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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Live Chat During 2013 SLC Tourney Championship: UCA vs. NSU

 

Friday, November 22, 2013

List of Interviews for 2013 SLC Volleyball Tournament

You want coverage of the Southland Conference's Volleyball Athletes and Coaches?  SFA's Strongest Presence on the 'Net.... Never..... Rests....

Day 3 Interviews:  Tony Graystone (TAMUCC), Evie Grace Singleton (UCA), Heather Schnars (UCA), Marissa Collins (UCA), David McFatrich (UCA)

Day 2 Interviews: Keelie Arneson (NSU), Jessica Nagy & Shelbee Berringer (UCA), Stacey DiFrancesco (NSU), Scout Brooks (UCA), David McFatrich (UCA)

Day 1 Interviews: Ashley Elrod & Hugh Hernesman (NSU), Malina Sanchez (McNeese), Trent Herman (HBU), Stephanie Hernesman (NSU), Jill Ivy & OJ Olson (SFA), Heather Schnars & David McFatrich (UCA), Caiti Wenger (HBU), Tony Graystone (TAMUCC), Brianna Brink (TAMUCC)

Click Here to Be Taken to the Directory of Interviews Done During the 2013 SLC Volleyball Tournament

SLC Tournament: Day 2 Continuous Coverage

 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

SLC Tournament: Day 1 Continuous Coverage

Tournament officials and the Southland Conference office request that no live audio/video transmissions coincide with existing coverage provided by the Southland Digital Network and/or ESPN3.  Information about these live events can be found here: Southland Website Describing Their Coverage  I have agreed to comply with these requests and anticipate launching SFA VolleyBlog Radio during the 2014 season.

Coverage of the tournament on my site will consist of periodic interviews and commentary in a continuously open chat window.  This chat window will remain open all during the first day of the tournament and then a new window will open on Days 2 and 3.

Feel free to submit questions and comments even when I am "off-line". Once back courtside, I will post your comments and questions and do my best to address the issues you bring up.  All comments/posts/questions during matches will automatically print in the window.  I'll do my best to satisfy any interview requests from players/coaches you might have subject to their availability during the weekend.

Finally, thanks so much for the email and social media support!  Regular tweets during the Tourney will appear at @SFAVolleyBlog.


 

2013 Southland Conference Tournament Interviews

Links to Interviews conducted during the 2013 Southland Conference Tournament will appear below.  Once at the SoundCloud home page for SFA VolleyBlog, you will be able to access any interview done during the tournament or previous interview done this season.

Check back here often for updates:

SUNDAY INTERVIEWS:

Tony Graystone of TAMUCC Breaks Down the Championship Match Between UCA/NSU


Post-Match Comments by Evie Grace Singleton of UCA

Post-Match Comments by Heather Schnars of UCA

Post-Match Comments by Tourney MVP Marissa Collins of UCA

Post-Match Comments by Head Coach David McFatrich of UCA

SATURDAY INTERVIEWS:

Pre-Match Interview with Libero Keelie Arneson of NSU

Interview with UCA MB Jessica Nagy and L Shelbee Berringer

Post-Match Interview with NSU OH Stacey DiFrancesco

On Court Post-Match Comments By UCA OH Scout Brooks

On Court Post-Match Comments By UCA Head Coach David McFatrich


FRIDAY INTERVIEWS:

Interview with Freshman of the Year Ashley Elrod of NSU

Interview with McNeese State OH Malina Sanchez

Interview with HBU Head Coach Trent Herman

Post-Match Comments by NSU Coach Stephanie Hernesman

Pre-Match Interview with SFA's Jill Ivy and OJ Olson

Pre-Match Interview with UCA's Heather Schnars and Head Coach David McFatrich

Post-Match Comments By HBU MB Caiti Wenger and Head Coach Trent Herman

Post-Match Comments By TAMUCC Head Coach Tony Graystone

Post-Match Comments By TAMUCC OH Brianna Brink


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Reaction to Official All-SLC Teams

Congratulations to all the athletes honored today by the Southland Conference.  To be recognized by coaches and sports information directors is truly an honor that every one of those players will surely cherish.  It is tangible recognition for the hours and hours of dedication to our sport.  I love the fact that the lists are announced right before the tournament because it helps build intrigue and excitement.  It gives fans the chance to brag on their athletes and it gives people names to zero in on concerning their opponents.  It's really a highlight day of the year for me.  I love pouring over the list, visiting all the websites for all the teams to read what their schools said about them. It's wonderful... a great celebration of the sport.

Of the 18 names that appears on the official conference lists, all but two of them were part of the teams that I comprised and released last Monday.  So, as would be expected by people working diligently to process a ton of information, there was considerable overlap.  Many of the players who were ranked 7th thru 12th on the official lists were ranked slightly lower on mine.  I think virtually all of those choices are reasonable so to try and present arguments why a player like Wenger should be a little lower isn't profitable.  I can buy it.  The gap between the conference's mode of thinking and mine really aren't far apart in cases like that.

I do want to address (politely) a few differences between the lists and try and bring out a few talking points.  Before I start, I want to be quite clear and necessarily humble about one thing:  Coaches know best.  I consider it an honor to have access to most of them.  I look forward to continuing to earn some measure of respect and friendship, if those things can be made possible.  I respect each and every one of them.  They're people I need to continue to try and learn from.  They have a wiser insight that I can't have by virtue of what they do and see.

Secondly, I categorically reject the notion that All-Southland Conference teams are meant to honor those teams that finished high in the standings by default and design.  To do this is unquestionably biased and duplicative. As a scientist, I just can't do things that are by their very design biased and duplicative.  If accidental bias creeps in, then I will ask for forgiveness and seek to forgive it in others.  But to honor individual effort exclusively on reputation or standings is not an objective I can buy into.  Standings and championships honor teams.  All-SLC lists honor athletes who excelled in their current season.  The lists have a date attached to them and they should be constructed independently from year to year, regardless of reputations and statistics put up in past years.

This is, of course, a transition to a discussion about the two of 18 players on the official lists that did not make mine.  Both are from Northwestern State and I have a split belief about these two situations.

First, Ashley Elrod.  This is a wonderful choice for Freshman of the Year.  I was super impressed by her when I saw her play this year.  NSU just keeps cranking out these amazing freshman.  Remember, last year, I picked Caiti O'Connell as my Freshman of the Year and Courtney Moore from Lamar won it.  I didn't get any criticism.  Elrod is definitely someone I considered as my pick.  In the end, I just felt like the young blockers were the two that tipped the scale for me.  It was a tough call.  There were several other freshman that caught my attention and I listed them in my "just missed" section.  Elrod is a fine choice, but I don't think it was a slam dunk. I liked the blockers I listed along with the two Kayla's at Nicholls and the freshman setter at HBU just a tad more, but I won't waste any more ink on the issue.  Elrod is a nice choice.

But then.. we had a pick on reputation.  Stacey DiFrancesco is on the Honor Roll of Volleyball athletes published by the SLC in celebration of its 50th anniversary.  I did not overlook her.  I have sought her out to be one of the first interviews I ever did with a visiting player.  She is by all accounts a true team leader.  She is a credit to NSU and our conference.  When healthy and playing at her ability level, she is unquestionably one of the players you want to watch.  I picked her as my Freshman of the Year in 2011 and put her on my 2nd team last year.  She finished 7th in the official balloting last year which is virtually identical to where I ranked her.  No one can accuse me of having anything "against" DiFrancesco.  Quite the opposite.  She is one of my favorite players in the conference.  I made notes about her when I saw her in a high school All-Star tournament for crying out loud.

I'll say it and move on:  She made the first team this year on her reputation and reputation alone.  If you'll step back, look at it objectively, you'll have to acknowledge it.  Maybe begrudgingly, but you'll have to see it was a reputation vote that was misplaced.  The list has the year "2013" at the top of it.  2011 and 2012 don't count.  She got that credit, and it was very, very much deserved.  She will likely deserve it in 2014.

