Friday, November 21, 2014

2014 Southland Conference Tourney: Links to Interviews

Sunday, November 23:  After Championship Game Interviews:

AUDIO:  Caiti O'Connell Interview After NSU Wins 2014 SLC Tournament

NSU Seniors Post-Match:

AUDIO: Mackenzie Neely

AUDIO: Stacey DiFrancesco

AUDIO: Emily Johnson

AUDIO: Vanessa Coleman

VIDEO:  Hugh Hernesman (Guests:  Emma & Austin) Interview After NSU Wins 2014 SLC Tournament

Saturday, November 22 Links:

AUDIO:  Mackenzie Neely Interview After NSU's 4-set Win in the 2nd Round of the SLC Tourney

AUDIO:  NSU's Stacey DiFrancesco Talks About Returning to the SLC Tourney Final

AUDIO:  David McFatrich Comments on UCA's Sweep of TAMUCC to Reach Tourney Final

VIDEO: Amy South of UCA Comments on the Sugar Bears Win Over TAMUCC

VIDEO:  Hugh Hernesman & Glynna Johnson Discuss the Demons' Defense

Friday, November 21 Links:

AUDIO: Interview with Southeastern La. Head Coach Jim Smoot

AUDIO: Interview with 2nd Team All SLC Libero Morgan Todd of SLU

AUDIO: Post Match Comments By Evie Singleton after UCA beats SLU 3-1 in 1st Round

AUDIO: Brianna Brink and Ashley Phelps discuss TAMUCC's 5-set win vs. HBU

AUDIO: Debbie Humphreys Post Match Comments After SFA Sweeps Nicholls

VIDEO: David McFatrich of UCA Discusses the Sugar Bears 4-set Win over SLU

VIDEO:  Tony Graystone On TAMUCC's Five-Set Win Over HBU

VIDEO:  Demons' Co-Head Coach Hugh Hernesman on NSU's Sweep of SHSU

Sunday, November 16, 2014

6th Annual SFA All Conference Teams


REMINDER:  SFA VolleyBlog Radio will broadcast the entire 2014 Southland Conference Tournament starting Friday at 11 AM.  Just click on the radio button above and you're all set!!

Well, for the 6th time, here we go.  This is my list for All-Conference performances in 2014. In case you are reading this after 11/20/14,  please note that this list was released well before the official conference announcement which will come on Wednesday, November 19.

Like in previous years, I suspect I will periodically comment on this article over the next week.  I will indicate updates at the bottom of the post with boldface time stamps.  For now, I will repeat a few phrases from years gone by about my selection process:

Recall,  I actually pick "teams". The conference does not do this. Typically, the conference puts 12 girls on the first team, six girls on the 2nd team and has 6 to 9 girls listed as honorable mention for a total of 24 to 27 girls recognized. I will have three teams of seven for 21 girls honored and then a list of the players I considered for the lists and "just missed".

As I have said each of the last five years: "There are seven starters each night for any particular team, so we will pick seven girls per team. Each team is required to have a a setter, libero, two middle blockers, two hitters and a seventh player that can either be MB or OH."

2014 SFA All-Southland Conference Teams and Awards:

First Team:

OH Devaney Wells-Gibson, Sam Houston
OH Heather Schnars, Central Arkansas
RS  Jill Ivy, Stephen F. Austin
MB Jacque Allen, Stephen F. Austin
MB Chelsea Grant, Lamar
S Kayla Armer, Houston Baptist
L OJ Olson, Stephen F. Austin

Second Team:

OH Jessica Wooten, Houston Baptist
RS Briana Brink, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
OH Kaci Eaton, Nicholls
MB Glynna Johnson, Northwestern State
MB Justice Walker, Stephen F. Austin
S Michelle Griffith, Sam Houston State
L Kalynn Egea, Nicholls

Third Team:

OH Evie Singleton, Central Arkansas
RS Mackenzie Neely, Northwestern State
UTIL Ivy Baresh, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
MB Cortney Moore, Lamar
MB Allison Doerpinghaus, Houston Baptist
S Paige Holland, Stephen F. Austin
L Morgan Todd, Southeastern Louisiana

Just Missed (in order of position played):  OH Jennifer Loerch, ACU, OH Ashley Phelps, TAMUCC, OH Angelique Vidaurri, UIW, L Bailey Martin, Northwestern State, S Kristyn Nicholson, TAMUCC, MB Lexi Mercier, ACU, MB Rachel Cagnina, McNeese, MB Brittany Gilpin, TAMUCC, UTIL Stacey DiFrancesco, NSU.

