I am going to get into a short discussion about Central Arkansas here in a minute because they deserve a ton of credit, but this post is going to begin and end with discussion about Stephen F. Austin Volleyball. It's time to write about the namesake.. this is SFA (accent on the "SFA") VolleyBlog and everyone knows I love Ladyjack Volleyball with a passion.
Now that a few hours have gone by, I've had a great steak at a quaint restaurant in downtown Conway and watched my Alma mater - the unranked Baylor Bears - just destroy #1 Kansas State in football, I've had a chance to digest all the volleyball I witnessed today. The main thing I keep going over in my brain is how proud I am of the 2012 squad. We were 14-18 last year, and I wrote early in the year that I thought 18-14 was going to be about right for us. Instead, we finish 22-12 and take major strides towards moving back into the upper crust of the conference.
You see, its one thing to be a Northwestern State - a team on the rise that has historically been down. It's another thing to be an Oral Roberts - new to the conference and winding up a mid-seed that got hot. But, we are SFA. The history of Southland Volleyball traces to us. Well, us and UTA, but they left and now they stink. There is a certain pride, a certain expectation - with Ladyjack Volleyball, and the last few years didn't sit well with the SFA faithful. We weren't as relevant in the conference as we were used to. The 2012 squad pointed us back in the right direction and although we will miss Burns and Hanlan, we have a lot to look forward to. So, yeah, I am really proud of our coaches and our players.
The matches this weekend were incredible. How could you be in that gym tonight and not get caught up in what you saw? I heard fans (both UCA and SFA) talking about how intense and how even the match was. Just great volleyball and I think both teams earned another dose of respect for each other. SFA had a six week spell where we played inconsistently. It looked like that might be our destiny again until halftime against the Demons. From that point on, SFA played with resolve. We had a down set or so tonight against UCA, but for the most part, we played quality volleyball. Our defense tonight was particularly impressive - both at the net and digging up balls. Jessica Hays had 17 kills and 19 digs, so it's not like she was quiet, but at no point did she take over the match. Many of her 50 attacks were touched, blocked or incredibly dug up by either Hanlan, Olson or Bates. Burns had 10 blocks and Hanlan finished her career in the libero jersey and had a match high 19 digs. I am so proud for them and the fact that they contributed so much in their final collegiate match.
Cara Leslie had spurts where she played particularly well and I am anxious to see what she can do as a sophomore. We needed her tonight and she stepped up. Jill (the Kill) Ivy was phenomenal. She had the UCA crowd sitting behind me in awe. I actually heard a couple of them say they hadn't seen someone hit a ball that hard at their defense all year long. I thought Holland was poised and ran a good game and Tori Bates had some smashing shots that had all of us excited for what she can do the next three years.
But in the end, it was two very good teams and we came out on the short end. It is right to give Central Arkansas their due. What they have done this year in pressure situations with comebacks and winning sets that are tight, and finding ways to force and/or win fifth sets is really impressive. When it gets to be crunch time, UCA seems to always handle themselves well. They do what good teams do.. they find a way. And they've found a way twice against us in two very emotional matches. In all, they beat us three times this year and that speaks for itself.
Also, let me address Alicia Dittrich and her her contributions tonight. She was great. Tonight she showed me - and others - why she led the league in hitting percentage. How can you not be impressed by 14-1-22 (.591)? She also played tremendous defense - the thing I have harped on with her position - she had 7 blocks. When people play like she did - even though I stand by my general thoughts and assessments about middle blockers and how I rated them during the entire year - despite that.. this is not a time for me to be defensive. It's a time for me to acknowledge what I saw... a great performance by one of the many fantastic players on the UCA squad. So, to all of UCA's main crew.. and especially to Dittrich because I have singled her out for other reasons, I tip my hat. You deserve your credit and I want to be "stand up" and give it to you.
