Earlier in the year, we took a look at what each Southland team lost in terms of personnel coming into 2012. At that time, I alluded to a follow up piece coming and so here we are – today, we’ll examine some freshmen that are making an impact during their first year on the court in the Southland Conference. I’ve picked 12 players that have been instrumental during the first two-thirds of the season on their respective teams. Not all SLC teams have a player represented on my list and the list isn’t meant to be exhaustive. SFA fans will recognize that players like OJ Olson and Jacque Allen have provided the ‘Jacks help in various ways, but they don’t appear in the list below. Fans from other schools will certainly be able to identify a player or two that could have shown up in a post like this.
Nevertheless, here are the 12 players just beginning their college careers that I believe are making the biggest splash around the conference. To avoid any unintentional bias, they’ll be discussed in alphabetical order. I’ve seen all but the girls from Corpus Christi actually play, so despite this being a stat heavy post (imagine that?), a personal observation or memory is included in all but the Islanders’ cases.
Ivy Baresh (OH, TAMUCC) – Talk about creating a buzz. Baresh is the one player I haven’t seen play that I am most looking forward to watching. Several coaches have raved about both her offense and defensive abilities. I’ve heard the phrase “I wish she had come here” a few times when asking about her to other coaches I’ve spoken with during the season. Despite being only 5’9”, Baresh is second among all SLC freshmen in kills per set with 2.41. However, she is far and away the freshman leader in digs per set at 3.07. One of the few six rotation starting freshmen in the conference, Baresh is clearly one of the main reasons the Islanders have seen a surge in the their play during 2012. From the same high school as our own Maddie Hanlan (Arlington Martin), Tony Graystone did an outstanding job in getting Baresh down to the coast.
Tori Bates (OH, SFA) – Another first year player that has seen six rotation responsibilities during the year at times. Bates has a heavy arm swing and is currently third among all freshmen in the conference in total kills with 207. Her 2.33 kills per set ranks her 4th among her first year peers and while tallying a full 80 digs less than Baresh, Bates has to be considered one of the best incoming six rotation prospects in the league. She’s already got a variety of shots – once she settles into consistent play on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, then SFA will be looking at someone to lean on heavily during upcoming seasons.
Amber Fryer (OH, McNeese) – Fryer has put up solid numbers for Terry Gamble’s very young squad. She’s tallied 191 kills while hitting a respectable .173 and also should come near 100 blocks on the year as she’s already at 67 (0.83 per set). Watching Fryer against SFA, you could tell that she is loaded with potential. At times, I thought she was off with her footwork on approaches, but once her and fellow freshman Kelly Graham began to connect, Fryer’s athleticism really took over and produced some positive results. Strong and 6-foot tall, Fryer is probably the one first year player among many at McNeese that projects to have the best overall career.
Kelly Graham (S, McNeese) – The aforementioned Graham is the only freshman setter getting regular playing time in the conference. SFA fans know what that is like having watched our own Paige Holland begin her time on the court last year. Graham didn’t blow me away while watching her play against the ‘Jacks, but with so much youth on the Cowgirl squad, we can’t expect miracles overnight. Recruited all the way from Colorado, Graham looks poised to grow up alongside of a long list of young McNeese players. After that crop gets a year or two under their belt, Graham may emerge as a team leader. Few girls get the opportunity to start at setter for four consecutive seasons. We’ll have to see if Graham fits the bill.
Tyger Holt (MB, TAMUCC) – Now here’s a curious case. Holt’s standing among conference lists is a bit misleading as she barely qualifies for the conference leaderboards in several categories. She is hitting a whopping .358, which indeed is impressive, but that percentage only translates to 81 kills despite technically ranking her 3rd in the entire conference. She got a decent amount of playing time early on, but it has waned a bit of late. Coming to Corpus Christi all the way from Canada, Holt has also blocked 56 balls which is good for a 0.96 block per set rate and she is 6th in the SLC in that category. In case the name throws you a bit… the Islanders’ website lets us know that her birth given name is actually Cassandra Marie Tyger Holt. Gotta love trivia.
Glynna Johnson (MB, NWLA) – Impressive. This was a fantastic add for the Hernesman’s in Natchitoches. Pairing Johnson with fellow redshirt freshman Caiti O’Connell, right side hitter Mackenzie Neely and wonderkid Stacey DiFrancesco has got front line stability for years to come written all over it. Johnson is 6th in the conference in attack percentage at .321, which is second only to Holt among freshman. She’s actually upped her rankings during conference play where she places third in attack percentage. Mixing in blocks at a cool rate of 0.83 per set make her a more than solid addition to the improving Demons. She’s a potential first or second team All-SLC pick down the road in years to come.
Cara Leslie (MB, SFA) – Keeping the theme of freshman middles going, we get to our own recruit from down the road in Livingston. Already with two Player of the Week honors to her credit, where I find Leslie particularly impressive is at the net where she has already tallied 77 blocks. She is 5th in the conference in blocks per set and 3rd in that category during conference play. In case you are wondering, yes – those 77 total blocks are tops among ALL freshman in the conference. As freshman tend to be, she’s been up and down from time to time, but anyone who witnessed the 12 block bonanza in the incredible match against UCA knows that we’ve got ourselves the real deal.
