Monday, October 29, 2012

#3 Through #6: Really No Difference

First things first: I know that posts have been a little more scarce during October, so let me address some things that a few of you have asked about. First, and unfortunately, as some of you know, my wife and children were in a car accident last week on the way home from school. Each of us can probably remember a time or two where our world stopped on a dime and getting the call from my son that they had been in a wreck certainly put me in “drop everything” mode. After a few x-rays to make sure no bones were broken, my wife and oldest son are bruised, but recovering. Rather divinely, my two youngest children barely had a scratch on them – which if you saw the condition that the family van is in post-accident, would make you a believer in angels if you weren’t already. Of course, I’ve believed for quite some time now.

Secondly, more of you probably know that at one point this month it looked like I was headed for shoulder surgery. Many days of throwing a little white sphere known as a baseball, both in my youth and during my adulthood while working with my kids, combined with this years’ weightlifting hobby sent my shoulder into a big knot. Expecting a torn rotator cuff, I had an MRI which again thankfully came back negative, but I have been in rather intense physical therapy for the last three weeks. I may get full range of motion back or I may not. That’s left to be seen, but I am learning how to stretch and contort my arm in all sorts of ways as the physical therapist basically says I have a “frozen” right shoulder (capsulitis for you med-heads out there).

Now all of the above isn’t out there for a pity party, I just felt like I owed the readership a small explanation. During the middle of the season, I am usually writing twice a week, but that’s been cut down this month due to life’s unforeseen little surprises. We all have them and my family and I choose to maintain perspective and seek out what God is asking us to learn during small trials. I have become aware of so many other people around me that are truly suffering in comparison to our bruises, dings and aches. I’m genuinely trying to be less selfish and focus more on others and how I might be able to help them. There is something therapeutic about reaching out to people who are truly hurting. Perspective is everything and I clearly see that I am blessed. Blessed to have a loving family, a fantastic and flexible job and wonderful extended family amongst my hobbies – such as volleyball.

This post is the summary of a conclusion I have come to while tracking SFA and a few other SLC teams that are hovering around them in the standings. My premise is: there is little difference this year in what appear to be the middle seeded teams in the conference tournament. Now, I know that we still have two weeks left to sort these seeds out and that wacky things could and maybe will actually happen, but my guess is that one of the #3 through #6 seeds is going to get hot come tournament time and put a real scare into Central Arkansas and Sam Houston State.

For the hometowners, let’s admit something: There was a time when it looked like SFA could win the conference. That time is gone. We are a middle seed. We had our shot and we blew it. It’s that simple. We shot ourselves in the foot. We lost two matches to Southeastern Louisiana - the first of which was done in ultra-embarrassing fashion on the day to honor Coach Humphreys and we really haven’t played consistently well for an entire month now.

Central Arkansas and Sam Houston are the two best teams in the conference. I told you that a long time ago. I predicted they would meet in the conference tourney championship before the season began. You can check that prognostication here.

Now, despite those teams more than likely headed for a one-two finish.. let’s look at the teams that are likely to finish from third to sixth. I see little difference in these teams and any one of them could get hot at just the right moment and steal a championship berth from either the Sugar Bears or Bearkats. I am not saying that Nicholls State or Southeastern Louisiana couldn’t pull an upset. I just think it is far more likely that they are one and done when we all get over to Conway for the tourney. So, without further delay, here is a list of the teams in the middle of the conference and my reasons why they can… and can’t… be taken seriously:

Northwestern State (10-4 SLC)
Current Seed: 3
Remaining SLC Games: SFA, SHSU, @UCA, @ORU
Predicted Finish and Seed: 11-7, 4th Seed

Why They Can Make It To the Final: They are red hot – winning six straight conference matches and during that time only dropping five sets. They have a legitimate 1-2 punch on the outside with DiFrancesco and the surging Caiti O’Connell. Their back row is stable with Keelie Arneson, the best libero that no one knows about and they have an opportunity for that elusive “signature win” right here down the stretch. If they knock off either Sam Houston at home or UCA on the road, then no matter what happens in the other matches, they will know they can hang with the teams at the top. Stop and think how far they have come in two years. This is truly one of the programs on the rise in the Southland.

Why They Won’t: It’s all too soon too fast. Despite making the tourney last year, they don’t have anywhere near the experience that Sam Houston or UCA has in tournament play. This might be the year that the Demons get past the first round, but rebuilding tends to come in steps – not leaps. Despite a quickly maturing group, the team is still young. Plus, the recent six game winning streak doesn’t exactly include many strong teams. In fact, it has probably come against the league’s worst. Finally, that “signature win”? I doubt it comes to pass. Like SFA, their schedule is tough and they are more likely to enter the tournament on a downslide than on an uptick.

Stephen F. Austin (9-5 SLC)
Current Seed: 4
Remaining SLC Games: @NWLA, TAMUCC, @ORU, @UCA
Predicted Finish and Seed: 10-8, 6th Seed

Why They Can Make It to the Final: No matter what happens during the last two weeks, SFA will be able to say this: We had four match points against UCA, two for a sweep and we’ve already beaten Sam Houston and Northwestern State once. So, why should we be afraid of matching up against anyone? When the ‘Jacks are clicking on all cylinders, they are truly a force. Burns in the middle, Ivy on the right can lead the way on offense and all that is required is for Bates to keep ‘em honest on the left. Randall is back and playing particularly well on defense and Hanlan is capable of digging up everything in the garden as evidenced by the 47 scoops last week in one match. They have the talent. They’ve proven they can hang. They shouldn’t be scared of anyone.

