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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.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Paige Holland and Tori Bates Interview

After practice on Friday, I got a chance to sit down with Junior Setter Paige Holland and Sophomore Outside Hitter Tori Bates.  I'm actually awestruck by how humble both of these players are.  Bates is so unselfish as she discusses the team's offense and how she is integrated into the flow of things.  Holland, as she has been for three years, is the consummate professional and incredibly polite and thoughtful.

As always, I am so blessed and thankful that our players are accommodating to these type discussions.  Not only did we get in a great chat about setting, attacking, and SFA's prospects for the 2013 Southland title, but our 20 minute talk allowed us to stay inside and avoid the worst of a very welcome rainstorm that moved through Nacogdoches this afternoon.

Hopefully, this interview will help you get your game day fix.  Additionally, let us all hope that we have our full roster of players healthy going forward.  It was good to see Jacque Allen back on the court yesterday and it appears Bates won't be far behind. 

This would also be a good time to remind readers that the next LIVE CHAT room from the road will take place Saturday, September 28 at 2 PM as SFA takes on Northwestern State in Natchitoches.

Click the link below to listen to the interview with Paige and Tori:

Holland and Bates Interview

Don't Lie Down With Lions

In recent weeks I have mentioned that SFA reduced its seeding in the 2012 Southland Conference Tournament almost exclusively due to two shocking losses to Southeastern Louisiana last year.  Last season’s 10 team league saw only two teams staying at home for the conference tournament.  The Lions capitalized on the setup and despite a 5-13 SLC record earned the final seed and the right to go home on Friday by playing host Central Arkansas in the first round.

When the eight teams got to Conway, the only SLC team that Southeastern Louisiana had a victory against was SFA.  They were 2-0 against us and 0-12 against the other six teams.  There is little question that the two losses against the Lions in 2012 were among – if not THE – most embarrassing of the year.

But that was last year and it is now very much in the past.  What can we expect out of SLU as they travel over to Nacogdoches for Saturday afternoon’s match.  Well, first off, they are technically already here and scheduled for a practice in Shelton Gym this evening.  But more relevant than that, what should Ladyjack fans look for when SLU takes the court on Saturday?

One thing is for sure:  SLU has gone through a ton of changes since we have seen them last.  They have hired their third coach in the last handful of years, the current captain being long time Westmont College (NAIA) coach Jim Smoot.  In addition to the new coaches, you won’t recognize many of the players either. Last night against Northwestern State, they started four sophomores and two freshmen.  So, they have a lot of new girls, a lot of young girls, and some of the returners who played under former coach Geno Frugoli are not seeing as much court time under Smoot.

Historically, SLU has played an above average number of girls per match.  Some teams tend to make a minimal number of subs and put eight to ten girls in the box score.  It has not been uncommon in recent seasons to look over SLU’s player usage and see 12 or 14 girls a night – all with a decent amount of playing time.  Of course, one thing that points to is a cast of characters that doesn’t produce a consistent list of talent able to maintain starting spots.  The other explanation is just simply the desire to rotate hot hands on a frequent basis, or looked at another way – subs for girls that are not able to get it done for three or four sets a night.

Probably the one player on the SLU roster that you should remember is MB Veronica Turk.  Well, I say you should remember her because I brought her name up more than once or twice in this space last year.  She was one of the better freshman middle blockers to come to the conference last year.  That being said, either due to coaches’ preference or injury, she hasn’t played as much so far this year.  So, it is possible that we will see an entirely different starting set of players tomorrow afternoon than we did last year.  Let’s break the team down just a bit…

Mikayla Shippy handles the setting duties.  She is a sophomore who is getting her first look at regular playing time.  She spent most of last year as the backup to McNeese transfer Becky Bekelja – who is now gone.  The main offensive go-to so far for the Lions is Louisiana Tech transfer and sophomore OH Tiffany Thomas.  She will get a lot of balls set her way:  She has almost twice the number of attacks as any other girl on the team.  Thomas is averaging a whopping 3.49 kills per set and hitting a respectable .189 on the outside.  Her kill per set numbers have her currently sitting 4th in that category in the Southland Conference.

