Thursday, August 30, 2012

Southland Arithmetic: Subtraction

With SFA in North Dakota and about to begin the second weekend of tournament play for the 2012 season, we take our first look around the Southland Conference. In two weeks, the ‘Jacks will open SLC play against the Demons of Northwestern State in Shelton Gym. So, this is a good time to begin scanning rosters and sizing up our eventual competition. By the way, new speakers were hung in Shelton Gym today and we are hoping to do a little initial testing on the new sound system on Friday.

This post is actually going to have two parts because we’ll look at freshman making an impact early on in the conference in about two weeks. That will complete the pre-conference play puzzle in terms of analyzing rosters because for now we will look at losses rather than gains. For each SLC team, let’s take a look at what was lost during the off-season and the potential impact of those losses heading into the 2012 slate.

Central Arkansas
Key Losses
: Cristin Curl
Impact of Losses: Minimal. Curl was an outstanding player – truly one of the best liberos in the conference the last several years. But, she is really the only impact loss UCA suffers and Shelbee Berringer should step right in.
Key Returners: (6) S Marissa Collins, DS Shelbee Berringer, MB Jessica Nagy, MB Taylor Hammonds, RS Jessica Hays (returns from injury), MB/OH Alicia Dettrich.
New: Five freshman which includes one redshirt.
Outlook: Strong. This is the team to beat in the Southland. They are as good a bet as any to be playing for the Southland Conference Tournament championship on their own floor in November.

Key Losses: Megan McStravick (transfer to HBU), Angel Colyar
Impact of Losses: Minimal. McStravick was a key contributor on offense, but Lamar has enough attackers to cover for her loss. Colyar and additional loss Bailey Smith leave a small hole, but again.. not overly substantial.
Key Returners: (5) MB Christina Hobbs, MB Wendy Krell, OH Cynthia McCollum, S Alex Morford, OH Sierra Whittaker
New: Eight freshman including one redshirt.
Outlook: Potential Noisemakers. Not as strong as UCA on paper in my opinion, but one of the "top half" teams in the conference and capable of upsetting some in the very top tier. A four seed seems about right come November. I don’t think they have enough to string together a top seed and a tourney final appearance, but they might get one of those two.

Key Losses: Nicole Bowden, Katie Kennedy, Taylor Bustamento, Becky Bekelja
Impact of Losses: Major. Bowden and Kennedy graduate and leave two holes on the front row. Setter Bekelja somehow gets a transfer release to play at Southeastern La. & I have no idea what happened to Bustamento, who was more than decent on the right side.
Key Returners: (2) L Whitney Ellisor, OH Rachel Cagnina
New: Six freshman and two transfers.
Outlook: Bleak. Veteran MB Shaundrea Boulden and OH Maegan Carelton will need to step up or this team is going to be playing essentially all new girls. Now, that might not be bad, but the team is very young and will be in danger of being one of the two teams left at home at the end of the year. Several players have left this program curiously (Massengale, Bekelja, Bustamento), so it is clear the club is trying to start anew and create a new regime and identity. This is the year I get off the McNeese bandwagon.

Nicholls State
Key Losses: Rachel Yezak, Jordan Karst
Impact of Losses: Minimal to Moderate. Nicholls always seems to be stacked with a lot of good, but not great players. File Yezak in that camp. This team never seems to go very far forward, but doesn’t take many steps back either. They have enough returning to hang around the middle of the conference and possibly play the role of spoiler at some point.
Key Returners: (5) OH Kathryn Stock, MB Jessica Addicks, DS Jennifer Dunn, MB Sarah Terry, OH Jennifer Brandt.
New: Two freshmen and two transfers.
Outlook: Hopeful. With a new head coach in place and a lot of returners the team can hope that it takes to new leadership and hovers around .500 in league play. They’ve got enough to get to Conway, but it’s hard to see a big step forward coming this year. Look for a seven or eight seed, here. Possibly higher if the newcomers make an impact.

Northwestern State
Key Losses: None
Impact of Losses: None
Key Returners: (7) OH Stacy DiFrancesco (’11 Freshman of Year), MB/RS MacKenzie Neely, OH Kelly Jimenez, OH Nicole Hajka, L Keelie Arneson, S Emily Sweet, MB Vanessa Coleman
New: Four freshman which includes one redshirt.
Outlook: Oh no, I ain’t making the same mistake twice. Last year written off – this year, I’m on the train. Things are turning up in Natchitoches. The question is: How fast will they progress? Like Nicholls, I’d pick them around 7th, but if they gel faster than what I project then they might upset some people and finish higher. There is something to be said for walking into Fall camp knowing you can throw the exact same lineup on the floor as the previous year. Except now.. the team has had a small taste of what it takes to succeed.

Oral Roberts
Key Losses: Elizabeth McVicker
Impact of Losses: Minimal. McVicker was a very strong player for ORU, but the club has decent depth and returns the entire cast that was around her, so there is just one hole to plug going into 2012.
Key Returners: (6) OH Olivia Ophus, MH/OH Joana Gruber, MB Jessica Pancratz, L Bruna Silva, MB Sheina Fernandes, S Laura Taylor.
New: Three freshmen.
Outlook: Strong. A clear top tier team in the SLC as they begin play with us. Get familiar with Silva: you’ll see and hear her name a lot during the year. The international composition of this team is different than what you see on most league rosters. I think they cause their share of fits. I’ll take either ORU or Sam Houston to face UCA in the tournament final.