It appears as though my feel about middle blockers in 2013 that I expressed in the "Tuesday Update" section of my list is supported by the official lists.  It was a down year for MB's in the SLC.  Only two MB's ranked in the Top 18 of the official lists. I'd ask people to keep that in mind when reviewing my own list of teams.  Since I pick teams, I was locked in to picking 6 MB's among the top 21.  In a year like this, that makes my lists over accent middle blockers.  I think overall that picking actual teams is a better way to do this whole thing, but I have to acknowledge that for this year it caused me a problem.  It inflated the rankings of players like Mercier and Grant.

Either I have a totally different outlook on Sam Houston's Haley Neisler than about everyone else, or we have another situation where a player wasn't nominated.  I'll stay away from all that this year, because we don't need to have a "middle blocker sequence of posts for a week" like we did last year.  Let's just call it the Pancratz Effect and move on.  I'll probably learn more about the whole Neisler thing in a few days, so I should learn my lesson and shut up.

Finally, I do want to acknowledge one player that in retrospect I think I undervalued:  Jessica Nagy of UCA.  I think if I had it over to do again that I would move her up.  Maybe exchanging her with Whittaker of Lamar would have been a better choice.

Like I started in 2012, I keep a spreadsheet of statistics and notes and I use a weighting formula to help me rank players.  It's a very statistical approach. Of course, I do make adjustments based on conversations with coaches and my own observations.  It's not without feel or emotion.  But, I just didn't execute on my knowledge base with Nagy.  I won't change the lists, because I need to keep the process honest.  But, looking back on all my data analysis and notes and mental back-and-forth, I think I undervalued her.  I wish now I'd make different final decision on her spot.

I'm particularly happy for Marissa Collins and Keelie Arneson.  Both have waited.. and now both have their prestige.

Time to pack for Corpus Christi....

Monday, November 18, 2013

5th Annual SFA VolleyBlog.net All-Conference Teams

There will be an article that goes along with these selections, but to make absolutely sure that my lists are released before the official All-SLC Teams are announced by the conference, I am posting these late Monday night.

Check back here late Tuesday or early Wednesday for some discussion and my reasoning in a few cases. Like last year, I suspect I will periodically comment on this article over the next week.  I will indicate updates at the bottom of the post with boldface time stamps.  If the conference waits to release the official lists until Wednesday, then I will certainly comment at the bottom of this post on Tuesday night with some defense.  For now, I will only repeat a few phrases from years gone by about my selection process:

Recall,  I actually pick "teams". The conference does not do this. Often, the conference puts 12 girls on the first team, six girls on the 2nd team and has 9 girls listed as honorable mention for a total of 27 girls recognized. I will have three teams of seven for 21 girls honored and then a list of the players I considered for the list and "just missed".

As I have said each of the last four years: "There are seven starters each night for any particular team, so we will pick seven girls per team. Each team is required to have a a setter, libero, two middle blockers, two hitters and a seventh player that can either be MB or OH."

2013 SFA VolleyBlog.net All-Southland Conference Teams and Awards:

First Team:

OH Devaney Wells-Gibson, Sam Houston
OH Sara Pope, Oral Roberts
OH Heather Schnars, Central Arkansas
MB Jessica Pancratz, Oral Roberts
MB Haley Neisler, Sam Houston State
S Marissa Collins, Central Arkansas
L Keelie Arneson, Northwestern State

Second Team:

OH Malina Sanchez, McNeese
OH Briana Brink, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
OH Sierra Whittaker, Lamar
MB Lexi Mercier, Abilene Christian
MB Chelsea Grant, Lamar
S Tayler Gray, Sam Houston State
L OJ Olson, Stephen F. Austin

Third Team:

RS Jill Ivy, Stephen F. Austin
RS Jessica Nagy, Central Arkansas
OH Ivy Baresh, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
MB Jacque Allen, Stephen F. Austin
MB Caiti Wenger, Houston Baptist
S Logan Borque, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
L Bruna Silva, Oral Roberts

Just Missed:  RS Ashley Phelps, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, OH Kayla Burling, Nicholls, MB Justice Walker, SFA, MB Jovanna Poljasevic, Oral Roberts, S Laura Taylor, Oral Roberts, S Kayla Armer, HBU, L Shelbee Berringer, UCA

Player of the Year:  Marissa Collins, Central Arkansas
Setter of the Year:  Marissa Collins, Central Arkansas
Libero of the Year:  Keelie Arneson, Northwestern State
Newcomer of the Year: Sara Pope, Oral Roberts
Freshman of the Year:  Chelsea Grant, Lamar
Coach of the Year:  David McFatrich, Central Arkansas

EDIT:  Tuesday, 8:00 PM

A few tidbits on Tuesday night as we await the official lists from the conference which should be released tomorrow.  First, my Google Stats tell me that there were 185 independent views of this page within the first day of it being printed, so thanks very much for coming over here to check things out.

On Collins at UCA:  What more can we say?  She's the main reason why UCA looks like it may steam roll through the tournament and back into the NCAA's.  I thought she should have been Player of the Year last year, and I think she now has shown she actually deserved it two years in a row.  This year, I am more confident that she will actually win it when the official lists are published.  UCA lost Hammonds and Hays, and what they got was nice production from Petties and Gantar to pair up with Dittrich who returned and then Schnars made another leap forward offensively.  Couple all that with offensive mastermind McFatrich, a fast tempo, and voila.. they go undefeated and look poised to repeat as tournament champs.  The engine to it all, though.. is definitively Collins.  Schnars is quickly becoming one of my favorite hitters in the conference, though.  She and Pope are beasts.

On Arneson at NSU:  Dominating.  Just dominating.  Are you kidding, me?  Six time defensive player of the week and four of the last five?  Probably the most shocking think that could happen in the SLC voting is that Arneson not get Libero of the Year.  I've talked with enough people to be pretty certain she'll get it.

On Middle Blockers:  Is it just me or is this a slightly "weak" year for middle blockers in the Southland?  Everyone knows I think Pancratz walks on the moon, and Neisler deserves to be honored as well, but overall, I'm not sure the TOTAL level of play in the middle this year across the entire conferernce was as high as in some years past.  Talk to me about this in Corpus if you have a different opinion.  It just "feels" like a slightly down year at that position.  By the way, to be fair to Lexi Mercier at ACU - given that I wrote entire articles last year about Pancratz:  You can check that Mercier is listed on the NCAA's stat website as in the "reclassifying" schools section (bottom of rank page) and her numbers would currently place her at 11th in the NATION in blocks per set.  Grant and Mercier will be exciting to watch the next three years, but in the end, I gave the nod to the seniors.

On Malina Sanchez:  Legit.  This was the hardest "1st Team" decision I had to make.  I think she'll easily make the Top 12 list that the conference puts out and be an official first-team All-SLC pick.  To stay true to my system of picking "teams", I had only three spots for hitters.  If you are a McNeese fan and you want to swap out a player for Sanchez on my list, then I really can't fault you.  What an improvement in reducing attack errors she has made.  It is astonishing how much improvement from last year to this year she's made.

On Northwestern State:  They suffer on lists like this because of the fact they have a ton of players that are "above average".  Actually, I think their absence from the lists points to just how balanced and complete the OVERALL team is.  But, the point of All-SLC voting is NOT (or should NOT be) to reward teams.  We have more important things called trophy cases and standings for that.  No, the point of these type lists is to reward individuals who have performed at the highest level THIS YEAR as players.  NSU doesn't have a single pin hitter that ranks in the Top 9 among all pin hitters in the conference in total kills, kills per set or attack percentage .  Not a single one.  Glynna Johnson, NSU's best middle, ranks 7th in blocks per set among MB and 19th and 13th, respectively among MB's in kills per set and attack percentage.  NSU doesn't set their middles a ton. So, statistically, overall, mixing Johnson or Vanessa Coleman's ranks around in some proportion doesn't land them in the Top 9 at their positions in purely a statistical sense either.  Johnson was the first player that just missed my "just missed" list if that gives you some perspective.  Even if you bump them up a spot or two for intangibles or team effect, they wouldn't get in the top 6 at their position.  Think of NSU individually just on the cusp of basically every list at every position...

