Monday, October 1, 2012

Looking Forward to Looking Back

Before we get started: Remember our next live chat is this Thursday against Sam Houston at 7 PM!!

It’s time for analysis. We’ve had interviews and depth charts and chats and all that good stuff, but put on your hard hats and don’t have a thin skin. It’s time to dish some opinions. I haven’t done THIS as much during the first half of the 2012 season, but all normal disclaimers apply. I don’t think what is contained here will be controversial, but you may or may not totally agree. So, think along with me and then sound off if you want (either in comments or in person).

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. SFA could very well be 6-0 in SLC play, two games up on EVERYBODY and beaten EVERY team in the conference picked ahead of them. If it weren’t for one point in one set on one day – that would be exactly where we stand. But credit Central Arkansas and their staving off four match points last Saturday en route to an impressive comeback. Now, does the fact we lost really change anything? Well, yes, it changes the standings and at the end of the day that is what matters. But, should the loss change what any of us believe this team is capable of? No, not a bit. It is clear this team is better than what was originally forecast. Yes, we are legitimate.

Early this year I said that I expected us to essentially reverse our 2011 record of 14-18 and finish somewhere around 18-14, just a few games over .500. At this point in the season, if that turns out to be true, we will all be soundly disappointed. Instead, 20+ wins looks like our destiny as does a shot at a high seed in the SLC Tournament.

However, and I am not trying to purposely build drama here, I claim that this week is one of those weeks we will look back on. I am looking forward to being able to look back on this upcoming week. I think we are at a bit of a juncture.

Let’s suppose that we travel to Huntsville and Corpus Christi and secure two wins. That’s the plan, right? Well, if we accomplish that then we will be 7-1 in conference play with the lightest portion of the conference slate directly in front of us. After this week, we get to play Nicholls State and Southeastern Louisiana at home followed by McNeese and Lamar. Those last two are also in Shelton Gym. There is a match with HBU on the road between those two sets of SLC matchups, but at this point it’s the conference record that matters and nothing more. When we finally do go back out on the road, it will be to play the rematch with Nicholls and SLU.

So, two wins this week and the confidence level will be sky high again and we’ll be staring six straight conference matches down that we all believe we should win. In other words, this time next week, we may be expecting this team to be 13-1 after 14 SLC matches. And if that happens? Well, even a small tumble at the end of conference play would likely still give us a top two or three seed in the tournament.

But, I honestly see challenges ahead this week. I DO NOT believe Sam Houston played very well against us the first time around. Let me just write it the way I really believe it… if the Bearkats get anything decent out of Kim Black or Kaylee Hawkins that night, then they win. Go back and review the match. Those two never got off the bus. Black was so out of sync on offense that they only got her six offensive touches and Hawkins hit so bad that in 27 swings, she only killed three balls. Who cares that she made a bunch of errors and hit negative 185 (that won’t happen again)… to get only three kills in 27 swings is terrible by any standard.

For the year, Black averages 15 swings per match, hitting right at .200 and Hawkins averages 13 kills in a five set match rather than the paltry three she got in Nacogdoches. Bottom line: Sam Houston will play better on Thursday night than they did in Nacogdoches and so I see the rematch as more than a sufficient challenge. I am sticking by my guns, here. Sam Houston is good and when it is all said and done, they will be a top three seed in the tournament. We can’t have any let down at all and expect the match to go to five sets. I’m not trying to be negative. I believe in our girls. I am simply stating that I still don’t think we are the favorite on Thursday even though we have already beat them once.

Then there is the issue of Texas A&M Corpus Christi. OK, look.. a lot of people really think this team is greatly improved. I know they beat UCA in their first conference match, but let’s take a more comprehensive look. Since that point, they swept Oral Roberts who we now know was overrated. They lost to Northwestern State 3-1 which I think is more representative of their talent level. They got destroyed by Sam Houston State on their home floor. And, yes “destroyed” is appropriate. Two of the set scores were 25-14 and 25-11. After that they beat Nicholls and SLU.

So, look, no disrespect intended, but TAMUCC is just an average SLC team. Are they improved? Sure, yeah.. they didn’t make the tournament last year, and they should finish in the Top 8 this year. They make for a curious matchup after Sam Houston, though. If we don’t play our best on Thursday, then we are ripe for the taking on Saturday. We’d need to quickly get over losing two straight and not let things snowball.

Again, not to be Mr. Pessimistic, but if this week doesn’t go well, then we’d be at 5-3 in SLC play and could quickly go from the top to the middle of the conference. My point: This is the week for resolve and to play with no carry over effect from a match we most certainly could (should?) have won against UCA.