Sam Houston State
Key Losses: Carli Kolbe, Kym Loving, Kelly Stewart
Impact of Losses: Substantial, but not as much as you might think. Look, losing Kolbe would be a massive hole to fill for any squad and the fiery Loving will be missed too. However, the coaches’ daughter takes over at setter and this team was deep last year which will allow it to fill holes admirably. I’m high on Kendall Cleveland, but the Bearkats have other weapons to help ease the pain of losing a dynamo like Kolbe.
Key Returners: (5) MB Haley Neisler, S Tayler Gray, MB Kim Black, OH Kendall Cleveland, UTIL Kaylee Hawkins
New: Five freshman which includes one redshirt plus one transfer
Outlook: Headed toward a top seed. “They lost Kolbe, so they won’t be as good”. Go ahead. Believe that. I won’t say I told you so when they finish third and wind up either in or barely missing the conference championship game. Like I said above, ORU will be tough. My reading and studying tells me to pick a UCA/ORU final, but my gut tells me it will be UCA/SHSU. So I can officially be on record for better or for worse, I am going to go with my gut.

Southeastern Louisiana
Key Losses: Paige Dollison, Kinsey Williams
Impact of Losses: Minimal. SLU is a work in progress and they return the majority of their key players from last year. It’s not like a lot can go out the door when there really wasn’t a lot in the gym to begin with.
Key Returners: (5) L Megan McMillan, DS Taylor Buckner, MB Courtney Donald, S Lindsey Young, OH Elizabeth Ramee. The addition of McNeese transfer setter Becky Bekelja is officially a return to the conference, but new to SLU.
New: Bekelja and six freshmen.
Outlook: A long way to go. That being said, with 8 of 10 teams going to Conway, this looks like a window of opportunity to sneak in the final slot and earn the right to be UCA’s first victim. I don’t think that will happen, but it’s a reasonable goal for a team on paper that looks like it should finish at or near the bottom. Regular readers may recall that I always thought more highly of former McNeese MB Nicole Bowden than others. Now that Bowden has finished playing, I’ll shift my underrated MB tag to Donald.

Texas A&M Corpus Christi
Key Losses: None, really.
Impact of Losses: Minimal. There are four players that were on the roster at this time last year that currently are not. They lose Senior Jessica Korda along with Jordan Flemmer. MB Tina Chivas is no longer an Islander and public address announcers everywhere favorite Isabella Arcidiacono (say it five times fast) is also gone. I thought Arcidiacono was going to be a star, but oh, well.
Key Returners: (6 plus?) L Micah Nolan (fairly underrated), OH Shannon Hullum, MB Brooke Alverson, OH Brianna Brink, S Logen Borque DS Renee Ramirez. TAMUCC also played OH Sarah Sanchez and DS Shelby Coppedge substantially last year and they also return.
New: Eight freshman including one redshirt and two transfers. Good gracious!
Outlook: I have no idea. Some folks I’ve talked to are actually kind of high on TAMUCC this year – believing that Graystone has been at the helm long enough now to see some big strides take place in 2012. I think I’ll hold off judgment on them. They are actually one of the teams I am watching carefully in the early going because I am just not sure what to make of the Islanders. I’ve seen Micah Nolan play some serious libero and as readers know.. back row defense is my favorite part of the game as a fan.

Stephen F. Austin
Key Losses: MC Bottles, Melissa Miksch
Impact of Losses: Minimal to Moderate. Bottles is clearly hard to replace since her offense from the MB position was so strong. Sabrina Burns is ready to take over leadership in the middle and the combination of redshirt freshman Jacque Allen and true freshman Cara Leslie will bridge some (but, not all) of the gap. I think Randall, if healthy, can cover the loss of Miksch as a six rotation L2. The ‘Jacks could certainly have used Taylor Gross (transfer to UTA), but hopefully Tori Bates exceeds her freshman offensive output from a year ago. Plus, Bates can play defense, too.
Key Returners: (5) MB Sabrina Burns, L Maddie Hanlan, S Paige Holland, RS Jill Ivy, OH Katzy Randall. SFA also returns Janet Hill who while wasn’t overly key in 2011, looks to be integral on the back row plans for 2012.
New: Seven freshmen including one redshirt plus one transfer.
Outlook: Mostly sunny with a chance of occasional showers. A leap to the top tier isn’t probable. One can hope – a true fan always does – but a team that is trying to reclaim its relevance must get to .500 first. We were close last year and we should be there or a tick above in 2012. A mid-level seed is attainable – could be higher if Lamar and Sam Houston disappoint. Could be lower if Northwestern State takes a big leap and teams like Nicholls and TAMUCC turn out to be more than tournament filler.