(FWIW, the two that were toughest to leave off were Loerch and Martin)

Player of the Year:  Devaney Wells-Gibson, Sam Houston
Setter of the Year:  Kayla Armer, Houston Baptist
Libero of the Year:  OJ Olson, Stephen F. Austin
Newcomer of the Year: Kaci Eaton, Nicholls
Freshman of the Year:  Kristyn Nicholson, TAMUCC
Coach of the Year:  Debbie Humphreys, Stephen F. Austin

Player of the Year Discussion:
I think there are three strong candidates for this award:  Wells-Gibson, Schnars and Ivy.  Don't get me wrong, I would love for Jill Ivy to win for obvious reasons.  However, I think all things considered, Wells-Gibson should get it.  If Ivy wins it, then I will be elated.  If Schnars wins it, then that is a great choice - no problem with that at all.  She's a beast.  To be perfectly honest, knowing how voters have typically voted, I would be willing to bet that Schnars actually wins it because of the high attack percentage numbers.  Schnars hit .300, Ivy hit .263 and Wells-Gibson hit .203.  Let me ask you something?  Shouldn't serve errors count, too?  If you are willing to indulge-

Here is my assessment of the three:

1) Statistical Argument:
Wells-Gibson had 520 kills, 41 aces, 9 block solos, 25 block assists for 582.5 points
She had 233 attack errors, 39 service errors, 22 return errors, 1 block error and 3 ball handling errors for 298 points against.  That's a net positive 284.5 across 108 sets for a 2.63 NET avg.

Schnars had 425 kills, 36 aces, 13 block solos, 19 block assists for 483.5 points
She had 121 attack errors, 85 service errors, 29 return errors, and 1 ball handling error for 236 points against.  That's a net positive 247.5 across 101 sets for a 2.45 NET avg.

Ivy had 386 kills, 30 aces, 6 block solos, 70 block assists for 439 points
She had 126 errors, 18 service errors, 10 return errors and four blocking errors for 158 points against.  That's a net positive of 281 points across 104 sets for a 2.70 NET avg.

But, we haven't factored in digs.  Which is important since all three of these girls play all the way around.  Wells-Gibson had 2.85 digs per set compared to 2.09 digs per set for Schnars and 2.06 for Ivy.  To me, statistically, this pushes Wells-Gibson back out front.  Finally, in terms of serve return, Sam Houston seems perfectly comfortable with Wells-Gibson in return.  Central Arkansas appears not to mind Schnars in return, but would prefer Berringer/Hunt, I'd think.  Go look at the the total return numbers.  Wells-Gibson received almost as many serves as the SHSU libero and over 200 more than Schnars.  SFA is OK with Ivy in return, but since this is Ivy's first and only complete six-rotation year, they'd prefer Olson/Martin to take serves.

So, I am not trying to argue against our own player - and not really against Schnars either, but I just think when you consider all the statistics that you have available for 2014, Wells-Gibson wins out.

2) Eye Ball Test Argument
Statisticians don't like these type of touchy-feely ways of arguing, but I think many people vote more from instinct than stats, so here goes:  If you were drafting a Southland Conference Fantasy Volleyball team and you had first pick, who would you take?  My eyes tell me Wells-Gibson.  She's the better athlete, more smooth, can score from anywhere and is the one person I'd want to swing with the game on the line.  Again, this takes NOTHING away from Schnars and Ivy.  Schnars can also score at will from all over the court.  Ivy hits the ball as hard as anyone in the conference, but Wells-Gibson has the all-around game and athleticism edge ever so slightly.