Courtney Moore (MB, Lamar) – Why not, let’s add another freshman middle to the mix – there are LOTS of good ones in the conference this year. What impresses me about Moore is her raw athleticism. She leads the Cardinals in blocks and blocks per set and one has to wonder where Lamar would be without her given that they have been overrun with injuries. Moore didn’t really light it up against us in Beaumont, but I wouldn’t go to sleep on her tomorrow her in Nacogdoches. She’s had some very impressive performances. During September she had a string of two weeks where she went for 14 or more kills in three out of four matches. Her .273 attack percentage is 9th best in the conference.
Caiti O’Connell (OH, NWLA) – She is the reason why when you play Northwestern State that you just can’t key on DiFrancesco. Want proof? Fine, how about last night? DiFrancesco has a par night killing 11 balls while hitting .154. O’Connell meanwhile paces the offense with a match high 17 kills on 30 swings for a lofty .367 attack percentage. Oh, and it just hasn’t been isolated matches: O’Connell leads all freshman in the conference in kills (217) and kills per set (2.86). To think that Northwestern State brought in all those freshman last year and redshirted this one knowing what they had in the bank. I haven’t brought this up yet, but if you are scoring at home for 2012 SLC Freshman of the Year, wouldn’t it be something if the Demons won it twice in a row? She’s got to be in the talk. O’Connell is 9th in the conference in kills per set overall and 7th in that stat during conference matches. Plus, at 6’1”, she’s got good size for an outside hitter – especially in this conference. She is one of many interesting young pieces to the puzzle at Northwestern State.
Malina Sanchez (OH, McNeese) – Literally flying under the radar a bit, Sanchez kind of woke me out of a slumber on her against SFA last night. She is small – only 5’9” – but, man, can she elevate. Like Baresh and Bates, she plays defense too, having tallied 194 digs which is second among freshman in the conference. She might be the most underrated player on this entire list. I had heard absolutely nothing about her leading into last night’s game versus the ‘Jacks. I left the gym impressed given she led the match in kills. Her size may keep her from putting up big attack percentages – she is hitting only .098 – and SFA blocked the dazes out of everyone in Cowgirl blue last night, but overall Sanchez is an exciting player to watch because of her ability to leap.
Heather Schnars (OH, UCA) – A great complementary player to an already strong veteran team. Put Schnars on a few other teams in the conference and her numbers would be way up. Now that the Sugar Bears have settled on Scout Brooks to complement the almighty Jessica Hays, Schnars is no longer a regular starter. UCA can afford to bring her along slowly and her current role probably suits her best because she doesn’t have to carry much of a load and still be useful. With 2.21 kills per set and hitting almost .200 as an outside hitter, what’s not to like? Don’t be surprised if you hear her name a lot next year once JHays leaves the limelight.
Veronica Turk (MB, Southeastern La.) – Like Sanchez, I sat watching SLU upset the ‘Jacks and kept announcing “Kill by Turk”. Finally, I was like.. “Who is this chick?” Quick.. who are the top three freshmen in kills per set in the Southland? If you’ve been reading carefully you know that the top two are O’Connell and Baresh discussed above. Number 3 on the list? Yep, Veronica Turk at 2.39 k/s. When you think of SLU, most folks know about media guide cover girl Courtney Donald, but the Lions have got themselves another middle blocker with skills. Just so you know – she holds the school record in the high jump at her high school. Couple that with 6’2” and you’ve got a winner at the net.
Ok, now for the fun part. So, if I am voting now (uh, I don’t actually have a vote, but don’t spoil my fun)… who gets 2012 SLC Freshman of the Year? Of course, we have a whole month left before this question is truly relevant, but again.. let’s try and reason this out.
There are a variety of freshman DS types that always infiltrate the conference, but none tend to be in contention for league honors. Kimberlyn Patterson (recent freshman starting libero at McNeese) didn’t make this list and Kelly Graham (setter) who did make the list aren’t going to win the award. So, it’s going to be an MB or a hitter. Maybe that was all just a wasted paragraph stating the obvious.
Moving on, I actually devised an ad hoc statistical ranking formula (nerd alert!) to compare the middle blockers on this list. It basically spat out that Johnson, Holt and Leslie were within a shadow of each other, with a possible slight edge to Leslie. You can cite SFA bias on that if you want… I don’t care.
Looking at the outside hitters, I think your top four are Baresh, O’Connell, Bates and Fryer..probably in that order. I am giving the nod to Baresh over O’Connell on the basis of defensive contributions. Offensively, you have to go with O’Connell over Baresh due to more kills and a better kills per set. Remember, O’Connell is first among all freshman in kills and kills per set. But Baresh is 2nd in kills per set while also being first in digs per set. That pushes her over in my mind.
In fact, I like the hitters a tad better on this list than the many talented young MB’s, so despite not having seen her play yet, I am going to go with Ivy Baresh as my early choice and I am not going to argue with you if you think O’Connell deserves it based on offense alone.
Finally, if you are going to give Baresh credit for defense, then the same applies to Bates. Partnering that argument along with my little nerdy formula that tells me that Leslie is arguably the top freshman MB, and my conclusion is this: An SFA player COULD win this award with a strong team showing during the rest of October and November.
I’ll tell you what: This was a fun article to research, but let’s just focus on that last sentence – a strong showing by the ‘Jacks the rest of the way. The team always comes before the individual. Any girl on this list would trade 2012 Freshman of the Year honors for the chance to hoist a conference tournament trophy over their heads on November 18.