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.