Monday, November 5, 2012

Sabrina Burns & Maddie Hanlan: Thank You

Tuesday night in Nacogdoches we will honor two very special people. We have two seniors on the team this year and both of these players have carved out quite a legacy for themselves in the lore of SFA Volleyball. This post is my token tribute to two fantastic volleyball players and even better people. I’ve been so blessed to be included approximately on the circumference of Ladyjack Volleyball’s inner circle. I’m not a full-fledged inner circle person, but I’m privy to a lot. I’m granted access pretty much where I want to be and I’ve had the opportunity to speak to and watch these players in both game and practice environments. I’ve had plenty of conversations with coaches, athletic department staff and others around the Southland conference about these two players. I can tell you without a moment of hesitation: Sabrina Burns and Madison Hanlan are universally positively regarded around the league.

This is true not just for their play on the court, but for their leadership and character. I only know them both in a tangential way – having short conversations with each, interviewing each from time to time, but as usual, I am a very careful observer. What I’ve seen is quality. I want to personally in this space thank both of them for their time, support and willingness to allow me to interview and chat with them through the years. But, thank you both primarily for the outstanding dedication you have given to SFA Volleyball and the University as a whole. You will be missed…dearly.

When Hanlan goes on the road, she almost always is introduced during the starting lineup as “Madison”. In Johnson Coliseum and Shelton Gym I have universally announced her as “Maddie”. Before her first game in an SFA uniform, I sent her a short message asking what name she’d prefer and she sent me a one line reply: “Maddie will be just fine”. And it’s been that way ever since.

I spent her first season at SFA in denial. I honestly couldn’t believe we were just going to hand the libero jersey over to a freshman right after we had had a veteran hold down that spot so well the year before. I spent the better half of the season defending the veteran on this blog while not trying to slight Hanlan’s efforts. Then one day, I was in the middle of a conversation with Debbie Humphreys and she was talking about the recruiting class of 2009. When she got to Hanlan, she made a statement that used the phrases “I think we got”, “libero” and “best in state” all together. I didn’t hear another word of that conversation. My mind drifted off thinking about the level of the praise that had just been showered down.

I figured that I better start watching (and learning) rather than looking backwards. It took me way too long, but by the end of Hanlan’s first year in purple I was convinced she was the right person for the job. I’ve never doubted this since. Many, many times I have written that back row defense is my favorite part of the game. I think I am just now realizing how spoiled I have been the last four years to be able to watch Hanlan play. More so than I probably realize, Hanlan’s play has more than likely continued to influence why I enjoy the digging and passing part of volleyball. If she weren’t so darn good at it, then it’s entirely possible that over the last four years my fascination with the skills it takes to play back row might have waned.

Oh, when we introduce her tomorrow night, you’ll hear all the numbers, so I won’t repeat them all here. All you really need to know is that she is one of only two Ladyjacks to ever record 2000 digs, ranking only behind All-American Stephanie Figgers on the school list. We don’t really need to discuss this point – it is plainly obvious – Hanlan is the 2nd best back row player ever to come to SFA. To average 4.60 digs per set for a four year career is unbelievably impressive, so yeah – I’ll remember all that digging ability.

But what else? I’ll remember the energy. Go through and look at the pictures of Hanlan on the SFA website. Many of them pose her in enthusiastic jumps after points won, or with a huge smile on her face. The best time to watch Maddie is when she is digging up some cross court kill attempt, but the second best time is right after we score. I’ll remember the interviews I did with her – she’d admit to you that she was nervous doing things like that. Hanlan’s not the one to seek out interviews or conversations that are going to be taped or broadcast. I’ll remember the intelligence. Hanlan won numerous accolades for her academic work at SFA and maintained a regal transcript in a very tough Biology major at SFA. Think about the dedication it takes to be an athlete and take courses that often involve lab work. No really. Stop and think about that. As a scientist myself, that hasn’t been lost on me.

I’ll remember the influence she’s had on others. Numerous girls – some who have already graduated – would routinely comment on her leadership and friendship. And yes, unfortunately, I’ll remember the times she’s been hurt, most recently the injury last year that ended her season prematurely. Those times won’t be my focus, but they stick in my head nonetheless. I’ll remember her parents and their dedication. How many times have I said that these volleyball parents never cease to amaze me. They set an incredible example of how to support your kid through thick and thin. Debbie and Scott Hanlan are prime examples of this.

Earlier in the year, while in Hanlan’s home city of Arlington, the family was having a get together after a match. Scott politely brought me the directions to their home and told me that he’d enjoy it if I could attend the dinner that night at their home. That invitation wasn’t lost on me either. C’mon think about it – that dinner is a team event. The girls were invited because they are on Maddie’s team. The support staff – trainers, managers, etc. – these folks are inner circle – they go where the team goes so it’s natural that they be invited to those kind of events. It’s really NOT natural for someone in my position to have that level of kindness extended to him. I couldn’t go since my Mom lives in the area and we had plans, but I was honored at the inclusiveness.

I know someone else will wear the libero jersey – maybe an OJ Olson or a Janet Hill or someone else. I get it. And those girls will surely carry on a great legacy of back row play at SFA. But, it is going to be really different not seeing Maddie back there. I know I am spoiled. Thanks for all the great plays, Maddie. I’ve probably reacted on the sidelines more to your efforts than any other player during the time you’ve been with us. I said this last week in a post, but just go ask the other staff at the media table how many times during a play I’ve leaned back in my chair and said “Oh, what a dig by Hanlan”. The kills and the blocks get announced, but it terms of “oooh’s and “ahhhh’s”, I think Hanlan’s spectacular ability to keep the ball off the floor has elicited just as much emotion with the mic off as the announcements made with the microphone open.

