Sunday, November 11, 2012

2012 SLC Tournament: 1st Round Preview

Before we get into today’s topic of breaking down Friday’s first round tournament matchups, let me make sure and share with you this week’s schedule here at the blog. On Tuesday night, I will post my list comprising the 4th Annual SFA All Conference Teams. I always put out my list the day before the conference does so that my picks can stand in an unbiased way against the coaches and SID picks. I’ll refresh you on the rules I use for making those selections in that post.

Next, I will be traveling to Conway on Thursday and be providing commentary all during the day live during Friday’s matches. We’ll call this “live blogging” since I will provide updates several times an hour all during the day. Then, at 4:00 I will shift into “live chat” mode using the traditional chat software that you regularly see here when SFA squares off against Northwestern State. We’ll shift back into live blog mode after the match and for all day Saturday. If SFA plays on Saturday and/or Sunday, I will certainly do live chats for those subsequent matches. I am considering chatting live during the conference final on Sunday no matter who plays – I’ll make that call based on a few discussions with conference officials.

Lastly, I am also working on beginning a new “SFA Volleyblog award” in addition to all conference teams that I put out each year. I don’t want to give away any details because I am still compiling some numbers, but it won’t surprise you that this new “award” will focus on back row defense. I think you’ll like the data that I present, but I may not get it all done by the time I get to Conway.

OK, on to the previews of the first round of the 2012 Southland Conference Volleyball Tournament:

Match 1: 11:00 AM Friday
#7 Nicholls State vs. #2 Sam Houston State
Regular Season: Sam Houston swept Nicholls both times

I am happy for first year coach Patrick Hiltz in that his club officially gets a tournament berth, but we can’t hide behind the facts that a) Nicholls and Southeastern Louisiana made the tournament due to the format not changing in the year we only had 10 teams and b) 6-12 and 5-13 teams don’t really deserve to compete in the postseason. I’m not being ugly, it’s just the truth. I understand the conference decision not to alter the format of the tournament for just one year, but that meant that we ran the risk of having some below average teams in the postseason. Now, there are some conferences where every team plays for the right to earn an NCAA berth, but I don’t prefer that sort of format at all. All that being said, this shouldn’t be a big issue since Sam Houston should have little trouble eliminating the Colonels in the opening match.

Sam Houston has too many weapons on offense and Nicholls just doesn’t have the counterpunch. Nicholls has no wins against any of the teams seeded above them in the tournament. I would like to say this, though: Nicholls State has a fair number of Seniors this year and I am happy that those players will get a chance to play in the conference tournament to finish their college careers. Jennifer Brandt, Jessica Addicks, Kathryn Stock, Nancy Taylor, Sarah Terry and Amanda Newlin have each played a fairly integral role on the team during 2012. Some of those players have been central to Colonel Volleyball the entire time they have been on campus. I’ve particularly enjoyed watching Brandt and Addicks – it seems like they have been at Nicholls forever. I hope they play an inspired match and give Sam Houston a fight in what likely will be their final game of their careers.

Sam Houston is also full of seniors. I think their resolve is hardened now, and like I said way back on August 30 in this space, I expect the final to feature the Bearkats against the host Sugar Bears. I hope to interview both Brenda Gray and some of the Bearkat players during the tournament. I’ll post those audio files as they are recorded. Before we get into more discussion about Sam Houston – because I am sure I will comment about them a lot this weekend - we need to recognize the contributions of Devaney Wells-Gibson and her impact on the Bearkat success. I’ve focused a fair number of words on the veterans like Black, Hawkins, and Cleveland. But, Wells-Gibson, only a sophomore, has stepped into the void left by Carli Kolbe and been nothing short of stellar. Take a look at these stats: 4.07 kills per set, 435 total kills, a .242 attack percentage in 1162 attacks plus 3.28 digs per set and 50 blocks. Folks, that’s elite. In fact, it might be good enough for SLC Player of the Year Honors. I will go ahead and tell you right now that she is one of the players I am considering for that honor. I don’t think she’s received the credit around the league that she deserves. If the Bearkats make the final, I as suspect they will, watch for her to show up on the All-Tournament team.

Odds: (50/50 means a toss up): Sam Houston 85/15. Nicholls might challenge or even escape with one set, but that’d be about the extent of the damage I think they could inflict.

Match 2: 1:30 Friday
#6 Oral Roberts vs. #3 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Regular Season: Split. Home Team swept road team in each meeting.

Ahh, here we go. This is the match – other than our own – that I am most anxious to see on Day 1. I told you last week that if this was the 3/6 match up I was going with ORU and I’m not changing course now. Let me slip this in right here… I thought SFA’s 3-1 win in Tulsa was mighty impressive. The comebacks in Set 3 and 4 were some of the firmest resolve I think the ‘Jacks have shown all year. ORU looked a little shell shocked in those last two sets. I think they got it together and took their frustrations out on Northwestern State two days later.