But, when you put Elrod, DiFrancesco, O'Connell, Neely, Johnson, Coleman all together, you get a very, very formidable set of players and a front row to be reckoned with.  This across the board "above average", but nowhere stellar list of players (at least in terms of 2013 numbers) creates a depth that is basically unrivaled.  This is actually the highest complement I can give the Demons.  They have no obvious weakness. All six of their attackers are good. Where NSU deserves praise is as a collective, and not really in terms of individual accolades.  Isn't that the praise that is most important?  Of course, NSU coaches, parents, and fans would probably enjoy more limelight on their players.  Truth be told, they'll all trade it for hoisting a trophy.. it's the only thing that really counts anyway.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Interview with NSU Libero Keelie Arnesman & Co-Head Coach Hugh Hernesman

The several hundred people who got a chance to witness yesterday's SFA/Northwestern State match really got a treat.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I wish SFA had been able to extend the level of play shown in the first set and a half throughout the entire match and pull out a big win on the final day of the regular season.  In the end, the balance of NSU that I have talked with so many people about shone through and the Demons were able to secure a 3-1 victory.

Many times I've commented to other fans, coaches, our players and anyone else that will listen that I enjoy back row defense as  much as any other part of the game.  Well, yesterday might very well have been one of the best combined efforts by two back rows I have ever seen.  The 5th Annual SFAVolleyBlog.net all-SLC teams are still in construction.  They will (as always) be released here before the conference makes official All-SLC announcements later this week.  I'll have say this, though.. liberos Keelie Arneson and OJ Olson put on an absolute clinic...just a lock down clinic... on digging up balls. You'd be hard pressed not to think we were watching the two best liberos in the conference. We're not talking about several dozen nice, right to target digs either... there were some balls absolutely blistered by hitters on both sides that the back rows dug up with perfection.

On the Northwestern State side, Arneson, Stacey DiFrancesco, Ashley Elrod and Emily Johnson all played wonderful defense.  For us, Olson and Janet Hill were absolute digging machines.  It was so awesome to see senior Amanda Rister put up huge dig numbers as well in her farewell match at Shelton Gym.

242.

242 digs total in four sets!  Olson set the SFA record for most digs EVER by a Ladyjack in a four set match.  Now, that is saying something considering that the All-American Stephanie Figgers lines our record book for most of the back row statistics.  Meanwhile, Arneson eclipsed her own record for the second time in becoming (again) NSU's all-time single season dig leader.  When it was all said and done, Olson had 43 digs and Arneson 42 digs in the four set defensive war.

On Friday, before NSU practiced in Shelton Gym, I got a chance to sit down and have quite an extensive talk with Arneson and Co-Head Coach Hugh Hernesman.  We cover a lot of ground in the interview you'll hear at the link below, so settle in and have a listen to both player and coach discuss the fantastic year that the Demons have had to this point.

Finally, I am working on a little surprise for my coverage of the Southland Conference tournament which starts this Friday.   You'll have to wait for an announcement later in the week.  As always, I am working on ways to cover SFA volleyball with more and more depth.  SFA will be looking to pull an upset against #1 seed Central Arkansas.  Northwestern State (#2) draws McNeese in their first round match up.

I'll be there all weekend covering every match and trying to talk with as many players and coaches as I can among all the excitement.  The Dugan Wellness Center in Corpus Christi is one of facilities in the Southland I haven't been to before, so I am anxious to get to the island and see how this weekend goes.

Look for the next article to be my All-Conference picks post (late Monday or early Tuesday) and then a tournament preview article in the middle of the week.  I'll get to Corpus Christi quite late on Thursday night, but I'll be fired up and ready to go with coverage Friday morning.  SFA plays at 4:00 PM.

Click Here to listen to the interview with Keelie Arneson and Hugh Hernesman

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Interview with Oral Roberts MB Jessica Pancratz and OH Sara Pope

Well, I did it.  I went a year (basically) without bringing up the name Jessica Pancratz on this website.  Readers will remember that last year I was utterly shocked when the Oral Roberts middle blocker didn't show up on All-Conference lists.  It turns out there was more to that story that I originally knew and in all honesty more than is intended for me to know.  I get that.  We rarely know exactly why things like that happen.  Still, the absurdity of her being left off the lists became a theme for me last November.  In fact, I've written several times that I think the way the Southland Conference structures its balloting for postseason honors is flawed.  Pancratz's situation aside, I think the voters last year did an excellent job.  I don't have a problem with the voting in general - instead, I have a problem with the fact that the ballot is constrained artificially by the conference.

For anyone who cares to rehash the entire "Pancratz Fiasco of 2012", you can go back and read the string of posts here for my original picks, and then here for the original post defending Pancratz and finally here for sounding off about the Southland balloting protocol

We all have certain players that aren't on our "home" teams that we appreciate watching and Pancratz has been one of those players for me the past two years.  She was a natural person to try and interview because of the posts from 2012.  Several people have asked if I had ever talked with her directly...assuming that she was keenly aware of all my lobbying.  I can honestly say yesterday was the first time I have ever spoken to her and she was not aware of my writing last year.  Maybe that was a good thing.

Nevertheless, it is actually refreshing to hear her honesty in this interview as she reflects on the honor missed.  As much as I enjoyed finally getting a chance to talk to her, I'll have to admit the conversation caught me off guard a few times.  The honesty in her answers reflected just how much these type honors can mean to athletes.  It just reinforced to me that the voting system is flawed no matter how well the research is done.  The whole balloting structure...well... as Jessica puts it in this interview..."sucks".

The other great thing about this chat is that it also showcases Sara Pope.  This newcomer-of-the-year candidate was the America East Player of the Year at Albany (NY) last year.  From the greater Tulsa area, Sara transferred to ORU prior to this season and has instantly made her mark on both the ORU offense and the Southland Conference in general.  Before the match I was commenting to a few folks that ORU may be the only collegiate team that has TWO former MVP's of other conferences on their current squad.  Libero Bruna Silva was the Player of the Year (Defense) in the Summit League before ORU joined our conference.

While this is Pancratz' senior season, Pope has one more at ORU.  As good as she's been this year it is kind of scary to imagine her taking another step forward.  If that happens, then she may be a candidate for Player of the Year honors in our conference in 2014.

ORU looks locked in to the 4 vs. 5 matchup in the Southland Tournament next week.  If that happens, then if UCA knocks off the #8 seed, we might see a repeat of last years' final in the semifinals this year.

I anticipate expanding my coverage of the conference tournament this year over and above what I have been able to do in the past.  This is often a time of year where I post frequently, so check back often.   Once we get to Corpus Christi, I anticipate scheduling multiple (sit down) interviews per day as well as on-the-spot interviews after matches.

Definitely plan to use www.sfavolleyblog.net as one of your primary SLC Tournament resources along with the conference and tournament websites.

Click Here to Listen to the Interview with Jessica Pancratz and Sara Pope

Monday, November 11, 2013

Lucky 7 ?

With one week to go in the Southland Conference regular season, the time for SFA to create a sense of hope is right now.  The 2013 season has largely been one of ups and downs with very little momentum created during the last few months.  “All is well that ends well”, they say, so let’s hope SFA can convince themselves and convince their fans that they are capable of taking down some teams with better records on paper.  If so, then there is still the chance we can head to Corpus Christi  believing that we can be the “hot” team and make a run.

So, let’s take a look at what remains for SFA and other teams that figure to have low-end seeds in the 2013 Southland Conference Tourney.  My bet is that we are headed for the #7 seed, which, as I’ll argue below, may not be too bad a spot to be in.  Before we get started, I should make clear what I think many SFA fans realize.  We haven’t locked up a spot in the tournament yet.  However, going into Tuesday’s match with Oral Roberts, our magic number is one.  One SFA win or one loss by either Lamar or McNeese does the trick.

Let’s break this down:

McNeese (7-9)
Remaining: HBU (Home), Nicholls (Away)

McNeese owns the tiebreaker with Lamar by virtue of beating the Cardinals 3-1 both times they played.  So, McNeese controls their own destiny.  If they win out and Lamar wins both of their matches, then McNeese would have the tie break over Lamar.  Both McNeese and Lamar winning both games and SFA losing both games would knock SFA out of the tournament and give the Cowgirls the #7 seed.  There is a way that McNeese could win one game and still not get in.  If Lamar wins both of their games, then Lamar would be 9-9, McNeese would be 8-10 with a win and a loss, then they get bumped out by SFA who at worst would also be 8-10, but we own the tiebreak against them.  This is a scenario that wouldn’t be advantageous for SFA given it is one of the few scenarios that gets us the #8 seed.