Setter/Freshman Discussion:
Oh man, did I debate this.  I even took my lament to Facebook a few days ago:

Setters. Why is it so hard to rank setters? Armer? Griffith? Holland? Where is Marissa Collins when you need her?

Actually, Collins is in Sweden playing professionally, but that's not the point.  I probably had these three setters in every possible order on my "ballot" at some point in the last week.  Just recently, I wrote a post that said Holland has every right to win this award.  Armer didn't play all that well against us so I still had a little negative vibe there.  In the end, I leaned a little more toward my own style of setter with the pick.  I won't rehash all that in this space, but you can read previous articles where I had stated my preference for setters that are in Armer's mold.  It could go a number of ways, but Kayla Armer is really good and I've believed that for two years now.  She just got overshadowed by all the senior studs last year.

Ashley Ellis of Lamar put up some good numbers, but I'll decline to comment in writing about why I didn't put her on the list.  Nicholson at TAMUCC was close too, and of course, you see I took her at Freshman of the Year.  Which by the way, I think the Freshman has to be Nicholson or Gilpin of TAMUCC.  I went with Nicholson over Gilpin purely because of her position and how much responsibility it was to coordinate an offense with senior players like Brink and Phelps and also have to mesh new players like Gilpin and Felux.

I always get both praise and criticism for these lists and that is perfectly fine.  I've been told that my lists make more sense than any other and I've been told I am on "crack".   I can take it, it comes with the territory of player evaluation.

Comment away below if you'd like.  And AS ALWAYS, if you see me at the conference tournament - which if you are there - you will, because I will be all over the place doing radio and interviews and posting stuff like crazy, then please, strike up a conversation.  I love to talk volleyball and will certainly respect good counterpoints.

Can't wait for the official lists on Wednesday!  I also can hardly wait to get to Natchitoches on Friday!

Update:  Wednesday, 11/19 9 PM
The official all-conference teams got announced this afternoon and overall I think the lists are a very good representation of the players that deserve accolades.  If you factor in my decision to place three hitters, two blockers, a setter and a libero on each team, then my list and the official one show a large amount of agreement.  For instance, Singleton of UCA officially made the first team, but since she was the 7th hitter on the list, using my system she comes in at 3rd team - which is exactly where I placed her.  Of the 18 girls officially on the first and second teams, 17 of them appear on my teams.

These are my main observations of the official lists:

  • As said earlier, although Holland, Armer and Griffith play for teams with different styles and have different styles themselves,  I didn't see a huge gap between the three.  At least one rough draft of my lists had Holland first and Armer third.  I'm beyond thrilled that Paige got Setter of the Year.  I think there are several deserving setters and clearly I like Armer just a bit more than the official voters.
  • Texas A&M Corpus-Christi is under represented.
  • There is still too much "team bias".  For some reason, official voters repeatedly ignore strong performances by players on teams that finish in the middle or lower end of the standings. This is terribly unfortunate.  Team awards are called standings, trophies, championships and seeds.  It is an absolute crime that a player can finish third in the nation in a major statistical category and then finish fourth in the league voting at her position.  When stuff like that happens, it makes the conference look silly.
  • Schnars is an excellent choice for POY.  She would have had my #2 vote if submitting a list of 18 as the voters do.  Doerpinghaus was my #2 choice at Newcomer, so both of those awards are nice picks.  I am a huge Heather Schnars fan, so that honor is pleasant to see although I would have loved to have seen Jill Ivy win.  See the Wells-Gibson, Schnars, Ivy breakdown in the original post for my reasoning.
  • I am so happy for SFA Volleyball.  It is so awesome to see all those names.  Ivy, Allen, Walker, Holland, Olson, Humphreys all obtaining recognition is great visibility for our program.