I expect ORU to play well in this tournament. They have two fantastic blockers in Jessica Pancratz and Sheina Fernandes. Pancratz ,in particular, has become one of my favorite non-SFA players this year. That girl can block and she’s got one of the fastest arm swings I’ve seen lately. You know how in baseball there are some players you just gotta watch take batting practice? That’s like Pancratz in warm-ups. Watch her hit in warm-ups – she can put on a show.

One of the key battles in this matchup will be the ORU blockers against TAMUCC’s Shannon Hullum on the right side. I think Hullum is TAMUCC’s best offensive weapon and in fact, while we are at it – Hullum has REALLY improved her game during her time in Corpus Christi. When the Islanders came to Nacogdoches, I was focused on Baresh because I haven’t seen her play before. Hullum stole my attention though. Baresh didn’t play all that well against us, but Hullum really shined. She’s another player that I think got overlooked a little this year.

If the Islanders can mix up their offense and get contributions from Brink and Baresh on the left, then I can see this matchup falling their way. Brink may be the X-factor. She’s my current “Tara Frantz” candidate. There’s always one girl who puts up decent numbers and I just don’t buy into how they do it. That’s Brink..I’m not sold on her. Logan Borque is going to have to have the game of her life trying to mix up the offense and keep the ORU front line guessing. If Borque is off, ORU will win. Borque didn’t set well in my opinion when I saw her in Nacogdoches, but I know she is capable of better. Still, I just don’t think Brink and Baresh will be able to do as much as what TAMUCC will need them to do against the ORU front line. Sticking with the setter matchup – Laura Taylor did a nice job against SFA with attacking just enough on 2nd strike. I’d like to see Taylor try and do a lot of that against Alverson to keep her guessing in the middle in order to open up more for either Tatum Freeden on the left or players like Rosa or Schaffner on the right.

Then there is Nolan vs. Silva. Two great liberos. I’ve been singing Nolan’s praises to people for a while and although I wasn’t impressed with Silva when she came to Nacogdoches, her resume is complete enough and I’ve talked to others that have witnessed her stellar play to where I am a believer.

I don’t think there is any doubt that this is the most interesting match of the first round. I think the left sides are even with maybe a slight edge to the Islanders. I like ORU more in the middle – in fact, I like ORU in the middle by quite a big margin. Plus, I’ll give a slight edge to ORU at setter and on the back row. Corpus Christi has the edge on the right. That seems like a toss up on paper, but in the end, I think the low seed gets this one.

Odds: (50/50 means a toss up): ORU 60/40. If Brink and Baresh combine for 6 kills per set, then I’ll swing it to them. But again, if Borque doesn’t run the offense well, ORU might cake walk it.

Match 3: 4:00 Friday
#5 Stephen F. Austin vs. #4 Northwestern State
Regular Season: Split. Home Team won each meeting. SFA won 3-1 in Nacogdoches, NWLA won 3-0 in Natchitoches.

When SFA beat Northwestern State in Nacogdoches, the ‘Jacks were in the middle of probably their most consistent level of play all season. September was a banner month for SFA as they stormed out to a 5-0 SLC record and at one point looked like they could challenge for the league’s top spot. If not for feisty UCA denying the ‘Jacks four match points in their game at the end of that month, who knows what might have happened. Instead, SFA lost to UCA in a heartbreaker and ever since that point has been radically inconsistent. After the UCA match, they went to Huntsville and played horrible. They then immediately got ripped by TAMUCC and I penned the article about still believing this year was different. After all, we going into the “soft” part of the schedule. But, then Southeastern Louisiana happened. And it happened twice. Bad in a non-conference game down in Houston vs. HBU. Good against Lamar and a non-conference match against North Texas. But then ridiculous at Northwestern State. Then, really good at home against the Islanders in the rematch with them and good at Oral Roberts. Then, yesterday at UCA where the team couldn’t even hit zero? Up. Down. Up. Down.

The good thing is: It’s been about a month (SELA, HBU) since SFA laid an egg twice in a row. We have been able to adjust after bad losses. The issue is that we haven’t been able to maintain any momentum after we’ve adjusted. And that is DEFINITELY the key word for SFA’s match up against the Demons: adjustments. SFA must do something to slow down the offense that Northwestern State’s front line can throw at you. In Natchitoches, we couldn’t block to save our lives. DiFrancesco and O’Connell destroyed us on the left. Neely did some damage, but they didn’t really need her that night because why go away from the primary side if the defense can’t stop it? I mean, Emily Sweet isn’t stupid… she could easily tell that we weren’t defending her primary targets, so just keep feeding it to the left until somebody throws down on you a couple times.

I mean.. Hanlan is one of the best liberos in the conference, but if you allow left side hitters to hit uncontested cross court shots over and over then even the best of back row players can’t dig them up. The X-Factor in this match for Northwestern State is Glynna Johnson. If she contributes on offense, then SFA may be in trouble. Why? Because, if we don’t at least slow down DiFrancesco and O’Connell on the left then we are going to lose. But even if we do slow them down, we’d have to make sure that Johnson and Neely don’t get 15 or 20 kills between them. Johnson didn’t do a lot in Natchitoches, but again, she didn’t have to. So, what I think the Demons have to do is to get everyone involved. If they do that, our block may not be able to adjust and they’ll take the match.

