Saturday, August 24, 2013

Scrimmage Recap

I don’t normally write traditional game recaps for our volleyball matches.  In fact, I don’t usually write in a “traditional” sense about anything.  Recaps fall under the jurisdiction of the sports information wing of the athletics staff and those articles are always posted at  However, with last night’s action being of the scrimmage variety, a review here won’t duplicate any other story associated with SFA Volleyball.  In fact, it will probably be the only story printed that looks back on SFA Purple vs. SFA Black on Friday.  First things first, you read that right.. SFA Black.  The 2013 squad donned new jerseys highlighted by black tops coupled with a purple version in the same style.  The jerseys have sharp looking white lines below the neck and down the shoulders.  All in all, I think they are some of the best looking duds we’ve played in over the years, although I would have preferred a university identifier included in some prominent way.  The jerseys don’t actually have “SFA” or “Jacks” anywhere obvious on them and with other teams that use purple and black in our conference as base colors, I saw that aspect of the new uniforms as a slight negative.

Of course, what we care more about is the product on the court than the fashion statement, so let’s move the discussion that direction.  I’ll say this:  I was more impressed than I thought I would be.  Now, I say that in the most complimentary way that I can.  I don’t mean that I had low expectations.  I just didn’t expect to see so many bright spots this early on.

Of all the things imprinted on my memory, the collective play of middle blockers Allen, Walker and Jackson is clearly at the top of the list.  Before we get into details – if you weren’t there – this was basically an “A” team vs. “B” team format with the team in black being a rotation of players that would tentatively be labeled starters.  The “B”  (purple) team consisted almost entirely of backups.  Well, Les Jackson would have something to say about that because if you were giving away a game MVP trophy, it would be hers.  I spent a good ten or fifteen minutes debriefing with Debbie Humphreys after the match and she is most definitely intrigued by finding ways to integrate all three girls into official game action next weekend.

Jackson was stellar.  In three sets  (Black won 3-0, but barely in the third set), Jackson killed 14 balls against one error while swinging .464.  She was the main go to for the purple squad and was able to do her damage against what figures to be the other portion of our starting front line.  Jackson tallied four blocks which also posted as match high.  The purple team used sophomores Keely Kainer and transfer Madison Martin on the outside.  Both had bursts of production that could translate to nice support pieces for the team in 2013.  Kainer looked more relaxed – and at times even stronger in her attack posture – than what I recall from last year.  She had some legitimate strong swings despite only registering five knock downs.  Don’t forget, Kainer was the L1 in first tournament action this time last year as a freshman before giving way to others by the time the conference slate rolled around. 

Martin is probably going to struggle to score, but her ball control and passing will create opportunities for her to contribute – possibly in three rotation format as the season goes along.  I think Martin could be a nice dual piece for an OH that is more suited to front row responsibilities – like freshman Kaitlyn Granger.  Martin registered 13 digs in three sets.  Passing isn’t flashy like kills and blocks, but Martin caught my eye a few times with her accuracy and steady play in serve receive.  Amanda Rister held down the libero role for the purple and came away with 17 digs.  Laiken Britt played a DS role and I liked her  feisty play.  She’s aggressive and doesn’t hesitate to go after balls, so I can see some promise if Humphreys needed to turn to her in the case that Janet Hill or Rister struggled in back row support.

I didn’t come away with a definitive impression either way concerning freshman setter Shannon Connell and freshman MB Jamie Crowder.  There were a few kills Crowder put down that I made a mental checkmark by, but actually, I think I’ve seen both girls play stronger in practice than what they did last night.  Connell defensively chose to play a few balls I thought she should have let go – and a few of them were at key moments in sets.  I’m nitpicking so let me state positively that overall the freshman – Connell and Crowder certainly included – did not look out of place.  I was glad to see all of the freshman appear confident and well integrated into the match.  None of them appeared overwhelmed.  Patience is always required with first year players.  They have a ton to acclimate to and they all are certain to have their inconsistencies and otherwise just plain off-nights.  That being said, I think the 2013 freshman class is poised to contribute in a very strong way.

That brings us to Justice Walker.  Wow.  At this point, I’ve seen four afternoon  practices and a scrimmage.  During the first two practices what I saw from Walker was athleticism.  What I saw last night and at various times during the last couple of practices was a volleyball player.  If you go back and listen to Les Jackson talking about Walker during the interview posted below, you’ll hear her state that Walker has made some of the biggest strides during Fall camp.  Last night, it showed.  Big time.