I’m thinking McNeese splits their last two and finishes 8-10.  However, if McNeese beats HBU on Tuesday, this could be bad news for SFA. It forces us to win in order to get the #7 seed if McNeese goes ahead and beats Nicholls too (which is likely).  Besides SFA winning, the best thing that could happen to us is HBU beating McNeese.

Lamar (7-9)
Remaining: TAMUCC (Away), HBU (Away)

Lamar is in a tough spot because they don’t own the tiebreak against either SFA or McNeese.  They are the only team that HAS to win in order to make the tournament. As of right now, they are on the outside looking in.  They need to pick up at least one win and then hope McNeese loses both games.  That would get them in the tournament as the #8 seed.  Even if SFA lost both games in this scenario, SFA would still get the #7 seed since SFA and Lamar would be 8-10 and McNeese would be 7-11.

Things really don’t look all that good for Lamar.  McNeese has a relatively comfortable match up with Nicholls on the last day of the season.  Lamar will be underdogs at TAMUCC, so there is a decent chance that both McNeese and Lamar are 7-10 going into their last game of the season.  If this is true, then SFA is automatically in no matter whether they beat ORU tomorrow or not and then Lamar would need to beat HBU and have Nicholls upset McNeese.  The Cowgirls recently swept Nicholls at home.

I’m thinking Lamar loses both and finishes 7-11 and doesn’t make the tournament.

SFA (8-8)
Remaining:  ORU (Home), Northwestern State (Home)

The ‘Jacks, believe it or not, are actually in a pretty good spot because of owning tiebreakers.  As mentioned earlier, SFA doesn’t even have to win a game in order to make it into the tournament.  If SFA finishes 8-10 and at both McNeese and Lamar also finish 8-10, then not only does SFA make it in the tournament, they avoid the #8 seed due to the tiebreak.  Of course, if SFA wins at least one game this week, then they are automatically in even if McNeese and Lamar win out.  So, we have a bit of an easy route to make it to the tournament by virtue of being one full game ahead of McNeese and Lamar in the standings AND owning the tie break against both.

I think SFA will finish in the 7-hole no matter what.  This might be a lucky spot.  It gets us out of a first round match up with UCA and gets us on the opposite side of the bracket from them.

HBU (8-7) has three games left: at McNeese and home for Sam Houston and Lamar.  To me that looks like two wins and a loss to finish at 10-8.  If that happens, then even if SFA wins out this week we would STILL fall to the #7 seed since HBU owns the tie break against us.  So, there are just a whole lot of scenarios that point to us falling into that seventh slot.

Now, if HBU only won one game and SFA won both.. we would leap frog them into the #6 slot.  We could also get the #6 seed if HBU lost all three and we won one game this week.

So, if it is most likely that SFA is the #7 seed, then who is our most likely first round opponent next week?

Northwestern State (14-2) plays UCA at home and then comes to Nacogdoches.  They own the tie break with Oral Roberts.

Sam Houston (13-3) is on the road against HBU and TAMUCC.  They own the tie break with the Demons.

Oral Roberts (11-4) plays us tomorrow, but then finishes with two relatively easy games at home against Southeastern Louisiana and New Orleans.  They own the tiebreak with SHSU.  So, ORU can’t finish in the #2 slot.  Even if they win out, they’d be 14-4 and Northwestern State at worst would be 14-4 and ORU would lose the slot on the tie break.

So, either the Demons or Bearkats will be the #2 seed. 

That SHSU/TAMUCC game on the last day of the season is very, very interesting.  Suppose UCA beats Northwestern State.  Then SHSU is in control of their fate at the #2 seed on the last day of the season if they beat HBU tomorrow.

If the ‘Jacks can prove that they can play with Top 4 seeds Oral Roberts and Northwestern State this week, then enough momentum could be gained to be in the same position as we were last year.  Remember, we beat the Demons in the first round in last year’s tourney.  I’ll be honest:  I would rather play Sam Houston in the first round than Northwestern State.  I just really don’t think we match up well with the Demons… too many offensive weapons.  If Wells-Gibson had an off day or we could keep her in check, then I don’t think Sam Houston is all that deep.  Don’t get me wrong.. both are great teams.  Remember, Sam Houston SWEPT us.  Still, if there is a team that is a little overrated going into the tourney, I think it is Sam Houston.  I don’t see them making the final, but we’ve all known that I have had to eat crow before.

Here is my pick for how things finish up:

#8 McNeese vs. #1 UCA
#5 Texas A&M Corpus-Christi vs. #4 Oral Roberts

#7 SFA vs. #2 Sam Houston
#6 HBU vs. #3 Northwestern State

The key game besides our own is HBU/McNeese  If McNeese wins tomorrow and SFA loses to ORU, then the chance we get the #8 seed goes up quite a bit. It really puts the heat on us to beat Northwestern State on the last day of the season.  That’s something I think we are capable of, but I like our chances better against ORU than against NWLA.

Honestly, if the bracket falls the way I predict, I am OK with that.  That’s not an easy road, but I think we’d be in the weak side of the bracket and thus would have the best chance at pulling some upsets.

As always, I’ll be covering the SLC Tourney in full force.. blogging all three days I am there.  There will be live chats for all SFA matches and live blogging updates for every game.  Also, as I’ve done the last two years, there will be constant interviews with as many teams and players as I can get access to.  It is an exciting time of the year, there is still a glimmer of hope that SFA will get a little steam built up behind them and then put a scare into Sam Houston or Northwestern State in the first round.


Axe’ Em ‘Jacks!   

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Road Kill

With two weeks left on the Southland Conference regular season schedule, it is safe to say that SFA’s 14-13 overall record, and especially the 6-8 mark in SLC play qualifies as a disappointment.  Sure, four straight victories over the next two weeks could get us into the tournament and avoid the #8 seed.  It would also qualify as an emotional boost and establish some confidence for the first round match up.  So, all is not lost as of yet because there is still meaningful volleyball to be played.  Yet, to this point, things haven’t gone according to script.

Then again, do we have a script?  Of the seasons in recent memory there are some in which we have taken a while to establish a regular set of starters and substitution patterns.  This season qualifies as different.  There were no regular starters or rotation patterns.  Even if we play the exact same group over the last two weeks, that will hardly count as a pattern given the season is in its third month.

It is hard to know what is more inconsistent:  the overall quality of play by this years’ squad or the lineups and offensive sets that we run out there against our opponents.  Of course, the two are correlated in some way.  Still, the combinations are dizzying.  One setter offense?  Two setter offense?  Six rotation player?  Three rotation player?  On the bench?  From week to week no one knows.   Need replaced during the match?  Will that player return or sit the remainder of today?  That’s up in the air.

Now, all of the above could be taken as a criticism as to how we’ve utilized our personnel.  It could be taken to be a criticism of coaching decisions.  Maybe there are others – possibly myself included – that would have made fewer concoctions out of the lineup than what our coaching staff has, but still, it is hard to pin this years’ lack of consistent performance entirely on role changes.  Coach Humphreys and crew can never be accused of being unwilling to try something new.  I mean, I have never seen so many attempts at trying to find the magic combination as I’ve witnessed this year.  To no avail.  It hasn’t happened.

I like roles.  I think players like roles.  I find it hard to believe that players can prepare and be at their best among constant change.  Then again, this is collegiate athletics.  Adaptation is key.  Be versatile or sit on the pine.  I can understand that.  Flexibility is required when things don’t naturally settle into a working pattern. Still, it is mind blowing just how many changes have been made. Playing time and roles are largely unstable.

I haven’t mentioned one factor yet that others might instantly have thrown into the ring:  injuries.  Sure, we’ve had injuries.  Injuries affect your lineup and they certainly require that roles be fluid.  However, maybe I am in the minority here:  I don’t think our injuries a) cost us more than maybe one win and b) aren’t really all that more than what other teams have experienced.  Maybe I am wrong.  I didn’t go through every roster and check the exact time that players have been out.  However, as I’ve studied the teams we are about to play I’ve commonly come across stories of injuries.  As I’ve talked to coaches before and after matches they all tell me stories of girls being sick, hurt, having to leave the team, etc.  It’s sports.  People get hurt.

