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



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.