Next up for the weekend: Interview with UTPA Head Coach & former SFA Assistant Brian Yale.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Veteran Previews: Katzy Randall & Janet Hill

The Ladyjacks are off to a strong start in 2012 after sweeping UTA on their new floor Saturday night to capture their first tournament title of the year.  Sophomores Katzy Randall and Janet Hill each played instrumental roles in getting the job done over the weekend and this post casts all the light on these two girls.  Below is a transcript of our online interview followed by ant audio interview done prior to leaving for the UTA Tournament. 

Katzy Randall was definitively one of the most anticipated recruits of the 2011 class.  Before all is said and done, she figures to get her shot at being the star of the show.  When healthy, Randall has the skill set to play all the way around and when elevating the way she was early on in 2011 can be a truly dangerous outside hitter.  Her ball control skills keep her integrated into floor time even when nagging injuries keep her from being as aggressive as she'd like on the front row.

A truly great scenario for the 'Jacks would be for Randall to just completely take over one of the outside hitter positions and run with it all season long.  That way, current freshman Tori Bates and Keeley Kainer could carry a lighter load.  Bates and Kainer each turned it up a notch as the UTA Tourney wore on, but Randall has the experience and the talent to allow Humphreys to ease the freshmen along.  Having all three of them healthy makes us deeper on the outside and increases the chance that our offense will be more balanced alongside the efforts of Burns and Allen in the middle coupled with Ivy's strength on the right.

Janet Hill has gone from a role of part DS and part backup setter to fully concentrating on defense in 2012.  I think this shift was inevitable given you don't see many 5'5" NCAA DI setters.  But, the fact that Janet has setters' hands only adds to the dimension she current plays on the back row.  I think the role she had this past weekend suits her just fine and is the type of contribution all should expect going forward.  One thing I failed to mention in stat wraps for the chats during the UTA Tourney is that Hill twice upped her career high in digs.  She had 9 scoops against UTPA and then 10 in the championship against host UTA.  Her 2011 high was 8.  Expect more double digit dig performances out of Hill during the year as she looks to solidify court time on defense.

As always, many thanks to both Janet and Katzy for returning questions via Facebook and taking the time after an intense and long practice to sit down and chat.

SFAVB:  Katzy, describe your off-season routine in terms of workouts, exercise & rehab. Did you do anything different to prepare for workouts beginning this year as opposed to just before beginning your first year?

KR:  I didn't have much of an off season due to having surgery in January. I started doing rehab everyday and was fully released by late May. That is when I then slowly but surely started my off season. I had about two solid months to get back to where I needed to be for this season.

SFAVB:  What is the #1 piece of advice that you would give the incoming freshman as they begin to prepare for their first college volleyball season?

KR:  I tell incoming freshman to just relax and play the game that you got recruited to come and do. It seems so much harder than it really is but if you just relax and play like you know how too, than you will be fine.

SFAVB: Janet, What was the #1 thing that you saw as different in trying to defend/dig college attackers as opposed to those you saw in high school?

JH: One of the main differences in college from high school hitters is their size. The girls in college are the best of the best, and are much bigger than most girls I played against in high school and club. Another main difference is the hitters in college have a higher volleyball IQ; meaning they understand the game better and handle the mental and tactical side of the game better.

SFAVB: You mention experiences coming out of high school and club ball... I  I know – that like others on the team – that you had opportunities to go to other schools to play volleyball and go to school. What was it about SFA Volleyball or SFA in general that convinced you that being here was the right thing for you?

JH: SFA was the first college campus I ever stepped foot on when I came to a camp early in my high school career. All the other schools I went to just couldn't compare to the atmosphere here at SFA. Everything from the coaches and girls to the gym are just so inviting and comforting. It was a pleasant surprise to start going to class and be so enthused by the professors and classes. I started out as a Math major but then added Computer Science as a second major. It’s a perfect fit for me!

SFAVB: Katzy, you may very well be in line for a six rotation spot this season… what do you feel you need to improve the most on: front row or back row responsibilities?

KR:  I need to definitely improve on my front row game because of my injuries.  Because of the injuries, I have put my main focus on defense and it has become pretty solid.

SFAVB:  Hitting from the left side.. you’re known for having a diverse repertoire of shots. Is there one particular shot that you feel is your very best weapon?

KR:  I do have a nice bag of tricks I can pull out come game time but my better shot would definitely have to be my cross-body line shot. I think I have put my focus on that shot for a long time, being such a short outside but it is hard for the defense to read you when you look like your going cross but really your hitting line.

SFAVB: Janet, when playing defense, do you feel particularly more comfortable in any particular back row spot?

JH: As a DS, left back is probably where I feel most comfortable because everything is funneled to that position so you're always expecting the ball and don't have to anticipate as much as you do in right or middle back.

SFAVB:  Janet, you brought up your studies and majors a minute ago... tell the truth: Does a lot of studying get done on the bus or in hotels on the road? Or, is most of the time just spent relaxing getting to know your teammates?

JH: Well...being the size I am, I'm able to get A LOT of sleep on the bus because I can actually lay down unlike many of the girls. Also, I tend to get queasy if I read in a moving vehicle…So not a lot of homework gets done of the bus for me. On the bus and in the hotel rooms many memories are made with my teammates, as well as a lot of down time to keep our bodies well rested.

SFAVB:  Katzy,  was there one or two particular upperclassmen/veterans last year that played the role of mentor to you during your first year?

