Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Setting Down with Alex Morford of Lamar

Setters are hard to evaluate. Being a statistician, my tendency is, of course, to uses a players’ numbers to argue for her relative value. But this is particularly dangerous in the case of analyzing setters. The only mainstream statistic for their position is assists, and that particular stat has its flaws. First off, setters numbers are undeniably confounded by the quality of a teams’ passing. Put the most talented setter you can think of on a team that can’t receive serve or pass during a rally and the setter isn’t going to put up huge assist numbers. Of course, the flip side of this is that a good passing team can mask a setters’ flaws: the more good passes, the more opportunities for an assist from even a marginally talented setter.

By comparison, three-rotation outside hitters are way more easier to evaluate with numbers. If a girl has little to no passing responsibility, but swings 500 times a year and hits Bing-0-Eighty Four for her attack percentage? Well, that club is more than likely better off distributing the ball to someone else. I’m not trying to oversimplify, I am just pointing out that not all numbers are created equal in evaluating sports performance – a fact I really hope you’ve considered by now and a fact that all us baseball junkies are used to.

Kym Loving graduated from Sam Houston State last year, but during her last two years as quarterback for the Bearkats, her father would tell me that he had spreadsheets that he kept at home that combined all sorts of statistics in an attempt to quantify the total contribution of a setter. I’ve dabbled with stuff like that too. There is some measure of value in it, but I’ve always ditched my attempts to date. See, ultimately, I think you could learn more about how to evaluate setters by listening to experienced players and coaches rather than ranking assists on a stat sheet.

One thing I have not taken enough advantage of during the years is the fact that Debbie Humphreys has had former setters as assistant coaches. I talked with Brian Yale.. but not really about how to evaluate setters. Same with LA. What I really need to do is to watch volleyball WITH someone like Lauren and then get her to break down the setters on each side for me.

I’m self taught and when you are self taught there are always things you miss that are critical to have learned that the athletes themselves learned early on. That’s how I feel about evaluation of setters. I’ve watched a lot of volleyball, but I still don’t think I am very good at watching setters and knowing what specifically to watch for.

That fault admitted, I do know this: When conversations with players and coaches around the league concerning setters come up… over the last few years Alex Morford at Lamar is often in the conversation. I won’t divulge all sources, but other than our own head coach, I’ve already had two other Southland coaches independently say to me how important they think Morford is to Lamar’s success and that they admire her style and quality of play.

Morford had tough shoes to fill. The setter at Lamar before her was Adrienne Meengs and there may have been setters as good as her come into the league over the last three years (Collins at UCA, possibly Morford herself?), but there hasn’t been ANYONE LIKE HER come into the league recently. Meengs was a dangerous, dangerous left handed (and frequent) attacker. She was a nightmare to try and account for while creating a defensive strategy. After the 2009 SLC tournament, I couldn’t help myself. I hadn’t had one word with Meengs during her four years at Lamar, but I couldn’t take it anymore: I just walked right up to her after a match and told her that I was impressed and that she was a joy to watch play. She was probably 21 and I was 40 at the time.. she had to think I was stupid and gushy, but I didn’t care. She played the position differently than her peers.

But now, when I watch Morford play, what I admire is the fire as well as the ability. I asked her about her countenance in the interview you can listen to below. We have some very different styles among our SLC setters right now and it’s interesting to watch effective play come from different dispositions. You can’t help but remember some players’ “look” or swagger while on the court. In years past, Morford has either grown her hair just long enough to wear two short ponytails or cut it short enough to just keep it back with a wide headband. Even those “looks” radiate a controlled version of sassy, which is a phase that I think fits her well.. and I mean it as a compliment.

So, all things considered, when she draws such raves from the experts in the league and plays with such energy, she was an easy pick to interview while in Beaumont. I had the pleasure once again of being welcomed “behind the scenes” at McDonald Gym. They have a wonderful complex with playing surface, coaches’ offices, very nice training room, lounge complete with TV, locker rooms and classrooms for team meetings all within a hallways’ distance of each other. Coach Justin Gibert has always been gracious with me – allowing me to access some of these areas and conduct these interviews.