  • The Southland Conference has four liberos that finished in the Top 50 in the nation in digs per set.  None of these girls won Libero of the Year.  You MIGHT could explain away one or two of those performances based on intangibles, non-statistical arguments, the eye-ball test, etc, etc.  But you will NOT convince me that ALL FOUR of those girls can be passed over for those reasons.  You will not convince me that a player that had more than 100 less digs than the conference leader and finished 7th in conference play in digs per set has strong enough non-statistical evidence in her favor to leapfrog FOUR PLAYERS for the highest honor at the position. 
But I don't blame the voters for this misstep. I blame the system.  When coaches submit their own rankings of five players it stacks the deck for others to play with.  I have said, many, many times that if we are to truly take lists like this seriously, then the population to choose from for all awards should be the entire rosters of every team.  Coaches SHOULD NOT prioritize their players for league use.  We should not try to make All-Conference voting easier for the voters. The impact a player has made on the league or their program in past years should have NO BEARING on voting in the present year.  The list clearly has the label "2014" at the top of it.

I'm pleased Nicholson won the Freshman of the Year, but the current rules prevent TAMUCC from submitting multiple names of freshmen.  This creates bias against teams that have multiple freshmen that are under consideration.  Let the league decide by an open vote.  Don't give a program the power to filter the list of candidates.

Finally, I actually chuckled out loud when I noticed that the 2nd "TEAM" All-Conference list is made up of three blockers, two liberos and a hitter. If you want to honor the league's choice of the top 18 players, then just call the list "2014 All Conference Selections".  But to call three blockers, two liberos and one outside hitter a "team" isn't just small differences in preferred semantics - it's goofy.

#FreeEgea  #FreeOlson

Saturday, November 15, 2014

SFA: #1 in Nation in a Serving Category

This post is an investigation into serving statistics during the 2014 regular season for all Southland Conference teams.  We'll look at both the best individual servers as well as team serving in this statistically minded post.

I discovered something amazing.  SFA has the best ratio of service aces to service errors in the nation as of this writing.  I discovered this by pure coincidence.  Here is how all this went down:  

I have been thinking about serving efficiency ever since I began teaching the 7-year olds on my city league youth team how to serve.  The games at this age can be won by teams that simply don't error while serving since there are so few rallies.  At about the same time I realized this, I travelled to Natchitoches to cover the UCA/NSU match.  I have long questioned the overall effectiveness of aggressive jump serves when they lead to a lot of errors and that night I watched UCA pound a lot of balls into the net or out of bounds on serves.  So, I got the idea to look at all the servers in the conference and look specifically at their ratio of aces to service errors.

I actually have had this idea before, but never really studied it in depth.  While researching individual service patterns in the conference, I noticed SFA had more aces than errors and I thought this was rare.  The average ace to error ratio in the Southland this year was right at 0.66 (think of this as 2/3). So, for every two aces you see in a Southland contest, those two aces will be countered by three service errors on average.  SFA's ace to error ratio is 1.26.  A little quick statistical work showed that this is over 2.5 standard deviations above average, a value which in bell-shaped data should occur only 1/2 of 1% of the time. Now, there are 334 DI Volleyball programs and 1/2 of 1% of the number 334 is between 1 and 2.  So, it hit me like a ton of bricks last night about midnight. If my calculations were right, then SFA might be in the top two or so in the nation in service ace ratio.

As quick as my fingers could get on the NCAA Volleyball Statistics website, I had found the data I needed to show that, yes.. SFA was FIRST IN THE NATION in the ratio of aces to errors.  In fact, there are only six teams in Division 1 NCAA Volleyball that have more aces than errors.  Here is the list:

1.  Stephen F. Austin.  125 aces/99 errors.  Ratio: 1.26
2.  Robert Morris         111 aces/95 errors.  Ratio: 1.17
3.  Pittsburgh               148 aces/133 errors  Ratio: 1.11
4.  IUPUI                     138 aces/128 errors  Ratio: 1.08
5.  Northern Iowa        120 aces/113 errors  Ratio: 1,06
6.  South Dakota St.    142 aces/141 errors  Ratio: 1.01

There you have it.  SFA has the best ace to error ratio - by quite a hefty margin - in the entire country.  I nearly peed my pants when I figured this out and sent volleyball SID Brian Newton an email about it at 12:40 AM last night.  Like all great SID's, he was still awake and working and we started talking about it in emails.  Fascinating stuff.  But wait, you think that's interesting?  This will blow you away:

Now, what about the top individual servers in the conference this year?  