In addition to the popular combo of Shippy to Thomas, SLU has regularly run a trio of middle blockers onto the court:  The aforementioned Turk as well as the freshman duo of Rachael Bunn and Landry Bullock.  Bunn is probably the main player I have interest in watching as the match goes along tomorrow.  She leads the conference in hitting percentage at .393 and also ranks in the top 10 in blocks.  Bunn is a California girl who stands 6’2” and just like our own freshman MB Justice Walker, has an all-tournament recognition to her name earning that nod at the Florida Atlantic Tourney a few weeks ago.  Bunn had a streak of four straight matches with 10+ kills ended last night against the Demons.  In fact, she only got in two sets, so again, either the mix-and-match is at play or she suffered an injury that I have no way of knowing about.  She started the first set, but that was it.  Hopefully, she is not hurt and we get a good look at what both her and fellow freshman Bullock can do. Bullock leads the team in total blocks.

The Lions also use two other hitters frequently one being Junior Elizabeth Ramee who has played off-and-on during her two years in Hammond.  She played more as a freshman than she did last year.  In fact, she got my attention more than a time or two with some strong matches in her first year as a Lion.  Since then, she’s been on and off the scouting radar.  Lindsay Grace rounds out the discussion of frequent attackers as the tall (6’4”) freshman right side hitter has played in the majority of sets for the Lions, but isn’t integrated regularly into the offense.  She’s yet to amass more than 6 kills in a match.

Finally, there are three back row players to note.  First is sophomore Morgan Todd, who has taken over the libero jersey from Megan McMillan.  Todd played regularly last year – in fact, she played in every match, but primarily as a DS next to McMillan.  Another change in position at SLU belongs to Cherish Krohn, who used to be listed and play as an undersized OH has now converted to a DS role.  This suits her skills better as she is both a good server and good in receive.  Lastly, sophomore Brook Balser is second on the team in digs to Todd and she also holds down a DS role.

Look for a lot of substitutions and potentially different lineups as we move from set to set on Saturday afternoon.  SFA and SLU have two common opponents so far this year.  The ‘Jacks swept Southern Miss while SLU dropped their three sets to them. The Lions have a four set victory over Louisiana Tech and you’ll remember that it took the ‘Jacks five sets to polish off the Lady Techsters.  SLU is 6-7 with their other five victories coming against Bethune Cookman, Alabama A&M, Stetson, Nebraska-Omaha and Southern.  Those last three wins were at their host tournament that didn’t sport an overly high level of competition.

All in all, I think the team is still in flux and probably doesn’t project as a 2013 tournament team.  They were picked 9th in both preseason polls.  They may be improved enough to sneak in one of the bottom two seeds, but this still sizes up as a team SFA should beat in three or four sets.

While playing better against Houston and UNO in our last two matches, SFA really still hasn’t put together a clean three or four sets in a row.  If they do, then the match Saturday should end in three.  If not, then a 3-1 victory would seem to be the “Vegas Line”.  If it goes to five sets, then Ladyjack fans can only hope that we aren’t looking back on this match like we were in 2012.

I’m headed to an interview with Paige Holland and Tori Bates so there should be plenty for you to read and listen to in the next day as you make your plans to cheer on the ‘Jacks in Shelton Gym at 1:00 on Saturday.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Shuffle Up, It's Time to Deal

UNO is a fun family card game appropriate for kids ages 7+ in which it is important to save various cards in your hand, match colors and numbers and.. wait.. Oops.. sorry, my bad. Wrong, UNO. 

Let’s try again: UNO is the acronym for the University of Nebraska of Omaha located in the heart of the largest city in corn country. The university prides itself on its metropolitan feel and progressive form of education. What’s that you say? Oh, that’s not right, either? 

Excuse me over the identity crisis that is SFA’s first 2013 Southland Conference opponent. The University of New Orleans has had a tough time trying to figure out just who they are and just where they want to be. New conference, new logo, new pretty much everything. This is a school that planned to go to Division III, wound up Division II, went back to Division I as an independent and now finds themselves in the Southland Conference. Stability alone will constitute a step forward for UNO Athletics. 

Concerning volleyball, this is a program that since 2011 has won only 12 matches. Now, “UNO” in Spanish means “one” and that’s the operative number here. In those 12 victories since 2011, only one of them has come against a Division I program not in the SWAC. That’d be the victory they scored last week against Savannah State. The Privateers would probably not like me pointing out that Savannah State went 0-34 last year and finished next to last in overall DI RPI. 