I want to thank Coach Gibert and especially Alex for sacrificing her time to sit down and talk about setting, the outlook for Lamar, the transition from playing for her Mom in high school to Gibert in Beaumont along with other things. Check out the interview below and keep your eye on her when she returns to Nacogdoches in a few weeks. If you do, you might learn something.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Live Chat: SFA vs. Lamar

Monday, September 17, 2012

Northwestern State Interviews - Preview of Sam Houston

During the past weekend at the Chilly Fillmore SFA Volleyball Invitational, I got a chance to sit down with Northwestern State Co-Head Coach Hugh Hernesman and Demon Outside Hitter Stacey DiFrancesco. I first began occasionally exchanging brief emails with coach Hernesman before the conference tournament last year and then had a chance to formally meet and talk with him in Conway during the SLC Tournament. I am not purposely leaving chats with Stephanie Hernesman off my "to do" list, but anyone who has seen the husband and wife team in action at matches knows that their two children often travel with them and are wonderfully integrated into most of what the team does. That generally leaves only one of them "free" during down times and to this point, Hugh has been the one that has been available at times when I've had the mic. As the season goes on, I'll make it a point to get Stephanie's points of view and do a better job of all around coverage of this coaching duo.

During the last year, folks at Northwestern State have read these pages on fair occasion. But, I won't lie - more than likely their readership was to mock my dismissal of their 2011 squad early last year. I learned my lesson and now a year later, NSU is primed for a step forward in conference play. I would like to thank the NSU parents I talked to last weekend for their support and for not completely writing me off based on last years' early posts.

Jessica Hays at UCA is probably my pick for our conference's top outside hitter, but Stacey DiFrancesco is certainly in the conversation. She is frustratingly good. It just doesn't "look" like she is going to dominate you, but leaf through the box scores and you'll see that she is capable of 20 kills against anybody at any time. Like many of the best outside hitters in the SLC, she can get her kills from anywhere on the court. Against SFA I marvelled at the half dozen or so kills she got from back row hitting 20 feet off the net - just glancing balls off blockers arms from deep on the court. She's the kind of player that you just have to admire and I greatly appreciate both her time and Coach Hernesman's willingness to talk volleyball with me at many sporadic times during last weekend's tournament.

Apologies for the misspelling of Stacey's name in the title. Ugh.

Tuesday night the Bearkats of Sam Houston will be in town. Don't let the losing record fool you. They've played (and lost) to Colorado, Texas State, Rice and Mississippi State. So, they've scheduled some schools from bigger conferences among their tournament slate. They ripped Oral Roberts last week, but then ran into a UCA squad that was more than likely seeking retribution for the loss at Corpus Christi. In previous posts, I've let it be known that SHSU is one of my picks for the conference final in November. Why? What should we expect out of Brenda Gray's club this time around?

For one thing: No fear. Sam Houston always plays scrappy. This is something that Debbie Humphreys continually says about Bearkat Volleyball.. bodies flying all over the place. This is a very veteran centered team. They've been around the block plenty of times and they should exhibit the maturity and poise that you'd expect from an experienced squad. The Depth Chart in the right sidebar will tell you that the Bearkats' starters are all upperclassmen with the exception of the replacement for last year's standout Carli Kolbe. Who would that be? Well, her name is Devaney Wells-Gibson and she's been playing pretty darn good. How does hitting .218 with 177 kills and 3.69 kills per set sound? Sounds pretty solid to me. Guess what? Those 177 kills lead the entire conference and the 3.69 k/s number is third best.