KR: Definitely Maddie [Hanlan] helped me out a ton, especially in the back row and being a freshman. She just had something about her that would calm me down and I knew I was capable of the job at hand. Les [Jackson] also helped out being a great leader and only being a sophomore.

SFAVB:  Finally, Janet -  like many of the volleyball parents, both of your parents are very active in supporting you and the club as a whole. Describe the support and role that they have played for you as you’ve made the transition to college athletics.

JH:  My parents have always been supportive of me and all my decisions. Once I went off to college nothing but love and support still came from them. They still come to all of my games and that's such an amazing feeling to look up in the stands and see them cheering me on and knowing that they still will put the time and energy into driving many miles to see me. I think they are just as excited as I am to start this season!


Take a listen to more conversation with Katzy and Janet in the audio file below:

Check back later in the week for two additional posts:  First, on Thursday, we will take a look at each team in the conference and what they lost in 2011 and what they are looking to replace in 2012.  Second, over the weekend at the UTA Tournament, I got a chance to talk with UTPA Head Coach and former SFA Assistant Brian Yale.  Our interview will be available here on Saturday.  Veteran previews continues with seniors Sabrina Burns and Maddie Hanlan.  Also look for the first installment of SLC5 next week after the second weekend of tournaments has finished up.  Finally, the link to Allison Gideon's Trek-X blog will go up soon as well as the first draft of the SLC Lineup Grid.  Check the right sidebar for those two features. 

Lots coming your way - as always - at SFA Volleyball's Strongest Presence on the Net...

[Credit: Thanks to Connie Ziober for providing some of the photos seen in the above file.]

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Live Chat: SFA v. UTA

Friday, August 24, 2012

Live Chat: SFA v. Savannah State

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Live Chat: SFA v. UTPA (UTA Tournament)

Note:  The Sophomore Previews of Janet Hill and Katzy Randall will appear on Sunday so that they can be the lead story for early next week.  If included now, the live chat windows will bump them down the page during the weekend - something I don't want to happen!  Seniors Maddie Hanlan & Sabrina Burns next up for Veteran Previews!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Veteran Previews: Paige Holland & Jill Ivy

This years' veteran previews begins with the sophomore class and we'll break this up into two installments. Later in the week I will share with you interviews with OH Katzy Randall and DS Janet Hill, but our focus in this post will be sophomore setter Paige Holland along with favorite target on the right side Jill Ivy.

As mentioned in the first post to start off this season a few weeks ago, I am committed to doing more interviews this year, both with our club and coaches/players from around the Southland Conference. So, unlike in years past where these previews were exclusively online interview transcripts, we'll add an audio component to the previews as well. Hopefully, posts like this will connect you more to the girls on our club and provide a more "real" experience as you actually get to listen to athletes as well as read their answers to questions I've posed to them.

Probably the player that had the longest leash last year on our club was freshman Paige Holland. Not that she needed it. Nonetheless, it was obvious that she was going to be tabbed the starter from early on in practices and that the year of Allison Gideon at the helm was one-and-done. Right from the get go, for better or for worse, Holland was going to be the setter without looking back.. or at least, that was the impression I got from the coaching staff before we even stepped on the court for our first match of 2011. All things considered, Holland didn't disappoint. She didn't finish in the top half of the conference in assists per set, but she didn't cause the offense to lag either. Remember, setters need good passes and their numbers are often correlated to how well back row players can dish to area SFA struggled with at times during '11.

Holland did enough to instill confidence going forward and there was no reason to go looking for a replacement coming into 2012. We are probably better with Rister as a backup going into this year than we have been in that role for the last two years, but Holland will be the primary and all indications are that a step forward is coming. I'd look for the assists per set to slide above 10.00 this year and for her soon to be considered one of the top four or five setters in the Southland.

Jill Ivy didn't start off 2011 carrying nearly the load that she began carrying mid-way through the season. About a month into last year, she settled in on the right side and wound up being second to senior MC Bottles in total kills and kills per set. This tells me two things: one that I've thought for a long time and one that Ivy proved during her freshman year - first, SFA needs more production off the left pin. I have long argued this and I believe it firmly. The return to the top of the conference will correspond with a dominating left side attack. While running a lot more through middles than other teams in the conference, to have your leading two attackers be the M1 and the RS points to an area that needs improvement. Secondly, though, Ivy proved she can play and handle a large load. Health permitting, she's as good as a sure thing that SFA has on the front row and the conference agrees tabbing her a pre-season All-SLC pick.

What follows is a transcript of a Facebook chat the three of us had and then at the bottom of the post you'll find the audio component that was taped after the intrasquad scrimmage last Saturday. For what it's worth, I thought both girls were impressive in the scrimmage. Holland was on the mark for most of the afternoon and Ivy is clearly contacting the ball at a higher point that she was during 2011.

SFAVB: Jill, what is the #1 thing that you are most looking forward to this year? Are there any personal goals that you are particularly hopeful that you can achieve as you begin your sophomore season?

