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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Road Kill

With two weeks left on the Southland Conference regular season schedule, it is safe to say that SFA’s 14-13 overall record, and especially the 6-8 mark in SLC play qualifies as a disappointment.  Sure, four straight victories over the next two weeks could get us into the tournament and avoid the #8 seed.  It would also qualify as an emotional boost and establish some confidence for the first round match up.  So, all is not lost as of yet because there is still meaningful volleyball to be played.  Yet, to this point, things haven’t gone according to script.

Then again, do we have a script?  Of the seasons in recent memory there are some in which we have taken a while to establish a regular set of starters and substitution patterns.  This season qualifies as different.  There were no regular starters or rotation patterns.  Even if we play the exact same group over the last two weeks, that will hardly count as a pattern given the season is in its third month.

It is hard to know what is more inconsistent:  the overall quality of play by this years’ squad or the lineups and offensive sets that we run out there against our opponents.  Of course, the two are correlated in some way.  Still, the combinations are dizzying.  One setter offense?  Two setter offense?  Six rotation player?  Three rotation player?  On the bench?  From week to week no one knows.   Need replaced during the match?  Will that player return or sit the remainder of today?  That’s up in the air.

Now, all of the above could be taken as a criticism as to how we’ve utilized our personnel.  It could be taken to be a criticism of coaching decisions.  Maybe there are others – possibly myself included – that would have made fewer concoctions out of the lineup than what our coaching staff has, but still, it is hard to pin this years’ lack of consistent performance entirely on role changes.  Coach Humphreys and crew can never be accused of being unwilling to try something new.  I mean, I have never seen so many attempts at trying to find the magic combination as I’ve witnessed this year.  To no avail.  It hasn’t happened.

I like roles.  I think players like roles.  I find it hard to believe that players can prepare and be at their best among constant change.  Then again, this is collegiate athletics.  Adaptation is key.  Be versatile or sit on the pine.  I can understand that.  Flexibility is required when things don’t naturally settle into a working pattern. Still, it is mind blowing just how many changes have been made. Playing time and roles are largely unstable.

I haven’t mentioned one factor yet that others might instantly have thrown into the ring:  injuries.  Sure, we’ve had injuries.  Injuries affect your lineup and they certainly require that roles be fluid.  However, maybe I am in the minority here:  I don’t think our injuries a) cost us more than maybe one win and b) aren’t really all that more than what other teams have experienced.  Maybe I am wrong.  I didn’t go through every roster and check the exact time that players have been out.  However, as I’ve studied the teams we are about to play I’ve commonly come across stories of injuries.  As I’ve talked to coaches before and after matches they all tell me stories of girls being sick, hurt, having to leave the team, etc.  It’s sports.  People get hurt.

No, I don’t think injuries are/were the most important factor in our underwhelming play so far in 2013.  I think they were a factor, but I think they were secondary, if not tertiary in terms of problems.  Culprit #1?  Net defense.  We allow way too many one-one-one attacks at the net.  We don’t consistently close blocks and far too often are caught out of position giving opposing setters the chance to pick attackers that create isolation attacks repeatedly on us at the net.  Simply put, we have statistical leaders in blocks, but overall… I don’t think we are a good blocking team.  And there IS a difference between statistically generating blocks and being a good blocking team.  In fact, a lot of being a good blocking team may very well never translate to actual blocks.  An attack that is slowed down – even barely touched at the net – is more likely to be dug (and dug to target) than forcing a back row player to slow down a full powered swing.  Secondly, and maybe more importantly, a closed block forces attackers to choose alternate lanes to swing into.  These alternate lanes are attackers secondary choices and they can be more easily read by back row defenders.  When only one lane is open, then that lane can be better anticipated by the back row player.

We don’t do those two things:  1) we don’t consistently touch balls at the net to help out the dig and 2) we don’t take away alleys for hitters so that balls can be funneled down one lane.

The result:  Our opponents score more easily than we would prefer.

Now, I said injuries were an issue, but maybe issue #3.  So, what about Issue #2?  Well, if net defense is at the top of the “needs improvement” list, then next in line is the same darn thing I’ve written about for season after season:  It helps (tremendously) if you have one go-to-girl that can score from anywhere on the court and is on the court at all times.  Middle blockers don’t play all the way around.  Plus, middle blockers are supposed to “block”. At least, their title suggests so. To continue, if your blockers are having trouble slowing down opposing offenses, then splitting their attention by having them carry a heavy offensive responsibility is only further increasing the chance that they won’t consistently contribute on both sides of the ball.  No, the players that should be your go-to six rotation players are definitively outside hitters.

