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.