Speaking of blocks, let’s talk a little Sabrina Burns, shall we? Here’s the list of middle blockers on the Top 10 Career Blocks list at SFA that I have seen play (and seen a lot): Traci Rohde, Brittany Burton, MC Bottles, Jennifer Wilson, Kristy Rhodes… and Sabrina Burns. That’s quite a list. When I think back to when Burns first arrived on campus, it is really amazing that her place in SFA Volleyball history will be cemented among those players. All of those players have left a lasting personal impression on me and Burns is no different. She’ll finish no lower than 9th all time at SFA in total blocks and of course, that clearly places her among the best middle blockers to ever come to SFA.

There are some players that you look at and you wonder: what position does she play? One look at Sabrina Burns and you KNOW she’s a middle blocker. Tall, strong, long arms – yep, she’s got middle blocker written all over her. 367 attacks that have come her way have been rejected back to the other side. That’s good for 0.92 blocks per set across a four year career and whenever you start sniffing a block per set then you know you’ve got an elite defender.

I remember when the tide turned. I remember the very hour that Sabrina Burns made it known that we were going to be graced with one of the best we’d ever see: Rice Tournament. Sophomore Year. August 17, 2010. Match against Samford. It still ranks as her career high in blocks. That day, 11 balls got blocks and I swear about six of them were in a row at one point. I genuinely don’t like to laugh at our competition, but that day, Burns was so dominant that she had me literally laughing at the poor girls trying to get the ball past her. I remember at one point sitting there at the media table laughing to myself as the Samford sets continued to go to the right side hitter thinking: Are you serious? You are going to try to hit it over her again? And then.. a microsecond later.. boom.. the attack would fall right back in the face of whomever hit it. What fun. It was highly entertaining to see Samford fail so mightily at getting balls past Burns that day.

After that day, we all knew we had MC and Sabrina for two more years and then we’d have this year where Sabrina could shine as the primary blocker. It’s worked out pretty good, hasn’t it? Hey, all I’ve mentioned so far is defense, but what about these four numbers: 1.00, 1.42, 1.85, 2.42? Or, what about these: .068, .160, .245, .237? Those kill per set numbers and attack percentages by year show a generally increasing trend. That’s called improvement. Sabrina Burns is all about getting better.

Talk to anyone – I mean – anyone in the SFA Volleyball inner circle about Sabrina Burns and one phrase is guaranteed to come up: work ethic. I will bet you a large pizza in Conway at the SLC Tournament that when Humphreys gets her chance to talk about Burns during Senior Day ceremonies that she uses the term “work ethic” at some point in her description of Sabrina. How could one possibly outwork this girl? It’s not possible. Her dedication is unrivaled – I mean, possibly unmatched in the history of the program. Frankly, I think it’s amazing. Just like Hanlan, here we have a stellar student (valedictorian of her high school class) taking on a tough Accounting major, living a life of honor , humility and grace, while busting her tail - day in, day out - to get better at volleyball. Seriously, how can you not be impressed by Burns? If you’re not, then you probably have no soul.

What else will I remember? I’ll remember someone that was positive. She is genuinely excitable – she allows herself to experience joy and let it overflow in conversations with others. Think for a minute how rare that is. With Sabrina, what you see is what you get. She’s not faking this – she is truly that genuine. She’s fun to talk to because sometimes she is innocently aloof in the middle of conversations. Not really spaced out, she’s just so genuinely excitable that she becomes bubbly and energetic just because you can tell she enjoys things and events around her. I’ll remember her tendency to shake her head back and forth after a big block. I’ll remember how confident she spoke about the freshman middle blockers (Allen and Leslie) during a recent interview. I’ll remember her serve – so improved during the last year that she’s actually become one of the team’s best. Like Hanlan, I’ll remember how inclusive she has been - always thanking me for supporting Ladyjack Volleyball.

One major thing I’ll remember is what she said to me one of the first times I talked to her before her junior season. She was elated to tell me that over the summer of 2011 that she had grown – she was 6’3” now. I told her I’d be glad to change it on my roster cards that I bring to the matches to help me with starting lineups and announcements. I told her I’d play my part in trying to get it changed on the official website and sure enough after an email or two, we got her listed as 6’3” on the official website.

Like Hanlan, how could I ever think back on Burns and not pair her up with her family? Just as recently as last Friday night, I drove away from Natchitoches with two bags full of goodies baked and put together by Anita Burns. Anita and Tim Burns are dedication personified. Someone should tell their story to Michelin or Goodyear, ‘cause these people probably need new tires just after driving – literally all over the country to watch their daughter play volleyball. North Dakota? Check. Illinois? Check. The swamps of Louisiana? Of course. Wherever SFA Volleyball goes, one of – and often both – Anita and Tim Burns go. What’s insane to think about is that Sabrina has brothers that have played collegiate tennis and they get this kind of support as well.

Oh, and finally, we can’t forget the calls… you know the “Sasquatch” calls of “hooooooo” after a Burns block or kill. I seriously wish we had a Burns highlight film where there was an audio delay of about two seconds after each play so that the video would include the audio portion of “hoooooo” after every Burns’ moment. By my count there have over 1000 “hooooos” in honor of Burns during the years as her kills plus blocks exceed that number. My bet is that an occasional assist or dig – hey, she’s got a couple dozen of the former and over a 100 of the latter – have also been “hooooooo’d”.

Six foot three and on the front row. Five foot six and on the back row. What they do on the court couldn’t be more opposite. What they’ve meant to SFA Volleyball couldn’t be more similar:

Quality players who are quality people from quality families.

Thank you. I am more of a volleyball fan for having watched you play.