No, I don’t think injuries are/were the most important factor in our underwhelming play so far in 2013.  I think they were a factor, but I think they were secondary, if not tertiary in terms of problems.  Culprit #1?  Net defense.  We allow way too many one-one-one attacks at the net.  We don’t consistently close blocks and far too often are caught out of position giving opposing setters the chance to pick attackers that create isolation attacks repeatedly on us at the net.  Simply put, we have statistical leaders in blocks, but overall… I don’t think we are a good blocking team.  And there IS a difference between statistically generating blocks and being a good blocking team.  In fact, a lot of being a good blocking team may very well never translate to actual blocks.  An attack that is slowed down – even barely touched at the net – is more likely to be dug (and dug to target) than forcing a back row player to slow down a full powered swing.  Secondly, and maybe more importantly, a closed block forces attackers to choose alternate lanes to swing into.  These alternate lanes are attackers secondary choices and they can be more easily read by back row defenders.  When only one lane is open, then that lane can be better anticipated by the back row player.

We don’t do those two things:  1) we don’t consistently touch balls at the net to help out the dig and 2) we don’t take away alleys for hitters so that balls can be funneled down one lane.

The result:  Our opponents score more easily than we would prefer.

Now, I said injuries were an issue, but maybe issue #3.  So, what about Issue #2?  Well, if net defense is at the top of the “needs improvement” list, then next in line is the same darn thing I’ve written about for season after season:  It helps (tremendously) if you have one go-to-girl that can score from anywhere on the court and is on the court at all times.  Middle blockers don’t play all the way around.  Plus, middle blockers are supposed to “block”. At least, their title suggests so. To continue, if your blockers are having trouble slowing down opposing offenses, then splitting their attention by having them carry a heavy offensive responsibility is only further increasing the chance that they won’t consistently contribute on both sides of the ball.  No, the players that should be your go-to six rotation players are definitively outside hitters.

Earlier in the year, I argued for Kaitlyn Granger to be “left alone” and just put out there for six rotations.  Recently, this is exactly how she’s been used and I like that.  I just think she is the kind of player that will play her best if she is in the game consistently, not playing then sitting, then playing then sitting.  However, the suggestion that Granger play six-rotations was not with the thought that she would be the go-to on offense.  The go-to’s are clearly Ivy and Bates.  One of them, in my mind, should ALWAYS play six rotations.  Here is where the injuries put a snarl into the plan… maybe.

Ivy’s knee and Bates’ ankle at times this year have kept them out of the lineup and I understand that each needed to be gradually worked back into playing shape and build up stamina and confidence in their health.  But at some point, once they’ve proven that they can play, then you gotta have one of them out there at all times.  Otherwise, you don’t have that go-to on the floor to get you out of a funky rotation or really even to create a diversion for the opponent.

Its’ nice to have three solid offensive choices on the floor as much as often to force the defense to respect the entire net.   Typically, SFA has two players on the floor that I think the defense has to worry about and unfortunately, in some rotations, at some points in the year, we have had one decent offensive option on the floor in our weakest rotations.

Offense actually has become  MORE of a problem as the year has progressed.  SFA is hitting .199 as a team – which is actually 40 points higher than last year.  However, we have hit .174 in conference matches - meaning that we were having more attacking success earlier in the year as opposed to the last month or so. 

Look back over the last months’ games and identify the one where you think SFA had its best offensive showing.  If you don’t pick the home game against Lamar, then it has to be a candidate.  That match was against a decent opponent and we were in control for virtually the entire afternoon.  The net defense was better that day and in terms of actually blocks, we basically doubled the Cardinals up. 

The offense was sharp and how did we do it?  Bates (20 kills, .500) and Ivy (11 kills, .375) led the way and Granger did what I mentioned above.  She was a complimentary piece – limiting her errors, which she has to do – and came within one kill and one dig of a double double.  The offense was led by the outside/right side hitters and the middles blocked balls.  Plus, Madison Martin played out of her mind on the back row, digging up things left and right.  Aside:  The girl can play.. no doubt… I love me some Madison Martin, but someone hitting negative .046 isn’t an attacker.  Her role is as a back row defender and passer and she’s damn good at it.  However, giving her 20-25 swings a night just shouldn’t be in the game plan.

So, not enough net defense and no consistent six-rotation scorer than can bail you out of a tough run.  That’s my top two in terms of why we are sitting at .500 and on the bubble of the tournament.  Everyone knows we still have a shot.  I mean, c’mon, suppose we beat both SELA and UNO and even split at home between ORU and Northwestern St.  That’d be 9-9 in SLC play, maybe we’d tie with someone we had the breaker on and earn the #7 seed.  That’s not terrible, because then we would be opposite UCA in the bracket and play someone in the first and second round that we could have complete confidence against!  It can be done!

However, to finish this up and make what I think is my overall point… consider this “leaderboard”.  The statistic that I think encapsulates my point here is looking at the DIFFERENCE between attack percentage and opponent attack percentage.  You want this to be positive.  If it is negative then your opponents are swinging at a higher percentage than you.  Now, if this is negative AND your own attack percentage is below league average, then that’d be a double whammy… and that’s precisely SFA’s situation.

CONFERENCE ONLY (ATTACK % - OPPONENT ATTACK %)

1. UCA            .151
2. ORU            .094
T3. SHSU       .057
T3. NWLA       .057
5. TAMUCC    .039
6. Lamar          .016
7. McNeese    .009
8. HBU            -.007
9. UIW             -.032
T10. ACU        -.044
T10. SELA      -.044
12. SFA           -.047
13. NICH         -.072
14. UNO          -.201

The top five teams in the conference are also the five that top this list.  The teams we are fighting with for a tournament spot (Lamar, McNeese, HBU) are all at basically zero on that list.  Draw your own final conclusion.  I think I’ve made a sufficient case.

I’ve already written once this season about opposing hitters feasting on us.  If you are looking for a tell-tale sign as to whether we have anything left in the tank for the last three weeks, don’t talk about injuries. 

Instead, how about we ride our two prize horses named Ivy and Bates as much as we can and everyone else on the front row start slowing some opposing attacks down on a consistent basis?


Step Up. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Interview with UCA Setter Marissa Collins

If you have even a slight pulse on the Southland Conference volleyball scene then the subject of this interview is no stranger to you.  Marissa Collins was third in the nation in assists per set last year and is about to become Central Arkansas' all-time leader in total assists.  She is arguably one of the best setters to ever play in this conference and her accolades continue to pile up year after year after year.

During the last few seasons, a lot of attention has been placed on the Sugar Bears attackers such as wonderchild Chloe Smith and more recently, Jessica Hays.  Rightfully so.  In addition, anyone who has read here over the years has witnessed many a word gush from this website about those two... especially Hays - one of my favorite players of all-time.  However, Collins has been the one dishing out all those beautiful sets for the last four years.  She's won Freshman of the Year, Setter of the Year (twice) and been All-SLC as well as All-SLC Tournament.  More humbly, she was my pick last year here at the blog for Player of the Year.

Last year, when UCA beat ORU in the SLC final, I headed down into the fray trying to capture an interview here or there.  I kept thinking.. just find Collins and Hays.. just find Collins and Hays.  I did get a chance to talk to Jessica Hays and head coach David McFatrich, but among all the pandemonium on the floor with friends and relatives, I just simply missed Collins among the celebration.  Not to mention I was in the "wrong shade" of purple, so I wasn't exactly a known entity* among all the familiar faces.

If there was a person I was hoping to interview this year, Marissa Collins was probably it. If UCA manages to successfully replace her production after the 2013 campaign, then the group from Conway will still be the ones with the target on their back.

I know at least a few folks around the conference have said that they expected UCA to still be good after Smith, Curl, Hammonds, and Hays all left in the last few years....but they didn't expect them to still be sitting this pretty.  The one constant amidst all that change is....well... you know by now:

Click Here to listen to the interview with Marissa Collins

*regarding my associations with teams around the conference...