JI: The #1 thing I'm looking forward to the most is conference play. Last year, I don't think I had a good sense of the rivalries between SFA and other universities because I was only a freshman. Now, I can remember the wins and losses of last year and use them to create new personal rivalries. I have set a few personal goals for myself, like an all-conference pick, but the number one goal for me is winning conference tournament and getting a bid to the NCAA tournament. I believe that with the talent and heart we all bring to the court this year, winning conference and conference tournament is not only achievable but inevitable.

SFAVB: Paige, what about you, is there one component of your game are you most looking to improve upon during your sophomore season?

PH: This season I am really hoping to improve upon my front row game and also in the consistency of my play. If I am more aggressive as a front row setter and have the attention of the blockers on the other side of the net, our hitters will have more openings and be more successful. Also, if my sets are more consistent every game the hitters will be able to accurately time their approaches and find more openings in the block.

SFAVB: Following up on that, while on front row, what indicators or behaviors do you look for in opposing players to know where weak spots in defenses exist? What things are you watching for as a setter on the opponents’ side of the net?

PH: The main thing I look for on the other side of the net is a weakness in the block. If there is a short outside or a front row setter on the other side of the net, we usually attack that weakness as much as possible.

SFAVB: Jill, you played all over the front row in high school & club, but settled in on the right side last year. For people who don’t stop to think about it, describe what is more challenging about attacking from the right side as opposed to the left.

JI: To me, the most difficult thing about being a right side is having to wait until the ball passes over your left arm (guide arm) to swing. On the outside [left] your right hand is closest to the ball so it is less difficult to contact smoothly. Also, being a right handed right side you sometimes have to deal with awkward angles especially when being set an out of system ball.

SFAVB: Of course, blocking as a right side is a big responsibility so describe what you see out of our starting middles that you will close blocks alongside: Sabrina is a senior and Jacque is just beginning.. describe what you see as the strength of each one of these teammates.

JI: First of all I just want to say that they are both amazing players! They both bring an incredible amount of hard work and heart to court. Sabrina's strength is closing the block. She does a great job at making sure she lines up properly with the pin hitter which eliminates the split, helping the defense get in their correct spots. Jacque's strength is her speed. She's incredibly fast which helps her get to the pins fast enough to get herself set and balanced.

SFAVB: Concerning teammates, Paige, give us a quick one sentence impression that you have about each of the new front row attackers that will be on the team this year.

PH: Tori [Bates]: Tori is so intimidating! She is such a powerful hitter, yet also knows how to place the ball with a roll shot or tip in order to get a kill. I am so thankful that she is on my team and not my opponent.

Keeley [Kainer]: Keeley is already such a talented hitter, and I know as the season goes on she is going to become an integral part of our success. I can't wait to set her this year!

Cara [Leslie]: Cara has so much force behind her arm swing and gets a kill almost every time she gets a set. She improves every single practice and it is awesome to watch her play!

[Sydney] Zoiber: Zo is awesome to have on the court! The energy and hustle that she brings to her side of the net is contagious and makes everyone raise their level of competition.

SFAVB: Jill, I’ve heard a lot of positive things about your work (and work ethic) in the weight room. Describe the effect that the strength and conditioning staff as well as the training staff has had on you while you’ve been at SFA.

JI: The strength and conditioning staff has definitely had a positive effect. It's obvious that they want us to all be the best we can be physically and mentally on, as well as off, the court. Working with Brittany [Castledine] has been great because since she is a former SFA Volleyball player, she knows how to get us in the shape we need to be in so we can be as strong in the fifth set as we were in the first. The training staff has also been extremely important because they help keep all of us healthy all year. They do a great job at checking out everything and anything that could be wrong and making sure we can get back on the court as soon as possible.

SFAVB: Paige, one thing that fans will notice this year is that you've changed uniform numbers from #11 to #1. Is there a story there?

PH: The switch of numbers is actually a really simple story. All of my life I have looked up to my sister in every way, and because of that I ended up copying basically her every move. So when she started playing volleyball in junior high, I immediately wanted to play also. From the very beginning she was #1 and I have always chosen that number ever since because of her. So as soon as MC graduated I asked Coach Humphreys for her jersey, and I am so excited to be #1 this year!

SFAVB, Finally, Jill, describe one of the most fun moments you can remember last year while the club was on a road trip. Is there a funny story or particularly strong memory you have about something that happened on the road at some time last year?

JI: The funniest moment I can remember is in the locker room before the game against McNeese. We were all waiting for Coach to come in and give us our pregame talk. After she said a few words she made us all get up and stand in front of a mirror. All of sudden she started to yell a quote from the movie "Cool Runnings". She told us to repeat it, and so we all started to yell, " I see pride.. etc.". It was so random but after that we played, I think, one of the best matches of the season which gave us our spot in the conference tournament. The quote brought us luck so we ended up making a t shirt for conference tournament out of it.

SFAVB: Many thanks to both Paige and Jill for the time they sacrificed, not only to return questions via Facebook, but also to sit down and have the chat that you can listen to below:

Saturday, August 11, 2012

On A Mission

In the four years I have been writing in this space, I've talked with head coach Debbie Humphreys scores of times - after matches, before practices, in season, out of season.. pretty much year round. I think Allison Gideon would rank as the single most talked about player leading up to a season that I have ever heard Debbie talk about. During Gideon's redshirt year, the Ladyjacks rotated through various setting situations - some of which weren't very productive, others that were riddled with injury. Humphreys looked forward to stability with Gideon at the helm going into the 2010 season. Nearly every conversation was filled with comments like "next year, we'll have Allison in there".