Hey, look, you have to start somewhere and that somewhere will be in Shelton Gym on Thursday night as UNO Volleyball gets its first taste of actual Southland action. Last year, the Privateers went 8-15 and played six matches against now Southland foes. In those six matches, they won just four sets, going 0-for-6. They did give Nicholls State a scare in taking them to five sets. To be fair, I’ll remind you that last year Nicholls State took us to five and we escaped with the win. Also to be fair, UNO lost to Louisiana Tech this year in five sets and it took us five sets to beat them in our home opener. So, we can’t be completely dismissive here. 

Still, UNO lost its first 18 sets of the year, and if SFA plays their typical game (cough, not like Ole Miss, cough), then the ‘Jacks should be in prime position for a 1-0 record by 8 PM Thursday night. Like SFA, New Orleans is a young team. They do have one Senior leader – their right side hitter Marti Richmiller who leads the team in attack percentage at a mundane .151. Of six girls with 100+ attacks, only two are hitting over .100 with the entire team managing just an .092 clip. Likewise, no one on the team has more than 16 blocks in 12 matches, with no girl averaging even a half block per set. 

Other players that have been regulars include Freshman OH Cara Sander, who has actually emerged a bit lately to earn more steady playing time, Sophomores Taylor Barry (MB) and Lauren Levy (L). Kelsea Hundtoft is a Junior transfer in her first year of DI play. She often gets time at the other OH slot. The club has struggled with consistent setting as it appears multiple setters and even multiple offensive styles (5-1, 6-2) have occasionally been shifted to and fro. Overall, Sophomore Celeste Ramirez has had the bulk of the court time. ‘Jacks fans ought to look for the above names to round out the core of the starting lineup on Thursday night. 

The Privateers are short for a DI roster. No active player is over 6’0” on the roster. They do have a 6’4” freshman listed, but either she is going to be redshirted or has not played in a match so far for another reason. In terms of regular players, Sander is the only one at 6’0. 

Personally, my hope is that SFA again uses a 6-2 offensive set to overwhelm UNO at the net with various attackers and a consistent bigger block. On the surface, this looks like a nice match to continue to integrate Shannon Connell and freshman MB/RS Jaime Crowder. It also looks like a nice matchup for one or both of Justice Walker and Jill Ivy to have big offensive nights. It certainly would be positive to see Walker keep things rolling coming off being named SLC Offensive Player of the Week. 

Of course, probably the biggest issue for SFA this week will be nursing starting OH Tori Bates and MB Jacquee Allen back from ankle injuries. Both have been integrated some in practices lately and the thought all along has been that Allen will be a little ahead of Bates in terms of a return. We’ll see how much each gets in (if at all) Thursday against UNO and Saturday vs. Southeastern Louisiana. I won’t be surprised to see Allen get a fair amount of playing time, but I am a little more uncertain about Bates. Even if one or both is good to go, limited use against UNO and SLU could be warranted. That, of course, is provided that the club is generally in control throughout the weekend and not in dire need of their services. 

While I am tempted to look past the Privateers and focus more on retribution for two losses to SLU last year, my experience tells me that would be unwise. Despite a respectable 2-2 showing in Fort Worth, the age old lesson of “the game is about serve and serve receive” sure did rear its ugly head against Ole Miss last Friday. Provided we pass even decently, expect a strong start to the Southland slate on Thursday night. 

Coming up, we will preview the Lions on Friday and I’ll also get in another interview with either one or two players in the coming days and post that for you to listen to. I’ll be restructuring all of the SoundCloud files, so hopefully those of you that have had trouble with them will have your problems eliminated. Finally, mark your calendars for one week from Saturday, as I will travel to Natchitoches and continue the LIVE CHAT experiences in our match against Northwestern State. 

Make all effort to support the ‘Jacks twice this week.. Shelton Gym at 6:30 Thursday for UNO and 1:00 PM on Saturday afternoon for Southeastern La.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

LIVE CHAT: SFA vs. Houston

 

LIVE CHAT: SFA vs. Grambling

 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Live Chat: SFA vs. Ole Miss

 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Live Chat: SFA vs. TCU

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Five (V) Questions

Despite the ‘Jacks having only eight games under their belt, we are only 8 days away from the 2013 Southland Conference slate beginning. Last year saw SFA come within one game of playing for the conference tournament championship in Conway. While surely all of us that wear SFA purple have a bit of a bias, one could argue that the Ladyjacks gave eventual champion Central Arkansas their toughest match of the tournament. 