I can't stress this enough so I will write it again here.  The league has been incredibly receptive to the first five years of this blog.  This post is about Central Arkansas and so I should openly thank David McFatrich for always being so cordial and inclusive.  We've agreed, we've disagreed, but in the end UCA has been a collegial supporter of my efforts.  For that I am very, very blessed.  The same could be said for coaches, players & parents at Sam Houston, Lamar, Northwestern State, McNeese, TAMUCC, and others. I still feel like I have many relationships to forge.  That being said, my credibility is entirely based on continuing to learn the game, be open to criticism, and stay out of people's way when they have a job to do. 

Finally, the coaches, players, parents and athletic staff at SFA have my complete dedication. I am in debt to all those at SFA that have patiently taught me and allowed me to be a part of this program. I'll talk volleyball with a fence post, so the number of times I have tired people out in discussions is probably mounting.  Thanks for putting up with my - at times - unconstrained enthusiasm.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

LIVE CHAT: SFA v. HBU

 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Defending What You Don't Have?

OK, you knew it was eventually coming.  Here we have a statistics based post on the eve of travelling to Houston to see if SFA can cure its road woes against the Huskies of HBU.  I held off this long, but you knew the numbers were going to get used to make a few points at some point during the year.

While watching matches at home, attending some of the recent road matches and following others on the Internet, I’ve noticed something that I decided to check in the box scores.  Sure enough, my eyes weren’t deceiving me: 

The conference’s outside hitters feast on our defense.

SFA is allowing other teams’ outside hitters to put up big numbers night after night after night.  So, that leads me not to an accusation, just a hypotheses that I can’t fully test:  If you are a team that runs an offense focused on the right and the middle, does this leave you partially inept to defend the left? 

I know you can practice for specific opponents based on their offensive strengths.  But, if their offensive strengths are different than yours.. then does that leave you at a partial disadvantage to actually execute because what you see in the game couldn’t be replicated as strong as in practice?

You can’t defend what you don’t have?  Maybe my hypothesis is false.  I am very willing to believe it is.  But, whether my hypothesis is true or not doesn’t change the original fact I presented:

The conference’s outside hitters feast on our defense.

So far, SFA has played 8 conference matches and six times an opposing outside hitter has put up double digit kills while hitting over .350.  In fact, this has occurred six conference matches in a row!  Focus on that for a minute. 

Each of the last six SLC matches an opposing OH has hit .350 against us with 10+ kills:

Brink, TAMUCC, 18-5-31 (.419)
Cagnina, McNeese, 16-2-29 (.483)
Schnars, UCA, 16-1-21 (.714)
Pope, ORU, 19-6-36 (.361)
Elrod, NWLA, 19-2-44 (.386)
Thomas, SLU, 11-2-25 (.360)

Add up the attack errors.  You get 18.  This almost hurts to type:  The kill leading OH for our opposition is averaging only three attack errors PER MATCH in the last 6 conference matches.  You simply must force the main outside hitter on the opposing team into more than three attack errors in a match to have any chance of containing them. 

If you start digging deeper, it doesn’t get any prettier.  The two matches that are not reflected in that list above are our wins against Nicholls and New Orleans.  Well, Nicholls had TWO outside hitters put up 19 kills against us (neither hit >.350), and UNO is the worst team in the league.

So far, during conference play we have had an outsider hitter reach double digit kills and hit over .350 just once (barely).  That was Tori Bates against SLU (10-3-20, .350).  Now, you can pick on me for choosing “10 kills” and “.350 hitting percentage” rather arbitrarily, but go change your criteria to anything similar and you will come to the same conclusion:  We are not stopping the main outside hitters in the conference from putting up big numbers.

Bates’ 10-kill performance against SLU is the only time ALL YEAR an SFA left side attacker has 10+ kills while hitting over .350.  Against us, this has happened six times in conference and five times out of conference.  That’s 11 total times vs. 1.

To be fair, yes, our middle blockers have put up 10 kills while hitting over .350 more than our opponents (9 times for us, 4 times for opponents).  I am certainly aware that Jill Ivy being hurt limits our offense.  Of course, that obvious.  But, not having her defense in the matches can’t be the only explanation for opposing outside hitters raking us over the coals.

We need more offense and we need to start shutting opposing pin hitters down.. or at least slow them down.  We have half of the conference schedule left to fix some things, but there is no shortage of areas that could improve.  Let’s hope we do just that as well as get everyone back healthy as soon as possible

Let me leave you with one thought:

If your BLOCKERS are the ones putting up the vast majority of stellar offensive nights, and the opponents’ outside HITTERS aren’t getting defended with any consistency….


Isn’t that a little backwards?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Interview with McNeese Head Coach Terry Gamble

Today we continue talking to folks from around the Southland Conference and this feature is on McNeese head coach Terry Gamble.  SLC Volleyball fans not familiar with Coach Gamble's resume need to go poke around on McNeese's website and look at all the accolades he's racked up through the years in the junior college ranks.

As I've talked with other players and coaches around the league, Coach Gamble's name has come up a couple of times as someone who would make for a great chat.  Sure enough, we had a blast talking about the system of volleyball he likes to employ, how important it has been to have all of his own recruits in house now, how young his current squad is as well as other facets of what it takes to build a successful volleyball program.

Hit the link below to take a listen to the conversation with Coach Gamble.  All of us here in Nacogdoches could clearly tell that the McNeese squad is much improved in 2013.  The match last Saturday truly could have fallen on either side of the ledger.  Hopefully, we'll get to catch up with the Cowgirls and Coach Gamble again in Corpus Christi in November.

Let me take the time here in this space to say that we will have a live chat room going here at the blog for this Saturday's match in Houston against HBU.  I'll look to do another interview while in H-town and post that here some time next week.  During this interview, you'll here me allude to a piece I wrote last year on freshman in the SLC .  It is about time to follow up on that article with this years' impact Freshman and see whether or not those identified last year have followed up well on their first year.  A post in that direction is in the works for later this week.

The 'Jacks leave for Corpus Christi for the first time this year early Wednesday morning.   A tough road test against the Islanders awaits.  Make sure you listen to the interview with Coach Gamble, read up on this week's mid-week post and then join me for a live chat on Saturday at 1 PM when SFA takes on the Huskies of HBU.

Axe' Em!

Click Here to listen to the Interview w/ McNeese Head Coach Terry Gamble

Friday, October 11, 2013

It's Not Just One Thing

Recent days haven’t been all that kind to Ladyjack Volleyball.  Despite last night’s five set win against Nicholls State, there is still a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the next few weeks of the Southland Conference slate.  It would be easy to talk about if there were just one thing to fix.  Problem is: our struggles of late aren’t really in one dimension.  It’s not just one thing.



Now, this isn’t a doom and gloom post.  In fact, you’ll see clearly that I’ll end with a positive.  But as long as we are being objective, let’s look at three very basic, but I claim, very defensible statements:

1) The offense is struggling.

Since SLC play began, left side attackers have had more matches where they hit under .100 than over.  Additionally, we have shifted in and out of one vs. two setter offenses almost on a match by match basis.  Serve receive – while not entirely poor, seems to have at least one set per match were it goes in the toilet.  The team as a whole is hitting just .153 over the last five matches.  The fraction of the team not named Les Jackson is hitting just .131 over that time span.  As a way of putting those two numbers in context, the best opponent hitting percentage in the league is .155.  So, as of late, we are making all of our opponents appear as though they are at the top of the defensive charts even though we know that in some cases they are not.

2) The defense is struggling.

We don’t consistently close blocks.  Teams get way to many one-on-one looks against us at the net and we routinely do not give our back row players a legitimate chance at consistently making plays.  SFA is next-to-last in the Southland Conference in opponent hitting percentage at .222.  In the last five matches, our opponents have hit a whopping .278 against us – a number that you just simply cannot overcome.  To put that number in perspective, Marquette is currently hitting .278 as a team and they are 16th in the nation in hitting percentage.  Now, it is true that both Central Arkansas and Oral Roberts are in the Top 50 in the nation in hitting percentage.  So, you do have to give those teams their props.  Still, SFA can’t have sustained success while continuing to hover around the bottom of the league in such an important statistic as opponent hitting percentage.

