Friday, September 20, 2013

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.