Sam Houston shocking UTSA. UCA falling off a cliff. Lamar riding a hot streak. Northwestern State finally running out of gas and McNeese suddenly relevant again.
What a week of Southland Conference Volleyball. What an emotional week of Stephen F. Austin Ladyjack Volleyball.
After a strong showing against Texas A&M Corpus Christi - assuring the tiebreaker against the Islanders if necessary - the 'Jacks came out strong before intermission against the 'Runners of UTSA. I saw something at times on Saturday that I think very few people have seen out of UTSA this year: frustration.
The team that was absolutely crushing its way through Southland play until this week got a rude, rude greeting in Huntsville last Thursday. Not only did UTSA drop its first set in SLC play, Sam Houston dropped three on them and as predicted here earlier in the season, becomes a legitimate dark horse going into the tournament next week in Conway. Then, after SFA rips UTSA in Set 2 on Saturday to go into intermission tied, the 'Jacks take the lead early in Set 3 and go toe-to-toe with the 'Runners until about "17's" at which point UTSA rattled off four straight around an SFA timeout to pull out to a 21-16 lead that would essentially dash SFA's hope of being the second team to pull off an upset. The match Saturday really wasn't that far from going 5 sets, but to be fair, UTSA destroyed us in Set 4.
But, before the match.. what a great Senior Day scene with Melissa Miksch and a clearly reflective and emotional MC Bottles each getting their due moment in the sun. I've had the pleasure of roaring through some wonderful write-ups by Laida Sanchez and Ben Rikard over the last six years, but I'll have to admit.. reading MC's senior day accolades ranks as one of my favorite "on-mic" moments. We finally had a speaker system that was worth half a fart set up in Shelton Gym - even if it was straight out of 1975. So, at least the crowd could rightfully hear what Bottles and Miksch have accomplished. Always an emotional PA guy, I was proud that I hit the energy right during those two announcements and it was very moving to see the genuine emotion from the Seniors. I left last Thursday's match against TAMUCC so completely frustrated with the deplorable sound set-up in Shelton Gym. I was glad to see we went to Plan B so that at least we could get a little volume in there.
But, hey.. we've got plenty of volleyball left to play here. The matches upcoming this week against McNeese and Lamar are critical to say the least. Even though there is only one week remaining in regular season play, are you aware that there are 4096 different ways that this weeks' games could turn out? Yep, 4096. There are 12 games remaining and two possible outcomes in each, so basic math tells us that 2 to the 12th power is 4096. Now, there aren't 4096 ways the standings could fall.. there are much fewer ways for that.. so let's look at just a few.
First, the most rosy scenario puts SFA all the way up to the 5th seed in the tournament. We can't get to 4th, because despite UCA's recent choking attacks, they hold the tiebreaker on us. But, if SFA wins both matches this week and UTA loses to either TAMUCC or UTSA on the road, then SFA would finish in a three way tied for 5th at 8-8 with both Lamar and UTA assuming Lamar also loses to SHSU. Having beaten Lamar and already holding the breaker on UTA, we would be granted the 5th seed and wind up (probably) playing host UCA in the first round.
The worst case scenario - which we won't dwell on - has us staying home. Two losses puts us at 6-10 and McNeese would hold the tie break on us. We would then be concerned with Nicholls and how they do this week at UCA and at Northwestern State.
I believe the most critical game that SFA doesn't play in this week is Thursday's match between Nicholls and UCA. If Nicholls loses to UCA and TAMUCC loses to UTA on Thursday, then we are in no matter what happens on Saturday. Far, far more scenarios remaining have us getting in the tournament than out, but of course, it would be nice to up our seeding as much as possible.
I've said all along that I thought ALL the 7-9 teams would make the playoffs, but it is actually possible that two 6-10 teams will make the playoffs! Wild. Check this out: Suppose we lose both games. Then imagine that Nicholls loses both to UCA and Northwestern State and that McNeese loses to Sam Houston. Also, suppose TAMUCC loses to both UTA and UTSA. Then both SFA and McNeese would finish 6-10 and then we'd possibly go deep into tie breaking rules if Northwestern State beats Southeastern on Thursday because then there would be a three way tie at 6-10. The McNeese/NWLA tiebreak would go to a third-level because they each beat each other 3-1. If Northwestern State held the overall tiebreak at the 3rd level, then we'd be the 7th Seed. If McNeese held it, we'd be the 8th seed. Confused?
It is entirely possible that only the Top 4 seeds will be over .500 in league play and if UCA suffers a total collapse, there is even a wild scenario that has UTSA, Texas State and Sam Houston as the ONLY three teams with a winning record going into the tournament. How about that? Just crazy.
Let's go back to SFA for a moment. The 'Jacks must get a handle on middle blocker Nicole Bowden on Thursday. Sabrina Burns and MC Bottles need to paste Bowden's picture in their locker and look to shadow her at all turns. McNeese really doesn't have any other consistent offensive threat other than Bowden. Long time readers will know that she is one of my favorite players in the conference, but I am not being partial here.. Bowden can bring it. She is 5th in the conference in hitting percentage and 4th in kills per set. Her blocking is down this year. If it was at a block per set, where it has been in some years past, then I say she would be a legit first team all-conference player. Shoot, she might be anyway. I'll think more about that in a week when I post my 3rd annual SFAVolleyBlog.net awards.
Anyway, control Bowden and I think we have the edge in Lake Charles. Frehman OH's Rachel Cagnina and Megan Carlton along with Junior RS hitter Taylor Bustamento are adequate, but this team really doesn't have a whole lot of offensive fire power. I really do think you can lock in on Bowden and just say she's not going to beat you and you'll be OK. Bowden has averaged just shy of 18 kills per match during McNeese's recent three game winning streak and no one else on the club is even close to that... Cagnina being the main 2nd option averaging 11 kills per match over that stint. SFA can't play complacently and win, but if they play as well as they did this past week, then we will come out on top.
The match with Lamar looks pretty even on paper to me, but they are riding high - winning three straight after being embarrassed by Southeastern. If you catch Lamar on a day when they put it together, then they can be tough. If you catch them on one of their off days - and they've had plenty - then they can be easily had. I may get more into the Lamar match as the week rolls on. For now, let's see how they hold up against the Bearkats on Thursday. My guess is that the three game win streak comes to a halt. I'll be in Beaumont on Saturday and hope to have an interview with former 'Jacks assistant and now captain of the Lamar ship, Justin Gibert, while I am down there.
For now, that as good a segue as any to tell you that we will have live chat windows going both this Saturday from Beaumont and also all during the tournament in Conway. Whether you are in Beaumont or Conway or not, you can join in on the chat using your smartphone. Of course, if you can't make it to either venue, then be sure to jump on your computer and follow along with us online.
Finally, to follow up on a recent post about parents. I had two big surprises come my way last Saturday. First, Dan Kuepker, who was mentioned in the article - made a return to Nacogdoches to see the UTSA match. It was great to catch up with him and hear that Laurel is doing well in Lewisville. Second, Sophomore Leslie Jackson's father made these awesome axes for Seniors Miksch and Bottles. They were decorated and labelled really well and serve as a great memento for the girls. For reasons undeserved, he also made one for me and I will proudly find a place to display it. Each axe contains a full set of signatures from this year's players on one side of the axe blade. I am particularly proud of that little feature. To all those involved in that gift I say a heartfelt "thank you". The kindness continues and I can assure all that are reading that I'll do my darndest to continue to cover SFA Volleyball in the most devoted and complete way possible.
Prayers for Maddie.