3) We’ve had injuries.  Jill Ivy being the latest one.

Jill Ivy is our best offensive player.  Her timetable is a little up in the air, but at least she has begun rehabilitation and hopefully we will know next week a little more about what to expect going forward.  However, for the time being, Ivy’s offense being on the sidelines only makes the first point above more relevant.  Other girls are either coming off of old injuries or are nursing various bangs and bruises that many other teams also have to deal with across a long Fall season.

Of course, all of the above three issues are related.  Part of the reason the 5-1 vs. 6-2 offensive set is changing so much is because of Ivy’s injury.  Possibly I am someone who makes too much out of “roles” (that’s the baseball mentality in me). But it does seem like at some point the one-setter vs. two-setter switching could create undefined roles for players that wind up affecting their preparation and ultimately their on-court performance.  I asked Debbie Humphreys openly about this issue last night and she said that both Paige Holland and Shannon Connell had responded well to the changes.

Plus, anyone familiar with Humphreys’ player usage trends across the years will know that she is not someone to stand pat and watch the team struggle without tinkering.  She very much believes in changes – sometimes very quick ones – if she notices an area of weakness.  I’ve had to be open to the possibility that volleyball is a sport where such quick changes are necessary and generally productive.  However, there is still a part of me that tends to think along the lines of giving players a long rope and even suffering through starters playing themselves out of funks.  Again, that’s the “defined role” baseball mentality in me as a volleyball fan coming through. I probably need to let go of my biases a little bit on this issue.

The case of freshman is an interesting one to ponder when it comes to these things.  We all know that first year players tend to be more inconsistent than veterans on average.  Let’s look at Shannon Connell, Kaitlyn Granger and Justice Walker’s role on the club to this point.  Now, I’m not saying any changes in their court time are good or bad decisions.  I am just saying it is interesting to play the idea of “freshman tend to be inconsistent” off the idea of “knowing your role and fighting through it”.  It’s the chicken-and-the-egg all over again:

Are freshman inconsistent because their roles change a lot or are freshman having their roles switch back and forth because they can’t produce consistent results.  Which one of those comes “first” is just interesting to think about. It’s kind of circular, isn’t it?

Connell is at the mercy of the 5-1 vs. 6-2 decision. That is, except in the case that Holland is ineffective and just needs to sit for a bit.  That happened at Northwestern State, but I suspect it shouldn’t happen much more, if at all.  Walker has started every match, but will occasionally not start every set.  Take for instance, last night: Walker starts the first two sets, but after the 2nd set doesn’t go according to script, Jamie Crowder gets the start after the half and finishes up the match in one of the MB slots.  That’s the sort of thing that Humphreys’ isn’t afraid at all to do with young players.  Again, I’m not saying it is right or wrong.  I just think it is interesting to think about.  Last night, it almost certainly worked out for good as Crowder came on and provided a spark getting six kills and two blocks to help us finish out the win.  The trick of course, is knowing when players are ready to ride out those lows and stay on the court while working things out.

Granger’s utility is the most interesting to me.  To this point, I think I’ve been neutral by just pointing out the various changes and deficiencies without being overly opinionated.  Let me get one opinion in this post, though:  If it were me, I’d just leave Granger out there to play and work it out. 

Here’s where I take a deep breath, give you my two cents and then end this article on a positive.

Those people who know me are aware that I am a firm believer in a strong left-side attack.  Bates certainly provides us one arm on the left that is capable of damage.  Not to mention, Tori is a six-rotation player.  Despite this, SFA still runs a lot of offense to the right and through the middles.  So, at times, I think our offense can get a little too bottled up on the right side of the court because we don’t get a high enough percentage of our kills from the left pin.  So, now that Jill is out, what does this mean? It means that defenses can key even more on our middles.  As mentioned, Jackson has done a fine job on the right in Jill’s spot, but even she would admit that her biggest attribute is consistency as opposed to having 15 to 20-kill per night potential.

All of that is why I think Granger should play all around and be left out there.  She gives us the best chance to have two offensive contributors on the left (her and Tori).  I really don’t care what Granger can give us on defense right now.  I’m (always) worried that we need more offense.  Besides Bates, the person I’ve got pegged as giving us the best chance for offense on the left is Kaitlyn. 

Now, to end on a positive like my Mama taught me to do:

Despite the team having to deal with issues on both sides of the ball, SFA hasn’t lost to a conference opponent that would be seen as less talented than them.  UCA and ORU were picked ahead of us in preseason polls and Northwestern State was picked ahead of us in one of those polls.  So, losing to all three of them on the road isn’t totally unexpected.  Sure, we should/could have won at Oral Roberts.  The point is, we haven’t played down to team expected to finish in the bottom half as of yet.

Just beat teams you are supposed to beat (*cough*, McNeese, tomorrow, *cough*) and get some wins here and there against other strong teams.  Then, with fingers crossed, you get Jill back and able to contribute.   Then, we are in position to exact some revenge at the end of the season when UCA, ORU and Northwestern State come to Shelton.  Actually, after next week’s tough tests on the road at Corpus Christi and HBU, the schedule is partial to us in terms of home/away scenarios.

We get Sam Houston, Lamar, UCA, ORU and Northwestern State all at home.  Our remaining road games after TAMUCC/HBU are against four teams picked in the bottom half of the league:  UIW, ACC, SELA and UNO.  It is acknowledged that if you play lazy anyone can win, but I think the remaining home/away split can work in our favor.

All in all, despite the need for improvement and health, SFA is still positioned well to do what they did last year:  Get enough wins for a reasonable seed in the SLC Tourney and then turn on the jets once we get there. 

Except this time, we’ll be expecting to play three days instead of two. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Interview with NSU Outside Hitter Caiti O'Connell

First of all, I am not going to try and breakdown yesterday's loss to the Demons.  It is early in the season and it's hard in the moment to see that "it is only one game", but it really is true - that's just one loss.  Teams need the necessary time to go through the early part of the conference slate and figure out where they stand, smooth out some rough edges, make improvements and adjustments.  The tell tale sign won't be what happens next week against ORU and UCA - those are two tough matches against very good teams.  The real issue will be whether or not SFA can gather themselves during October by not going into a prolonged funk and lose to teams that don't have as much talent.

Like it or not, Northwestern State DOES have as much talent as we do.  They have a ton of offensive weapons.  I discussed several of them in my preparatory article for the match last week, but then another outside hitter - freshman Ashley Elrod - did the most damage yesterday in Natchitoches.  When you combine all those quality hitters with the strong back row play led by libero Keelie Arneson, you really have to tip your hat to what the Demons bring to the hard court.  

We didn't play our best.  That was quite obvious.  But that doesn't take away from the fact that Northwestern State is a quality team and one that will be interesting to watch - along with SFA next week - as they too visit Oral Roberts and Central Arkansas.

One of their offensive weapons - the should-have-been Freshman of the Year last year - Caiti O'Connell sat down with me for a chat early Saturday morning several hours before the match.  As I've done the last few years, I like to introduce SFA fans to other players and coaches from around the league through these interviews and also give other SLC players the chance for a little additional recognition beyond their campus boundaries.

Click the this link to hear the interview with NSU Outside Hitter Caiti O'Connell

Saturday, September 28, 2013

LIVE CHAT: SFA v. Northwestern State

 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Can You Use an Axe For an Exorcism?

Count me concerned.

About the Demons, that is.  I’m concerned about how we match up with Northwestern State.  Before we get too far, I want to get some basics out front in this article.  First, I am going to purport a theory that some folks reading this won’t buy into.  But, this won’t be the first time that’s happened, so I’m not too worried about that.  Second, those who are aware of my Demonic Conversion – dismissing them in 2011 and then championing them in 2012, might see this post as caving to the opposition or being afraid to criticize Northwestern State given I had done so years ago.  “Once bitten, Twice shy” some may say.

Nah.  That’s not it.  I am genuinely worried about the match up in Natchitoches on Saturday.  Here is where you will really think I have gone batty (appropriate reference since I have witnessed bats flying around Prather Coliseum during games):

Don’t look at any statistics when considering the matchup between SFA and NSU.