The 2010 season did feature Gideon as the pilot, but during the off-season leading into 2011, Paige Holland was recruited and as 2011 preseason practices wore on it became clearer Holland would be the primary setter. Gideon went from a redshirt preparing for four years of setting duties to a backup relegated to a much suppressed role in just one season.

A year is a long time.

Changes are always waiting around the corner. This time, "around the corner" is Nashville, Tennessee.

Do you know how rare it is to talk with a centered, courteous, solid-in-their-faith college senior? It's very rare. I've worked at SFA for 16 years. I've seen students motivated by a lot of things: fear, grades, money, parties, parents, boyfriends, but most of all, I've seen them motivated by... well, very little. Now look, this isn't a down and out post lamenting today's youth. I am just simply saying that maturity doesn't always come as fast as the college generation believes it does.

But, with Gideon? With this chat? I felt like I was talking to someone well beyond their early 20s. It was refreshing and comforting. Not only to talk with someone with a belief set common to my own, but just to hear the acceptance and peace that so readily radiates in Gideon's story.

If there was someone to actually feel sorry for last year, it might have been Allison Gideon. I mean, gosh, she was a starter and then barely got court time. But, to listen to her tell it... you become convinced a higher plan was at work. To hear her talk about her relationship with teammates... even the one who "took her spot"... the only response I could formulate in my brain is: This is one grounded, centered and sure young woman.

Allison Gideon is about to embark on a different kind of mission. One that isn't about conference titles and winning volleyball games. No, this story has got a bit more of an eternal feel to it. Allison is being called into missionary training and the interview posted below details her decision making process up to this point.

This space is generally spent analyzing volleyball, not discussing one's faith. Well, not today. This story is just too important. I knew the minute I got a copy of the letter that Allison wrote telling family and friends about her new journey that I wanted to give her this chance to share. It's the very, very least I could do. I want her to succeed. I want her to succeed more in this challenge than at any time I ever watched her walk on the court. It's just more important.

Take a listen to our 15-20 minute chat. Allison will be blogging about her missionary training and experiences both here and overseas during the next few years. I'll keep a link to her blog active on the right sidebar.

A year is a long time. Imagine the potential impact: Allison Gideon is on a mission.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sub, please!

The road to Conway and beyond began today.  The schedule Coach Humphreys sent me last week indicates a two-a-day schedule with hitters and DS's beginning this morning bright and early at 8:00 followed by blockers and setters at 10:00.  Then, a collective team practice at 3:30.  I didn't check in on any of that as I was recovering from a business trip to Austin, but I plan to drop in tomorrow as the same schedule is on the docket for Thursday.  Also, I am very much looking forward to my conversation with Allison Gideon scheduled in the early afternoon.  I'll bring you the story of what she is about to embark on this weekend after we get a chance to chat.

As teams all around the country begin to get into the swing of things, they'll be playing the 2012 season under a few NCAA rule changes.  I want to take this post to make you aware of a few changes that you'll see when you begin to attend matches this year.  By far, the rule change with the most impact is the expansion to allow for 15 substitutions per set.  This is an increase of three per set as the rules had allowed for 12 subs per set for the last several years.  The NCAA surveyed coaches around the country about this issue, and the majority of responses indicated that an increase in allowable subs was desirable.

Back in July, I sat down with Debbie Humphreys and at one point ask her about this.  She had two really interesting comments - both concepts that I hadn't really thought about.  First, this new sub rule allows way more flexibility for clubs running a 6-2 offense.  In the past, with 12 subs, a team running two setters had basically enough substitutions to run the offense, but little flexibility other than those subs natural to the two setter structure.  Now, a team can run the 6-2 and also have some measure of flexibility to sub in other DS types or other players as needed.  One wonders if this might encourage more multiple setter offenses this year.  We'll have to watch for that. 

Secondly, and I think more interestingly, Humphreys claims that it may actually decrease end of set strategy utilized by coaches.  In the past, coaches had to be strong managers as they got close to double digit subs late in the set.  If a team couldn't close out a set with the optimal lineups on the floor, then they might be forced into playing a lineup that wasn't as desirable because either they were maxed out on subs or were about to be.  Now, with 15 subs rather than 12, there is an increased chance of being able to use the exact player alignment that a coach would desire - even in tight sets that possibly go extra points.  I thought this was an interesting perspective.

The main reason for the sub rule change - at least claimed by the NCAA - is to allow for more players to actually see the court.  Increased playing opportunities is the main driving force here.  Through one lens, that certainly appears to be a good thing.  But taking Humphreys' comments into consideration, it is at least possible that increased playing opportunities will be counter balanced by less end of set strategy.  An interesting dual, if you ask me.