If we get on a roll during late October, we could look back to this week as the beginning of the long win streak that set us up for a top seed. If things turn south, we could look back to this week as the place in the schedule where the train came off the track just a bit and we started a small level of regression to what others thought was our mean.

But, it’s gone good so far! So, how did we get here? Lets’ break this down a bit:

Middle Blockers: Better than advertised. Burns is killing 2 ½ balls per set, serving great and blocking right at a ball per set. That will do. Then there is Cara Leslie. Hey, please.. nobody tell her that she is a freshman, OK. Don’t tell her that it is not supposed to be like this. Let her ride in the clouds continue, OK. Can you believe this? Two weeks out of three that she is named Defensive Player of the Week? Blocking 12 balls against UCA who is arguably the best attacking team in the conference? Hitting a team high .242? How could you ask for anything more out of her? She’s been ridiculously good.

Right Side: Jill Ivy is the best right side hitter in the conference. How about that for analysis. I don’t need to go on ‘cause you ain’t got no argument against it. I don’t care who you are. Notice has been served. You can’t stop her. Focus on somebody else, because she is going to get her 15 kills most every night.

Left Side: I’ve been over this before. This is a key spot for SFA’s offensive success. I hope Bates’ injury is short lived, because she was starting to turn a bit of an offensive corner I think. As of this writing, she is hitting 149-75-498 (.149). The average left side attack percentage is typically twenty or so points higher than that. However, check this out: Over her last six matches, she is hitting 52-22-162 and that is good for .185,which is slightly above league average for a left side attacker. I think this improvement is directly related to her sharing a rotation spot with a DS. This has allowed her offense to regulate. Nevertheless, overall for the entire season, the left side hitters for SFA are hitting a combined .124 and that’s just a tad too low to be considered effective in terms of offense.

Now, it is more than worth mentioning that Katzy Randall in particular is doing more than her share of stabilizing the defense by putting up some impressive dig numbers. Four of the last five matches she has had double digit digs and was only one kill shy of a double-double against UCA.

Back Row: Hanlan easily out dueled Silva against ORU and is laying her claim once again to being one of the top (if not THE top) libero in the conference. I know some other liberos have better numbers right now, but you are going to have a hard time convincing me that Hanlan won’t be a candidate for Libero of the Year if she keeps it up. Plus, Hill and Olson are a nice duo to have at DS. They have each made some fantastic digs in recent matches and as young as they are, it is reasonable to expect both to continue to improve. The great thing is that we have them both – meaning that whichever one takes over as Libero when Maddie leaves will still give us a good DS partner for Jill’s spot in the next two years.

Coaching: I think Debbie’s done a great job so far. OK, I am in no position of authority to judge this, but I have always been honest about things that I thought were odd. Debbie’s fond of saying that she and I don’t always see eye to eye on every little detail, but that’s just stating the obvious. She’s the expert and I’m….well….not.

One thing I think she has done particularly well with this year is getting players settled in to their role. In times past, I think the “tinkering” mentality has taken over too much, but this year I don’t think that’s ever been the case.

The way she is handling Leslie is particularly impressive. The week after Cara won her 1st Player of the Week honors, Debbie saw she was struggling against Lamar and sat her down. This conveyed two things: First, you have to bring it EVERY night to stay in the starting rotation and second – that she trusts Jacque Allen when called on. That was good for both players. They each realized that they have to be ready when called on.

The other smart move was already alluded to. I think the limiting of Bates to three rotations was right on. Olson has been great in the other three rotations for her and this will ease Bates into her role. As mentioned earlier, Bates offensive numbers have steadily gone up. Her talent is clearly enough to eventually warrant a role like Randall has now – six rotations. But why push it? Let her have some success in one dimension and then when appropriate you can ease her into more duties.

By the way, anyone keeping up with this: Debbie could get to 550 career victories this week.

Let’s keep things in perspective. I know the loss to UCA stings. But, go back six weeks ago. If someone offers you a deal where we are 14-4, win six matches in eight days, beat three teams picked to finish ahead of you – one on the road, have four match points with arguably the top team in the conference and be in first place after one-third of the conference slate is over…..then… you take that deal every time.

Let’s just not feel TOO good about ourselves. Many thought LAST week was a big test. I submit that THIS week is an even bigger one. I am looking forward to looking back. Looking back on this week as the week where we truly began the process of “reclaiming our relevance”.