to get our play going consistently and make some statements to teams like Texas State and UTSA.

But, when you look at that schedule, it could very well be that the matches against Nicholls and the last two on the road in Lake Charles and Beaumont are where it all lies as far as getting to go to Conway in late November.

There is still enough time to meet expectations. There are still enough matches remaining to improve upon all of what has been mentioned here and go into the off-season believing that 2010 was improved upon and 2012 will be better than both 2010 and 2011. There is still a chance to make statements and assert ourselves and safely enter the conference tournament with a chance to cause some trouble.

There is still enough time. Texas State will be tough, but two wins against UTA and Nicholls and strong, consistent play across the next two weeks is no longer optional - it is essential.