So, with a successful 2012 season well in the rear view mirror, what can we expect in 2013 once the games that “really count” begin piling up? Since this is Season Five of the blog, I’ve come up with my five key questions for the 2013 team. These issues are ones that I’ve pondered for months now and I feel may very well be defining questions for just how far this team can go. 

Without further delay, let’s get into the five questions by taking a look at why I think the question is relevant together with what happened in 2012, what needs to happen in 2013 and a small prediction from me at the end of each issue. Feel free to sound off in the comments or talk with me directly about what you see as the big issues for team success in 2013.

Question 1: Is there a freshman on the 2013 team that can add as much to the total team package as Tori Bates did in 2012?

Why is this important? Check the final season records for the last four years. To avoid ups and downs, you have to have one or two impact players show up on your roster every year. Even one down incoming class can send shock waves through a program for two or more seasons.

2012: Bates was a huge contributor giving us a respectable left-side presence by leading the team in attacks and finishing third in kills. The .145 hitting percentage needs to head northward as the sophomore looks to improve on a successful impact season as a freshman.

2013: Granger and Walker appear primed to be the two most likely to be labeled as impact freshman. However, there doesn’t appear to be a six rotation freshman in this crop (at least not yet) like Bates was last year. Honestly, my hope is that Granger develops into an offensive force along the course of the season – I’m not too concerned about what she can provide, if anything in terms of passing/digging. Both Walker and Granger appear to be formidable at the net in terms of blocking.

My Answer: I think the answer is a hesitant “No”. I’ll be surprised if any of the current freshman rank as high on team statistical lists in 2013 as Bates did in 2012. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the overall freshman contribution this year equates to last year. In other words, I think the current class is strong enough to avoid a pitfall like 2010-2011 down the road.

Question 2: Will the group of middle blockers provide consistent production? 

Why is this important? Sabrina Burns was second on the team in kills and first in blocks. The team only returns 150 total career blocks from its MB’s and the Southland leader in 2012 had 145 in one year. We return a lot of hope and brought in a lot of athleticism, but the MB crew doesn’t own a track record.

2012: Burns was steady in one of the middle slots and the other rotated in phases between Allen and the now departed Cara Leslie. Honestly, that combination defensively was just fine since both Allen and Leslie averaged over a block per set. Leslie had her offensive moments while Allen struggled with consistency as she was focusing on developing her raw athletic ability into a complete volleyball package.

2013: Things “look” good on paper. However, this is a spot that could go either way. If Allen continues her progression and plays consistently on both sides of the ball, then Burns’ production has been replaced. Then you’ve got the duo of Les Jackson and freshman Justice Walker to combine in the second spot the way that Humphreys used Cara Leslie and Allen last year. But, Jackson hasn’t held a starting role for even small spurts of time and Walker can’t be expected to be consistent given she is raw and young.

My Answer: So far, the tandem of middle blockers has looked fine. Not to be Debbie Downer, but I won’t be surprised if there is a time during the season where this position as a whole goes into a funk. I think there might be a slight drop off in overall middle blocker production during 2013 and I am probably one of the few people who thinks that. It’s not that I don’t think there aren’t a lot of good parts to work with. My issue is one of consistency. That just hasn’t been established by the two returners that play in this spot – the other two are new. Expect ups and downs.

Question 3: Can the club avoid losses in situations where they are the clear favorite? 

Why is this important? Seeding for the conference tournament is often affected by one or two games in the standings. Great teams beat teams they are supposed to beat and don’t go into prolonged funks playing down to poor teams.

2012: There is no question that SFA went into a spin after the five set loss at home to Central Arkansas. In the weeks that followed, SFA played horrible at Sam Houston and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and then lost twice to Southeastern Louisiana. SHSU and TAMUCC were good teams that we played poorly against. SLU was a team we should have beaten twice and instead lost both times. This affected our seeding in the tournament: dropping us from what would have been 3rd to 5th. About the time we got it going again late in the conference season, we travelled to Northwestern State and laid another egg, getting swept in embarrassing fashion by the Demons.