What?  The blogger who constantly cites numbers to defend his position and by trade is a statistician is now telling us to throw the numbers out the window? 

Yep, ignore them.  They are meaningless.

Some will look at Northwestern State and see the following:

·         They are 6-8 and in their eight losses they have only won two sets
·         Stud outside hitter Stacey DiFrancesco is hitting only .062
·         Honorable Mention 2012 Setter Emily Sweet is no longer on this team
·         Wins against Appalachian State (0-13 in their conference last year), Prairie View A&M, New Orleans and SLU are unimpressive
·         Lost 8 of first 9 and recent wins aren’t against top talent

Fine.  Whatever.  Several times this year I have had people (not SFA people) say to me “NSU is struggling this year. What gives?” I myself have uttered these words without taking the time to really sit back and think about the first half of the season at Northwestern State.

Here is what I am telling you, dear readers:  None of the above bullets matter.  None. Zero.  Northwestern State is a good volleyball team that is quite possibly just as talented, if not more so, than SFA.  This is a scary matchup and I’ll admit to not being overly confident.  The SID’s picked this team to finish third in the conference and the coaches picked them 5th.  SFA’s rankings were flip-flopped from those.

Other than Sweet, all of the Demon’s key players return and are one year older and more experienced.  NSU is very strong on the pins:  DiFrancesco and O’Connell on the left and Neely on the right are collectively going to be hard to slow down.  Last year, we didn’t slow them down in Prather one bit.  In a three set sweep, DiFrancesco (14), O’Connell (12) and Neely (10) all had double-digit kills.  Are you kidding me?  Where was the defense at the net that night?  Oh, that’s right – I was there.  I remember.  The net defense didn’t show up. Give NSU credit – they are a tough offense to slow down because of all those talented hitters

Next, let’s talk about defense, specifically the libero spot.  Do not be surprised at all if Keelie Arneson wins Libero of the Year for the Southland Conference in 2013.  In fact, folks like me who love back row defense may be in for a treat during this match.  The two SLC liberos leading the conference in digs per set will be on opposite sides of the net. But again, throw statistics out.  I used to not be that big of a believer in Arneson, but I kept watching her.  I kept talking to people about her and have finally – like a lot of things NSU Volleyball – have come around slowly to the idea that she is an elite defender.  I thought she was the third best libero in the conference last year behind Silva (ORU) and our Maddie Hanlan.  Arneson certainly hasn’t done anything to lessen her stock during 2013.

So, NSU has excellent pin hitters, a stellar libero, and so where does that leave us?  Well, with the two keys to the match, in my opinion:  the play of the middles and the setters.  The first of these is where SFA will have to excel to win the match.   Jacque Allen, Justice Walker, and Les Jackson are more athletic and should be able to provide more offense than the NSU trio of Glynna Johnson, Vanessa Coleman and Amanda Kunz.  The issue, however, is defense.  Can Allen and Walker close blocks with the right side pin blocker on O’Connell and DiFrancesco?  Can Bates and Granger pair up with the MB’s to slow down Neely on the right?  I genuinely worry about this.  Allen and Walker can put up 20 kills between them, but will DiFrancesco, O’Connell and Neely counter that with 40 of their own?  That’s my problem.  If setter Emily Johnson can distribute the ball and keep our front line guessing and turn this match into an offense vs. offense match, then NSU can win it.  SFA’s net defense MUST come up big to frustrate the NSU attackers and get Emily Johnson thinking twice.

Now we have it out there: Emily Johnson.  5’6”, pretty much a reserve DS last year has become the starting setter due to Sweet’s absence.  Well, pretty much.  Freshman setter Natalie Jaeger has also played alongside Johnson in two-setter format for many matches.  The last two matches have been all Johnson and unless there is an injury I am not aware of, I have to wonder why?  To me, NSU seems like a perfect team to be running a 6-2, but that’s just an observation from afar.  I have no inside information about this situation at all, but I am not going to be shocked at all if NSU runs a two-setter offense against us.  Jaeger hasn’t seen the floor in the last two matches, so maybe there is something going on.  I don’t know?  But at any rate, NSU using both provided they are healthy makes perfect sense to me.

I’m sure that Emily Johnson is a great person.  I’ve never spoken to her in my life.   So, this is nothing personal at all.   I like setters that are really tall, very athletic, and contribute to blocking and attacking while also distributing the ball.  Johnson is none of these things.  But now, to my theory that I alluded to in the opening paragraph:  

Emily Johnson at setter as opposed to Emily Sweet doesn’t matter as much as you think.  In fact, I don’t think Johnson vs. Sweet is the issue at all.

And with that..  my conjectures:

1) If you can’t pass, it doesn’t matter how good your setters and attackers are.

2) If you can’t attack, it doesn’t matter how good your passes and sets are.

3) However, if you can pass and you have talented attackers, then all you need is adequacy at setter and you can still win.

The first of these I expect to get no argument on.  It is a fundamental principle of volleyball.  The second of these I expect to get minimal critique on.  Somebody has to kill the ball and be able to score.  It is conjecture 3) that I think applies to NSU and where people may very well disagree.

But I say, all Johnson (or Jaeger, for that matter) has to do is just distribute the ball in an adequate fashion.  Yes, the setter is the quarterback.  Yes, the setter is usually a captain.  Yes, a good setter can pick apart defenses.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it.

I know that a good setter can made an average hitter appear better than she really is.  But that counter-argument to my theory doesn’t apply here.  NSU doesn’t have average hitters.  They have excellent hitters.

Yes, this Demon team might have been built for Emily Sweet to lead and yes, Sweet is almost without argument a more talented setter than Emily Johnson.  I say, that doesn’t matter.

Pick one of these to lose if you are a Demon fan:

·         DiFrancesco and O’Connell
·         Arneson and whatever DS you want to put beside her
·         Emily Sweet

My conjecture is this:  outstanding passing and outstanding hitting can smooth over “meh” setting more than

1) Outstanding hitting and outstanding setting can smooth over “meh” passing.  (If you pass terrible, your setter can’t distribute the ball, you can’t run all your hitters and you stink.  We all know this.)

or

2) Outstanding passing and outstanding setting can smooth over “meh” attackers. (I think this IS possible, but have you ever watched an attacker try the same shot over and over and over again despite what the block is giving them?  It’s painful to watch.)

Emily Johnson and/or Natalie Jaeger just have to avoid playing terrible.  NSU has a lot of players around them to buoy up the overall ship. 

OK, agree or disagree?  That’s for you to contemplate.  Where does this leave us overall?

If SFA’s middle blockers contribute on both sides of the net in very meaningful ways, then the ‘Jacks should get redemption for last years’ Demon sweep in Natchitoches.

If the pin hitters for NSU go unchecked and/or NSU’s setting gets the pins and the middles all actively contributing on offense?  Then don’t look at me.  I’ll just politely tell you “I told you so” as we quietly exit the airplane hangar about 3:30 PM.

This is not an easy matchup.  SFA will need to play a complete match at a high level to win.  We need these tests.  I see Saturday as the biggest one to date in 2013.

Oh, and finally.. that DiFrancesco hitting percentage?  There are reasons she has been out of pocket.  You had better throw that number out with the trash.  It’s meaningless, because she is back in the groove.  And as far as the 6-8 record?  There are 330 NCAA DI volleyball teams.  Their eight losses are to teams whose collective average RPI last year was 101.  That’s the upper 1/3 of all NCAA programs as an AVERAGE.  They’ve played Arkansas (32), Baylor (62) and Utah (82), who were all Top 100 programs last year.

The winner of this match can count their victory as a “quality win”.  I honestly believe SFA has reached the toughest stretch of their pre-conference tournament schedule.  After NSU, the next two are at ORU and at UCA.  Whether the ‘Jacks are a first tier or second tier team heading into the conference tournament may very well begin to be defined in the next seven days.

We didn’t lay down with the Lions – one of our stumbling blocks during the regular season last year. 

Tomorrow we find out if an axe is useful for exorcisms.


Axe’ Em! LIVE CHAT for the match kicks off at 1:45  PM right here.