One other rule change that fans may actually appreciate is that now, the 2nd referee (down ref) will mimic the hand signals of the chair referee except on net serves (which are obvious to onlookers).  This should allow for more clarity at the media table and in the stands when it comes to blocking errors, over net violations and even quicker understanding of who won a particular point.  The rationale here is that the tempo of the match will be more consistent and that all involved in the match will be more clear - or achieve that clarity more quickly while the ball is out of play.  Some down refs tend to mimic the up ref anyway, but this rule will require it.  The place where I see this helping the most is when it comes to clarity on which team is serving next (i.e., I can choose either ref to look at before making announcements, rather than focusing on the up ref all the time... this is turn informs fans quicker of the result of a play).  Also, this will help with understanding who was involved in a blocking error since often times there is common confusion as to "who was in the net".  Coaches often ask this of the down ref anyway since coaches are close to them, and blocking errors must be statistically matched to players in official NCAA boxscores, so the official scorer gets a clearer explanation here.

Another rule change that doesn't affect play, but does provide more information to coaches is that now statistical in-match data may be transferred by electronic device to the bench from anywhere in the arena.  Fans will probably begin to see monitors at the end of the media tables facing each bench that are transmitting in-game box scores in real time to the bench.  Any of you that have attended college basketball games in the last several years may have already seen how this works in that sport.  A few schools that I have travelled to have used these monitors for volleyball, but very few.  Currently, you see media staff running paper box scores - sometimes at every timeout - to each bench.  This often involves a fair amount of chaos.  This is reduced now by just pumping the statistical data directly from the official scorer to the monitor that is facing the bench.  I am hoping that when I travel to away games these monitors will be available at the media tables, or that I can sit at the far end of the media table and essentially be in view of a bench monitor.  That way, during live chats, I can give real time stat totals to those of you that are following along in the chat.

Going back to on court issues and referees, another rule change shifts all PLAYER (not ball) line violation responsibility to referees and not line judges.  In other words, referees will be solely responsible for all positional faults.  The line judges may inform referees about rotational error issues, but the way the rule reads now, referees are solely responsible for foot faults and faults involving players positioning themselves in bounds at serve.  Now, such violations are uncommon, but I'll need clarification on this once the season starts.  It seems odd that a line judge wouldn't have jurisdiction over a foot fault at service, but the way the rule reads, now the referees have sole judgement here.

There are a few other minor rule changes or clarifications, but none that affect play to the level of being worth writing up in detail.  However, oddly enough, there was a rule clarification issued by the NCAA that directly affects public address announcers (yikes!).  Rule now states that PA announcers must cease all talking when the lead referee prepares to authorize service.  I can't say I have been 100% perfect across six seasons on this point, but I will say that I know most of the referees that come to Shelton Gym and I have regularly had conversation with them about this point before a match begins.  Without question, a PA announcer should not influence concentration by the server, so to be absolutely sure that this doesn't happen, we almost always try and be silent as the whistle is being blown to initiate service.  I'll be more aware of this during 2012, but it's a policy I've been following for the most part, so I doubt it affects my ability to get information out between points.

And.. finally toward the entire concept of "announcing and getting information out"... yes, a new sound system is scheduled for Shelton Gym.  I went over there Tuesday night and saw no evidence of any work being done yet.  One date I did hear for installation involved this week.  So maybe we are down to "any day now".  That'd be great, 'cause as loud as it can get in there, once we get a new sound system installed, the roof might literally blow off the joint.  That'd be cool.

Look for updates from practices, player previews and other news from around the league in coming days.  But first, check back here over the weekend for the interview with Allison Gideon.  I am really excited about getting her story published here.  I think you'll enjoy reading about her upcoming opportunities.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

And So... We Begin Again

The fourth year of begins now.

During July, I received a handful of emails wondering if I was still "out there".  Coaches.  Parents.  Various others... I didn't realize people were watching.  You see, I'm very compartmental and tend to dive in at full force once I leave the board.  I've been alive and well... actually preparing for Volleyball season behind the scenes.  But, once the first post goes up here?  Well, then it is on.  Then, the commitment has been made to keep writing and keep researching for the remainder of the fall and winter.  And so, we begin again.

After all, it is August and the first tournament of the year is only three weeks away.  We have less than one week to reporting day and first workouts (Wed., Aug 8).  It's time to think volleyball.  It's time to take a look at the 2012 Ladyjack Volleyball squad, re-introduce you to the veterans and showcase the new faces. It's time to take a look at the changing footprint of the Southland Conference.  UTSA, Texas State and UTA are gone.  Oral Roberts is on the schedule and Houston Baptist is too... and HBU will join in on full SLC action next year.  Things have changed.

Optimism. "Hope Springs Eternal".  That's the mantra of every preseason.

I had a chat with head Coach Debbie Humphreys in her office back on July 19.  I'll write about some of what we talked about next week, but the one thing that has stuck with me is her assertive claim that "We are relevant again".  I liked that phrase and incorporated her word "relevant"  in the new 2012 banner you see above this post.

In the coming days, I'll post about the chat with Coach Humphreys, take a look at continued renovations to Shelton Gym, and begin preseason capsules and interviews with the 'Jacks.  As always, once practices begin, I'll go take a look about twice a week and summarize a few thoughts -- without giving away any secrets, of course.  Looking back to last season, I don't feel like I shined a large enough light on last years' freshmen, so I've decided to begin player previews this year with our returning sophomores:  Paige Holland, Katzy Randall, Janet Hill and Jill Ivy.