I am telling you right now.. Sam Houston is good. They lost a dynamic player, replaced her with a sophomore who is playing lights out and got a year more experience out of every one of their other starters. Kim Black is one of the best middle blockers in the Southland, and OH Kendall Cleveland is one of my favorite players not wearing an SFA uniform. Cleveland is one of my dark horse picks for first team All-SLC. So far, her hitting percentage is pedestrian, but she'll get her fair share of kills. Tayler Gray is a firecracker to say the least and Haley Neisler is a nice complementary player to have as a second middle blocker. Then there is Kaylee Hawkins who can beat you with offense or defense.. one of the true "utility" players that the conference has to offer.

I don't judge the team to be overly deep, so if something were to happen to one of the key starters, the ship might sink, but on paper, I like Sam Houston to finish in the Top 3 in the conference and they provide a big test for an SFA squad on a huge high.

Sam Houston has the advantage on the left side and we have the advantage on the back row. But the battle between Black/Neisler and Burns/Leslie should be war. Plus, the two setters are very different in terms of demeanor, so it will be interesting to see how each leads their squad as the match moves along.

If we fall asleep even for one set, this match could be trouble. Otherwise, I am expecting to be in the gym for a while on Tuesday night. We are going to have to get solid contributions from both Randall and Bates to win in my opinion as well as win the MB battle.

I'll be honest... can SFA win? Sure. If they play like they did in the tournament last weekend, then we will hang right there and be in a position to win. But, on paper? Slight edge to Sam Houston State.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Chilly Fillmore SFA Invitational: Interviews with Sabrina Burns & Cara Leslie

As promised yesterday in this space, here are two interviews: one long and one short. The first serves to re-introduce you to Senior Middle Blocker Sabrina Burns. Sabrina and I talked on the eve of the Chilly Fillmore SFA Invitational about her experiences and growth here at SFA. Then, after SFA dispatched of Northwestern State 3-1 on Friday night to open SLC play, I was able to talk briefly to both Burns and freshman Middle Blocker Cara Leslie. Take a listen to both interviews.

On Monday, I will post two interviews done with folks at Northwestern State. Co-head coach Hugh Hernesman sat down with me before Friday's match and during the day on Saturday I was honored to get a chance to talk to the 2011 Freshman of the Year in the SLC: Staci DiFrancesco. Staci is one of the top hitters in our conference and had a match high 21 kills in the game against SFA on Friday. I hope you enjoy those two interviews as well as we strive to cover both SFA and the entire Southland Conference here at http://www.sfavolleyblog.net/.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Depth Charts Posted, Version 1.0

With conference play just around the corner, I have put up a link to the 2012 Southland Conference Depth Charts.  You'll see the link in the red side bar over on the right side of the page.

A brief word about this file:  I know of no other place where you can see all of the Southland Conference rosters in one place.  You can hop around to all the websites and get the complete rosters, but the depth charts give you more than that.  These files are intended to be indicative of player usage at all 10 conference schools.  They are broken up into Probable Starters, Key Players off the Bench, Players Occasionally Used and those Deep on the Bench.  I will update them weekly as I look over box scores from each weeks' games.   When you click on the file (it is an Excel file) for the first time, I encourage you to read the tab that is labelled "Disclaimer".

In subsequent versions, I will add a lot more to the notes columns including particular honors or specialized player usages that I notice from the play by plays or from talking to coaches or team representatives directly.  Which brings me to an important point:  If you are a reader from another school and you have information that can help make these charts more accurate, then please drop me a line at gmiller@sfasu.edu.  I am always happy to have other sets of eyes out there looking for things that can help us all.

So, if you are a parent looking to scout an upcoming opponent, the depth charts will allow you to quickly ascertain the key players in the key positions on that particular team.  If you work for one of the schools, and you've forgotten who the setter for say... uh... Oral Roberts is.. .then the depth charts will quickly tell you that she is Laura Taylor.  If you want the list of all the middle blockers in the conference.. just open one file and skip from tab to tab.. they are all there.  If you want to quickly figure out how many freshman starting liberos the conference currently has.. then just open one file and scroll from tab to tab and in less than a minute you have that the answer is zero.