SFA has to get the offense out of Jill Ivy that they were getting a few weeks ago. After getting double figure kills from Ivy in 8 of 9 matches in the middle of the SLC slate, she’s topped out at 8 kills in her last four contests. She hadn’t hit negative all year until her errors have exceeded her kills twice in the last two weeks. Is she wearing down? I don’t think so, but it’s clear that we are going to need her typical offense as our base starting point. The ‘Jacks will also need Burns, Allen, Bates, Ivy – even Leslie if she is ready for game action in time– to be a big presence at the net.

Our offense always makes me worry. Ivy has to come up huge and in addition to that we have to get a stellar performance on offense by at least one of Burns or Bates, preferably both. One positive for SFA is that sometimes we can pull a wild card out of our hats….like Katzy Randall getting a double-double or Jacque Allen putting up really good offensive numbers (15 kills vs. Lamar, anyone?). Who knows? Cara Leslie had some great games for us early on. I don’t know how much she’d be ready to contribute or even how she would be used, but maybe she could provide a spark.

In the end, I just worry about how much more offense Northwestern State can generate from the left side than we can. I think we can match up with them in the middle. I think we are better on the right and I think the liberos are both stellar. SFA seems to have to walk too thin a tight rope to pull off a great match. We frequently can’t compensate for one of our better players having an off night. We can win, but the balance is so delicate.

Odds: (50/50 means a toss up): Northwestern State 55/45. If Ivy and Burns dominate, we win. If Sweet picks us apart by mixing up her distribution and NWLA gets contributions all across the front row, we lose. Either way, UCA lurks.

Match 4: 6:30 Friday
#8 Southeastern Louisiana vs. #1 Central Arkansas
Regular Season: UCA won both, but SELA took sets both times including pushing UCA to five in Conway.

You know how SELA was able to hang? Their middles. Courtney Donald absolutely ruled against UCA both times they played. Check it out.. in two matches against the Sugar Bears, Donald hit 34-5-63 (.460). Holy smokes, that is awesome! C’mon Southland Conference.. show some love for Courtney Donald. This girl has got to wind up an All-SLC pick, maybe even first team. Hey, SELA’s other middle, Veronica Turk did some damage against UCA as well. Is there a secret in there? Is that the way to attack them? I don’t know, but it goes without saying that if the Lady Lions are to have any chance of pulling off the upset, then Donald will have to shine.

This tournament is set up for UCA to win. I actually think they got a great draw in terms of the bracket. Sam Houston has the tougher side in my opinion. I just don’t see the winner of the SFA/NWLA match being able to maintain things against UCA on Saturday, especially if the SFA/NWLA game is well played on both sides and it goes to five sets. The Sugar Bears just have too many things going for them: possible player of year Jessica Hays, experience, good play in the middle in Taylor Hammonds and Alicia Dietrich – who by the way, complement each other really well in terms of skill sets. Then you’ve got the outstanding setter play of Marissa Collins. Finally, any one of Nagy, Brooks or Schnars might get hot and just add insult to injury while you are over there trying to slow down Hays. It’s just too much. Finally, factor in the home court advantage, which still exists even though we are playing at Ferris and not Prince.

UCA is beatable. Conference play has shown that. But, the only team to beat them in Conway is the team they will likely square off against in the final: Sam Houston. The Sugar Bears are 6-0 against the teams on their side of the bracket. They can’t go into cruise control mode, but if they play their game, the three teams on their side of the bracket will have to absolutely play their best game of the year in order to hang in. They have a ton of talent and I expect they will be energized by the home atmosphere. They’re the favorite and their Friday match shouldn’t slow them down much.

Odds: (50/50 means a toss up): Central Arkansas 90/10. First time they played: UCA 3-SELA TWO. Second time they played: UCA 3-SELA ONE. Third time they play: UCA 3 - You complete the pattern.

All in all, I still will go with Sam Houston and UCA in the final. ORU is my dark horse and my heart, of course, is with SFA. We’ve shown this year that we can compete with the top teams in the conference, so this is do-able. We can go in there and make a run. But to do so will require three straight matches of consistent play – we are going to have to elevate our game in order to accomplish that.

I think the bracket sets UCA up the title, and who could argue that they don’t deserve it? Sam Houston is a worthy regular season co-champion and as many seniors as they have on the roster, they will surely show up knowing this is their last shot.

To be really honest, I don’t like our draw in the bracket. I’d feel more comfortable on the other side of the bracket. But, if a team gets hot, then often times there is little that can stop them.

We’ve beaten Northwestern State. We are capable of beating them again. We pushed UCA to the brink, and it’s tough to beat a good team three times, so we have that going for us. We’ve beaten Sam Houston State. Now, all of that was in our own rowdy, loud gym. We’ve got to take that confidence with us on the bus to Conway and put all the pieces together three straight days. I can’t wait for Friday. Going to this tournament is one of my favorite weekends of the year. How about we have a little celebration Sunday night? Why not us?