I'll also take a look at what each SLC team "lost" in the off-season.  It's always tough to assess what each team has gained since mostly only coaches themselves have ever seen the current freshman play.  It's hard to know which freshman at what schools will make the most impact, but we can take a look at what holes are left behind at each school as we transition to 2012.  Who retains the most talent?  Who lost the biggest impact player?  Questions like that will be addressed in a post coming up soon.

In addition to the those ideas, I want to share with you a chat I'll have with now former Ladyjack setter Allison Gideon.  Allison is about to embark on an amazing opportunity and I want the readership to get a chance to hear her story and get a feel for her upcoming journey.  Gideon will forgo playing volleyball for a number of reasons, not the least of which is a once in a lifetime chance to be involved in missionary work that sounds incredibly fascinating.  I'll be chatting with her next week and give you both a write-up and audio chronicling her story.

For now, I'll let you in on a few concepts that you'll see at during 2012. Some of these are "new" for this year, so I hope you'll enjoy!
  • SLC5 will continue.  All during the season, approximately once a week, I will go around the league with a 5 to 10 minute audio update.  I got good response out of this last year - especially from other clubs around the conference.

  • "Where Are They Now?" will become a segment appearing approximately once a month where we highlight a former Ladyjack Volleyball athlete and let you in on where she is now, some of her favorite memories in uniform and as an SFA student.  This will also give you a chance to see where some of our folks have wound up and what their life has been like after spending time in Nacogdoches.  I realized this summer, that with 16 years at SFA now and seven of those working with the club that I am "old enough" to be able to track down and interview players from several past generations.  That should be a treat.

  • Guest Writers and Invited Posts.  I've talked to several people about submitting their own posts or articles to be published here in this space.  To this point, I've done 100% of the content.  But, athletes themselves, other coaches around the league, parents, and other volleyball enthusiasts have their own perspective on the game and SFA.  So, about once a month, I plan to turn this space over to a guest and let them wax philosophical in my place.

  • Southland Conference Lineup Grid and Depth Chart.  Ahh, there had to be something statistical, right?  Of course! Inspired by the awesome site MLB Depth Charts, this new component to the site will sit in the right-hand side bar all season long.  When you click on the link (I'll get it rolling about two weeks after the season starts) it will take you to a document that lists all the Southland Conference teams and will breakdown their roster into starters and main rotation players, non-starters that sub in and players deep on the bench.  This will be updated weekly as I constantly check on personnel changes all the time anyway.  This should give those that are interested a concise place where they can find the names of EVERY player in the conference and get a feel for their general role on their club.  SFA fans my find it useful in "scouting" upcoming opponents from week to week.  I've been doing this sort of thing for the last few years on paper anyway, so this is just a slight formalization of my own notepad that I carry around as I attend matches and such.

  • More Data Driven Analysis. Being a statistician by trade, I have always wanted to be careful to not bludgeon the readers here with numbers and data in every post.  Indeed, the eyeball test sometimes tells you all you need to know.  A good blend of statistics and actual observation from watching a lot of volleyball tends to generate the most unbiased studies.  I've tried to pride myself on being objective, despite my loyalty always going to SFA first and foremost.  I don't want to betray the readership that has let me know that they appreciate the candor about SFA or their school - whether my opinion be positive or not.  Numbers are useful for finding trends and for this reason, during 2012 I will be keeping a binder of every box score produced by the Southland Conference.  Yes, you read that right.  Every box score: One 3-Ring Binder.  This will allow me as I have ideas to study to have one simple source for all the numbers.  Many times, I've wanted to look at a particular issue on serving, or trends in sets, or margins of victory or what not.. and in order to get the data to look at it, I'd have to spend days bouncing from site to site.  But, with every box score printed out and placed in the almighty binder... I should be able to answer a few questions as they emerge.  If you see me at an away match or conference tournament with the binder... and you even touch it... I may have to kill you.

  • More Interviews Around The League.  There are still a few teams that I haven't focused as much on when they come to Nacogdoches and there are still a few relationships I need to forge with coaches and representatives from the conference.  Last year, I made more strides than ever in "volleyball networking" around the league, but I intend to be much more aggressive with this during 2012.  Every team and every coach needs to know what is.  To reciprocate, I intend to interview more coaches and players from other clubs than ever before.  These things draw more traffic to the site and ultimately get more people reading about SFA and that's good for recruiting and the general reputation of the program.
All of this along with the traditional coverage generating a couple of posts per week that you've come accustomed to here.

I hope you'll enjoy reading here during the 2012 season.  My email is always open ( for comments and suggestions.  To those that have been part of supporting my efforts in this space for the last three years, let me offer you my heartfelt thanks.  Let me once more thank the Dad of current Ladyjack Les Jackson for his gift at the end of last season.  For those that don't know, the seniors were given a "real" axe that was decorated with their name and various volleyball logos.  To my surprise, I received one too and mine has my name on it along with the stamp "No. 1 Fan".

So, let that be a warning to you.  There is NO bigger fan of SFA Volleyball than yours truly.... and I've got the axe to prove it.

Axe' Em, Ladies.  Go tear this new conference up.