Finally, two things:  1) If there is some information you would like added to the depth charts then please email me - I aim to please around here.  2) These depth charts will be permanent and going into next year, I will update them as signings occur around the conference.  So, As SLC teams formally announce signings for 2013, I will add those girls names to the depth charts.  That way, you will have in one place all the announced signings for the entire conference - all in one file!  This is going to be awesome!

At any rate, have fun checking out the lists.. every player in the Southland.. listed in one file.  Pretty nifty!

Also, Allison Gideon's Trek-X blog from Nashville now has a link in the "Related Links" section.  She is off to a great start in her missionary training and has even got a "volleyball' related job this semester!  Check it out and follow along with her training and journey.

Conference play starts Friday!  Hoping to interview Senior Middle Blocker Sabrina Burns tomorrow and share that with you on Friday morning before the tournament begins.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Veteran Previews: Senior Maddie Hanlan & Bonus Interview w/ Coach Debbie Humphreys

To get you ready for the Butler Tournament this weekend, we will continue our veteran previews with Senior libero Maddie Hanlan. Even though we have the bulk of the season remaining, a fair amount of isolated thought has led me to the conclusion that Hanlan is one of the best back row Ladyjacks I’ve ever seen. Stephanie Figgers was the best, but that’s an unfair comparison. Figgers may be the best back row player the conference has ever had. At the very least, Hanlan is a very special player. Later in the year, I have an entire article that I’ll post – after making some 2012 additions to it – exclusively about her. So, rather than mix online questions with audio interviews as I typically do for these previews, we will stick to the audio and then shine more light on just Maddie’s accomplishments later in the year in another post. The next veteran preview will center on fellow senior Sabrina Burns.

As a bonus today, I’ve also included an interview with Coach Debbie Humphreys that was done right before the chat with Maddie. Make sure and listen to them both.. Humphreys throws out a lot of really great stuff in our 12 minute talk. As always, I am thankful for the time from both Coach Humphreys and our players. Both interviews were done shortly after practice, so the sacrifice of time at a point in the day where both players and coaches were tired is greatly appreciated.

Remember that NEXT weekend we will host the Chilly Fillmore Tournament here in Nacogdoches. As always, check the upper right sidebar for upcoming match times and dates. Conference play begins during that tourney as Northwestern State will be in town. I’ll be contacting co-head coach Hugh Hernesman to check on his availability for an interview over the weekend. I’ll also try and introduce you to 2011 Freshman of the Year Staci DiFranscesco.

The 2012 Southland Depth Chart is almost done and will be added in the right side bar over the weekend. SLC5 makes a return in the next few days – we’ll do a “Texas” version first and then a few days later cover the Southland teams from outside the Lone Star State.

The team is in Dallas on Wednesday night having an early morning flight on Thursday along with an afternoon scheduled practice. Here’s to safe travels and another strong showing during the tournament portion of the 2012 slate. Axe ‘Em Ladies!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Conversation with Brian Yale

Last weekend while in Arlington, I got a chance to sit down and chat with UTPA Head Coach Brian Yale. Long time readers and SFA Volleyball fans will remember Brian from his days in Nacogdoches as an assistant for Debbie Humphreys. Yale has many challenges in Edinburg - as he discusses - but from the look of his young Broncs squad last week, I'd guess that a few more "W's" are soon on the horizon for UTPA. His club played very well against us - repeatedly keeping SFA from stringing out big leads and if it weren't for just a few points here or there, UTPA could have certainly knocked off the 'Jacks. Take a listen as Brian discusses recruiting differences, challenges presented in the Great West Conference, strides his team is making and of course, the all important family update.

Many thanks to "Coach B", as he was known here, and we certainly look forward to battling UTPA Volleyball again in the future and all of the SFA Volleyball family wishes Brian, his family, his assistants and all his girls the best of luck during the 2012 campaign.