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.