This is a slightly different UCA team than in past years. I actually don't think they are as dominant as some other teams they've fielded. I think they actually have a few flaws - and blocking, in general, is one of them. But, one thing this Sugar Bear team seems to have in bushels is the ability to "finish" and find ways to win. Because of that, what they are doing in 2012 in some ways is more impressive than the teams that Chloe Smith played on.
Let me add this in here: Again, this isn't to be defensive, it's to be explanatory: I was questioned about my "2/3 defense, 1/3 offense" assessment for middle blockers on Friday. Since that time I have asked three additional people - two coaches and one other person who you'll have to trust me when I say has a history of being around the game - about those proportions. The three answers I got were "Defense is at least half of it" and "60/40 on the defensive end" and "I think your 2/3 is about right". It depends on a teams' system, and I have a small sample, I know, but I think my limited data taken from folks in the last 48 hours reinforces the proportional mix that has been utilized in statistical analyses. Let's move on...
How about Oral Roberts, people? Man, I am SUPER impressed with them right now. One great thing about tomorrow's final is I think it matches up the league's best offense against the league's best defense. Sadie Schaffer was terrific and I believe she is someone that can cause problems for UCA. Also, I am sorry that I will only get to see Sheina Fernandes play one year. That girl is a player. She didn't make a single attack error in that match against Sam Houston. Give me Hays as my 1st round pick and Fernandes as my 2nd rounder and I'll kick all ya'lls butts in Southland Conference Fantasy Volleyball.
I'll just let this be what it is: I said I didn't like our draw in the tournament when I wrote the first round preview article. You always want to win as many games as you can and finish as strong as you can.. but, I'll always believe that if we were on the other side of the bracket as the 6-seed, then the match you saw tonight would have been the championship. Now, UCA might still have won. But, I think we did fantastic given our side of the bracket.
I am so much more optimistic on the last day of the season now than I was even last year, and certainly more so than two years ago when we sat at home while others played in Huntsville. I am eager to see Granger next year along with the dimension that Connell and Crowder could bring. I foresee Olson at libero and Granger fighting for playing time, creating competition on the left with Bates and Randall. Hopefully, Kainer will develop more and push all three of them as well. Bates and Randall are already so good in terms of defense from the left side, that between the two of them and Granger maybe we will finally have enough offense to satisfy me from that position. I also think we will be deep and competitive at setter with even more quality choices on the roster.
Maybe one of this years' freshmen will pull a "Jill Ivy". Wow. Where would we be without her? She was a whole universe better this year than she was last year and in 2011 she was darn good! I got struck with something today... last year, I picked Texas State's RS Amari Deardorff as my Player of the Year. I think Jill is going to be better than her when it is all said and done.. and she might be as good as her right now! Oh man, if we get that kind of power on the left - what if Bates improves as much as Ivy did this year? - then we are gonna have a really strong offense in the next two years.
See, I am already there for 2013.
One last thing: Thank you - to everyone - that supported me in 2012 in even the smallest way. The blog became more well known than ever before. This space is getting recognized as more and more legitimate. I am blessed for that.
I want to say thank you for this: The last two days set all-time records for page views at www.sfavolleyblog.net. My Google Stats for today showed 483 page views. 483!!. I average about 80 to 100 views a day and the best two days in terms of traffic that I have ever had are the last two days. I broke a record Friday with near 300 views and then got close to 500 today. That's 800 page views during the tournament so far. I have more twitter followers than half of the official twitter feeds for the teams in the conference .
To all the league officials, coaches, players, fans and parents: Thanks. I promise to keep promoting the sport. Thank you for your spirited opinions - even when we disagree - we are talking "volleyball" - and that's positive to me. I've learned and been humbled by all of you.
There are two articles I have just about finished that I will share during late November or early December.
Hey, I get to watch a final tomorrow between two good teams.. not as a public address announcer.. not as a blogger.... but as a fan.
Nevertheless.. I'll still be wearing SFA purple. Always.