Why They Won’t: They aren’t consistent enough to even put together back to back solid matches right now. One night they pass well, the next, they’d shank underhanded serves. One night they block 16 balls, the next night, they are slow to slide over from the middle to block and the pin blockers can barely get off the ground. One night, they hit .230, the next night, they hit .030. Need I go on? If they’d have won against UCA and not keeled over against Southeastern Louisiana – TWICE – then they would be tied for first place! Problem is – they can’t maintain things. The likelihood of getting hot is low because of the tough competition waiting during the last two weeks of the regular season. This team CAN play well, but I’ve seen this before. Don’t color me surprised if we only manage a win or two down the stretch, go into Conway with basically no momentum and then lose a five-setter in the opening match. All the SFA faithful know that I hope that doesn’t happen, but we are running out of time to regain our early season form.

Texas A&M- Corpus Christi (8-5 SLC)
Current Seed: 5
Remaining SLC Games: NICH, SELA, @SFA, Lamar, McNeese
Predicted Finish and Seed: 13-5, 3rd Seed

Why They Can Make It to the Final: They have the easiest schedule of all the mid-seeds left and they should enter the tournament on a super high. Despite not having success against Sam Houston, they have beaten Central Arkansas once this year. At one point in the middle of the season, they won seven straight matches and they have likely SLC Coach of the Year Tony Graystone at the helm. This is THE surprise team of the year and everyone would LOVE for them to play Cinderella and waltz to the tournament final. What do they have to lose? They weren’t even in the tourney last year. Talk about playing with reckless abandon - this group should be loose and confident by the time they get to Conway. Playing a team with nothing to lose is dangerous, and with a first round win, the Islanders could become the darlings of the tournament.

Why They Won’t: Reality set in the last few weeks. Sure they have an easy schedule, but they got ripped by Sam Houston – TWICE. Each match featured a 25-12 or 25-11 beat down set. To me that shows they really aren’t elite. They don’t have an impressive road win having lost at all of Central Arkansas, Sam Houston, Oral Roberts and Northwestern State. If the tournament was in Corpus – as it will be the next two years – then fine, they might could be counted on. As it sits, I see an average road team at best and one that will brought back to reality once again once the tournament starts. In fact, I think the weak schedule could work against them. Watch SFA or Oral Roberts get them in the first round. In fact, if the 3/6 matchup is TAMUCC/ORU, I’d be really confident in going with the Golden Eagles.

Oral Roberts (8-6 SLC)
Current Seed: 6
Remaining SLC Games: @McNeese, @Lamar, SFA, NWLA
Predicted Finish: 11-7, 5th Seed

Why They Can Make It to the Final: Anyone noticed that this club has started to get their act together lately? Written off early on, it looks like ORU might be the dark horse going into the final two weeks of the season. They beat Central Arkansas, lost a five set match to Sam Houston that went all the way to 21-19 in the 5th set and then swept Corpus Christi – all of that within FOUR DAYS! The other reason why they can make it to the final: Defense. This team can seriously block balls at the net and those that get past the front row players like Pancratz and Fernandes are likely to be dug up by Silva on the back row. Don’t look at me funny if we all get to Conway and people start saying: ‘I didn’t think ORU was this good’. I think the sleeping giant may have just been awakened. This team looks scary to me. I wouldn’t want to play them in the first round. Plus, they have experience going deep in conference tournaments – having advanced to their conferences’ final last year with basically the same club that is on the floor now.

Why They Can’t: They aren’t good enough to pull two upsets in a row. They are the alter ego of SFA, but with likely the same fate. Whereas, SFA peaked early and faded late, ORU was flat early and has played well in recent weeks. But in the final analysis, there just isn’t as much on the floor as what is run out there by UCA and SHSU. I think of Oral Roberts like I do SFA.. they are capable of dominating in one match.. but one match only. I think they’ll struggle to find consistency in the final three weeks of the season. I’ve picked them to win three or four remaining, but watch out for that match in Beaumont. Lamar might pull the upset.

In the end, I just don’t see that much difference between having the 3rd seed and having the 6th seed. I believe one of the above four teams will surprise some people and make a serious run. The safe bet is UCA vs. SHSU in the final – which is what I have thought will come to pass from the beginning of conference play. But, I think what may be just as likely as a 1 vs. 2 match up in the final is that one of the above four teams above begins to fire on all cylinders at just the right time and we get to see an exciting conference final that includes one of UCA/SHSU taking on a team with an unbelievable story:

NWLA: From first round defeat to competing for a right to go to the NCAA’s

SFA: A return to glory, completing their “Return to Relevance” season in style.

TAMUCC: Cinderella becomes fan favorite as Islanders go from out of the tourney to championship in just one year.

ORU: Dismissed by the league early on, but then storming their way to the final when it matters.

Which headline will it be?

Actually, what I think would be particularly fun is to see both UCA AND SHSU go down and the final feature two of these teams. Of course, I’ve got my fingers crossed that we’ll find that early season magic and have ourselves one heck of a party just north of Little Rock.