Earlier in the year, I argued for Kaitlyn Granger to be “left alone” and just put out there for six rotations.  Recently, this is exactly how she’s been used and I like that.  I just think she is the kind of player that will play her best if she is in the game consistently, not playing then sitting, then playing then sitting.  However, the suggestion that Granger play six-rotations was not with the thought that she would be the go-to on offense.  The go-to’s are clearly Ivy and Bates.  One of them, in my mind, should ALWAYS play six rotations.  Here is where the injuries put a snarl into the plan… maybe.

Ivy’s knee and Bates’ ankle at times this year have kept them out of the lineup and I understand that each needed to be gradually worked back into playing shape and build up stamina and confidence in their health.  But at some point, once they’ve proven that they can play, then you gotta have one of them out there at all times.  Otherwise, you don’t have that go-to on the floor to get you out of a funky rotation or really even to create a diversion for the opponent.

Its’ nice to have three solid offensive choices on the floor as much as often to force the defense to respect the entire net.   Typically, SFA has two players on the floor that I think the defense has to worry about and unfortunately, in some rotations, at some points in the year, we have had one decent offensive option on the floor in our weakest rotations.

Offense actually has become  MORE of a problem as the year has progressed.  SFA is hitting .199 as a team – which is actually 40 points higher than last year.  However, we have hit .174 in conference matches - meaning that we were having more attacking success earlier in the year as opposed to the last month or so. 

Look back over the last months’ games and identify the one where you think SFA had its best offensive showing.  If you don’t pick the home game against Lamar, then it has to be a candidate.  That match was against a decent opponent and we were in control for virtually the entire afternoon.  The net defense was better that day and in terms of actually blocks, we basically doubled the Cardinals up. 

The offense was sharp and how did we do it?  Bates (20 kills, .500) and Ivy (11 kills, .375) led the way and Granger did what I mentioned above.  She was a complimentary piece – limiting her errors, which she has to do – and came within one kill and one dig of a double double.  The offense was led by the outside/right side hitters and the middles blocked balls.  Plus, Madison Martin played out of her mind on the back row, digging up things left and right.  Aside:  The girl can play.. no doubt… I love me some Madison Martin, but someone hitting negative .046 isn’t an attacker.  Her role is as a back row defender and passer and she’s damn good at it.  However, giving her 20-25 swings a night just shouldn’t be in the game plan.

So, not enough net defense and no consistent six-rotation scorer than can bail you out of a tough run.  That’s my top two in terms of why we are sitting at .500 and on the bubble of the tournament.  Everyone knows we still have a shot.  I mean, c’mon, suppose we beat both SELA and UNO and even split at home between ORU and Northwestern St.  That’d be 9-9 in SLC play, maybe we’d tie with someone we had the breaker on and earn the #7 seed.  That’s not terrible, because then we would be opposite UCA in the bracket and play someone in the first and second round that we could have complete confidence against!  It can be done!

However, to finish this up and make what I think is my overall point… consider this “leaderboard”.  The statistic that I think encapsulates my point here is looking at the DIFFERENCE between attack percentage and opponent attack percentage.  You want this to be positive.  If it is negative then your opponents are swinging at a higher percentage than you.  Now, if this is negative AND your own attack percentage is below league average, then that’d be a double whammy… and that’s precisely SFA’s situation.

CONFERENCE ONLY (ATTACK % - OPPONENT ATTACK %)

1. UCA            .151
2. ORU            .094
T3. SHSU       .057
T3. NWLA       .057
5. TAMUCC    .039
6. Lamar          .016
7. McNeese    .009
8. HBU            -.007
9. UIW             -.032
T10. ACU        -.044
T10. SELA      -.044
12. SFA           -.047
13. NICH         -.072
14. UNO          -.201

The top five teams in the conference are also the five that top this list.  The teams we are fighting with for a tournament spot (Lamar, McNeese, HBU) are all at basically zero on that list.  Draw your own final conclusion.  I think I’ve made a sufficient case.

I’ve already written once this season about opposing hitters feasting on us.  If you are looking for a tell-tale sign as to whether we have anything left in the tank for the last three weeks, don’t talk about injuries. 

Instead, how about we ride our two prize horses named Ivy and Bates as much as we can and everyone else on the front row start slowing some opposing attacks down on a consistent basis?


Step Up. 

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