I’m going to be perfectly honest  (as always)- and long time readers will recognize my tone here:  The freshman I focused on was Granger.  I always watch warm-ups – usually quite intently.  I watched Granger a lot during pre-game and told some of the media table staff that I was hoping to see a fair amount of offense out of Granger in the scrimmage.  I go from year-to-year with my fingers crossed that we’ll bring in a left side presence.  Some of the sharpest conversation I’ve had with Debbie Humphreys have been about whether or not SFA needs more offense from the left pin to consistently win.  Readers know that I have been in the camp that votes a definitive “yes” and Debbie has cautioned me there are plenty of other ways to achieve offensive success and balance.

So naturally, what do I do?  I focus on the left pin attack of the main “Black” squad.  Since I already know sophomore Tori Bates is a stud, that meant that Granger got more of my attention.  So here’s what happened:  With Granger playing three rotations (Janet Hill the other three on the back), Black wins set one fairly convincingly without Granger getting a single kill.  Bates got a few of course, but let’s just go ahead and state the obvious:  Head Coach 1, Blogger 0.  Let me not leave Granger before making my key point in the next paragraph.  She’s going to be fine.  No one is asking her to carry a heavy load.  I think she’ll get her share of balls knocked down and be someone people learn they have to defend soon enough.

But, last night was a fantastic example of why Humphreys was right and I was wrong (at least for now).  All-everything right side Jill Ivy got her share of kills (12), but didn’t dominate.  Her 11 attack errors were almost as many as the entire purple squad (13).  So, on a night where Ivy wasn’t off – but wasn’t dominant either – we still got so much offensive firepower from middle blockers Jacque Allen (9-3-14, .429) and Justice Walker (10-4-26, .231) that Granger’s contributions were rendered a moot point.

The starting squad’s attack distribution was more than enough to qualify as efficiently spread:  Bates and Granger combined for 17 kills on the left.  Almost all of that was Bates, but then again, she plays all the way around.  Allen and Walker combined for 19 kills and Ivy got 12.  That’s a nice distribution and one that contradicts my theory of needing big output from the person in Granger’s spot.  Now, just imagine if Humphreys had been able to blend in Jackson amidst the Black squad and Granger had been killing it?  Holy smokes.  Now, we’re talking.   You know who also deserves credit?  Holland.  Because provided adequate passing, the offensive attack distribution is the setter’s responsibility.  Paige has to be able to adapt during the match by realizing what distribution of balls will keep the defense honest.  On a night where Jill was hitting close to .000, Holland was able to do a good job by getting the middle blockers the ball often enough to pick up some of the slack.

All of the above in place, the person I got the most questions and comments about after the match was Walker.  It was so good to see her play that well.  It will be a blessing if it carries over into tournament action the next few weeks.  Finally, the back row play of libero OJ Olson and DS Janet Hill was spot on.  Humphreys raved about both of them after the match and I absolutely have to chime in.  Those two are going to be rocks back there. 

That makes for a great segue as I had an absolute blast taping an interview with both Olson and Hill before the scrimmage.  Originally, I thought that chat would be today’s post, but I wanted to get my scrimmage thoughts on paper before they waned. Readers from past seasons know that my favorite part of volleyball is back row defense, so I had a bunch of things I wanted OJ and Janet to talk about in the interview.  As it went on, I felt like the three of us were talking about “volleyball theory” in a sort of academic sense and I completely loved it.  I absolutely crave “shop talk” when it comes to this game. 

I probably could have asked Hill and Olson questions for an hour, because the roles they play are those that I have great interest in.  They both provided really insightful comments and the interview is one of best I think I’ve been a part of in recent years.  I can’t wait for you to hear it and it will come your way on Monday.

As a preview of things to come, I’ll be focusing more on the concept of “offensive balance” during this year, with some data from 2012 forming the nucleus of a few posts on attack distribution.  Also, I’ve begun surveying the landscape of the conference and I will weigh in next week on the preseason polls that were released by the conference.  SFA was picked tied for third in the coaches poll and tied for 5th by the Sports Information Directors.  Finally, interviews with players will continue.  I’ll aim to sit down with Allen and Ivy before the team heads to Mississippi.

Last night made a lot of people eager to see what the team looks like when it is all on one side of the net.  As far as SFA Volleyball’s STRONGEST presence on the net?  Well, you’re here.  That’s and you can count on me to keep SFA focused volleyball news spiked at you all the way along the road to Corpus Christi and beyond.

Axe’s Up!