2013: Again, consistency matters. Rather than earning a high seed by playing a consistent conference slate, SFA had to face off with a talented and scrappy Northwestern State team again in the first round of the tournament last year. That match went five sets. Suppose we had swept a low seed and expended less effort. Is it at least possible that just enough gas would have been left in the tank to make the championship? Hindsight is 20/20, but I’m off the opinion that you shoot for the highest seed possible no matter what. There are new teams to this conference and some of them don’t appear formidable. We must not go into a funk and artificially lower our seeding like we did in 2012. This year, the tournament is in Corpus Christi. Teams like UCA and ORU will be far away from home this time.

My Answer: It’s too early to tell. We certainly haven’t “played down” early in the season given we are 6-2 despite injuries and the two losses came in grueling five set matches.

Question 4: Will Paige Holland take the necessary steps forward to be regarded as an elite SLC Setter?

Why is this important? Normally, I wouldn’t single out a player in questions like this. But, setters are quarterbacks of volleyball teams. Look at the two teams that played in the tournament final last year and then look at the pre-season all conference lists. Marissa Collins (UCA) and Laura Taylor (ORU) are both there. So are the setters from Sam Houston (Gray) and TAMUCC (Borque). Now, I’m not really a fan of Borque and Taylor in terms of actual setting. Taylor adds a hitting option to ORU’s offense however – which Holland is doing more of for us. Collins and Gray are both top notch in terms of running offenses in my opinion.. in fact, Collins is spectacular. Teams tend to go as far as setters can take them.

2012: Holland finished 7th in the conference with 9.00 assists per set and frankly, the setters behind her statistically just aren’t that good. Now, numbers don’t tell the whole story here and I definitely believe Paige took steps forward in 2012. Overall, though, Holland was regarded as an adequate, but not all-star quarterback based on the conversations I had with opposing coaches and players.

2013: There is plenty of time for continued growth and I expect more steps forward this year. Let me put it to you this way: Look around the conference and check how many teams use the same starting setter for four straight years. Fewer than you might think. The best thing Paige has going for her is her work ethic and smarts. That girl is intelligent. Don’t be surprised if she creeps into more discussions about the best setters in the conference as the year goes along. Right now, I think she is in the second tier. By years’ end, she may very well be knocking on the door of the elite group.

My Answer: My final answer to this question is: Yes, by 2014. I’ll predict that she is an all-conference setter next year, but not this year. I’d love, love, love to be dead wrong.

Question 5: Will the club capitalize on experience gained during the 2012 SLC Tourney?

Why is this important? Experience is the best teacher. Trust me: The girls that return from last year didn’t like the feeling of walking away from the UCA match in the semi-finals. Didn’t you hear Jill Ivy in the interview two weeks ago? She called it “rock bottom”. There is something to this concept of “been there before.”

2012: We’ve been over it a thousand times. The overall two best performances in the 2012 SLC Tourney were by UCA and SFA. No offence to Oral Roberts – that team was (and is) good. But the match on Friday between us and Northwestern State and the match on Saturday between UCA and SFA were the two best volleyball games of that tournament.

2013: I guess we’ll find out, won’t we? No more home cooking for Central Arkansas come tournament time. They’ll need to get it done on the road. I think UCA sizes up as a team you’d predict would be at the top of the conference and make it to the championship again. For what it’s worth, I’ll pretty much side with the coaches poll that picked the order of finish in 2013. I think until someone knocks them off, UCA is in a class by themselves. Then, I think ORU, SHSU and SFA are all basically dead even as the 2nd tier. I don’t think you can make much of an argument that one of those teams is much better than the other. Then, I’d say the same about HBU/TAMUCC/NWLA as a third tier. However, I would have picked that third tier in the order I listed there. But still, I’m not of the opinion that there is much separation between those three clubs. Now, if one of the teams in the 2nd group loses to two or three teams they shouldn’t lose to – like SFA did last year – then, that’s enough in my mind to slip them to the back of the 3rd tier.

My answer: Pack your bags for a three day trip before Thanksgiving. I think this is the year SFA returns to the conference tournament title game. Staying healthy and the issue in Question #2 are the biggest personal concerns. Given most people in SFA circles aren’t worried about Question #2 at all, I think most people associated with the club expect to compete for the title. 

2012 was huge. It changed wishful thinking into genuine optimism. SFA hasn’t been at the top of the SLC mountain in a while now. We might still be one year away, but 2013 will be our year if we can stay healthy and answer “Yes” to Season V’s questions.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Live Chat: SFA vs. ULM