Below, we look at the Top 20 ace producing players in the conference.  There are actually 21 data points since there was a tie for 20th.  To get into the top 20, a player had to amass 25 or more service aces.  All 21 girls are all listed at the bottom of this post for reference.  I plotted these 21 girls aces on the horizontal (x) axis below and their number of service errors on the vertical (y) axis. Check out the plot:

The slope of that trend line going through the data works out to be 1.45, which of course is really close to 1.5.  If you remember your high school geometry, a slope of 1.5 means as you increase aces by 1, you expect to increase errors by 1.5.  Now, multiply each of those numbers by two and what do you get?  For every two aces, you expect to increase service errors by three.  That's a 2/3 ratio.  Have we seen that before? Sure, that's the conference average that I alluded to above.  So, the above graph shows that the top servers in the conference still huddle around the ratio of 2 aces to every three errors.  That alone is rather interesting.

But, if you look carefully you'll see that there are three points in the graph that fall well above the trend line and four points that fall well below the trend line.  The remaining points fall relatively close to what the trend line would predict.

First, those below the trend line:  Holland and Ivy (SFA), Baresh (AMCC) and Sander (UNO).  There are your four most efficient servers in the conference.  They managed to crack the top 20 in aces, but at the same time, they kept their service errors amazingly low so that they fall well below the trend line.  This indicates efficiency:  high aces and low errors.  That's good!

But, what about those way above the trend line:  Schnars and Singleton (UCA) and McStravick (HBU).  These girls have way more service errors than what should be expected for the number of aces they achieved.  Amazing!  It was UCA's serving that got me on this crazy chase in the first place and sure enough, they have two of the three girls with the lowest ace to error ratios among the high ace girls in the whole conference.  See list below.  The fact that these points fall above the trend line represents more serving inefficiency than what should be expected.  That's bad.

By the way, that one lone point WAY over on the right is Southland ace leader Malina Sanchez who has 70 aces and 86 service errors.  Notice her data point is right near the line, so her ratio is right in line with what would be expected.  Another "by the way" fact... McNeese leads the NATION in aces, but is also one of only three schools with more than 300 service errors.  Also, Lamar has one of the worst ace to error ratios in the country (in the worst five).

Stop and think about something just a second:  Sanchez has 86 service errors and Schnars has 85.  SFA has 99.... as A TEAM.

Now, one might argue that jump servers like Schnars and Singleton get opposing teams out of system often on serves that land in bounds and this has a tangible benefit to their teams not accounted for in the numbers above.  That's fair to assume.  But, three counterpoints:  1) How do you know that isn't true for good servers who don't jump like Holland and Ivy?  2) You don't have any hard data ON THE WHOLE LEAGUE to substantiate that claim anyway (although it would be nice to try and track for the LEAGUE) and 3) one thing is for certain:  a service error results in a 0% chance you win that point.  

So, I think the above data suggest that a player who doesn't jump serve, but has something about their approach that leads to high aces and low errors is an overall better contributor to their teams total scoring.  To boil it down, let's just look at two extremes:  What would you prefer:  Holland (25 aces, 7 errors, short serves to get teams rushing in to the net and potentially out of system) or Schnars (36 aces, but 85 errors with a jump serve that can be difficult to return)? It's going to be tough to argue that Schnars' 11 more aces isn't cancelled out by her 78 more service errors!!  Plus, can you really explain away 78 more service errors by saying her jump results in more UCA points that Holland's short float results in SFA points?  I doubt it.  If so, I'll need some data and not just a hunch for me to believe it. 

Notice that an aggressive jump server like Devaney Wells-Gibson (she sometimes backs off on it, though) has been able to record more aces than errors (41/39).  So, I am not down on jump serving as a whole.  I just believe the control has to be there.

My conclusion is that aggressive jump serving needs to result in a VERY large fraction of balls staying in play when they are not aces.  Otherwise, the practice is too aggressive and the net effect is negative and the player should consider abandoning it.  I think my data above suggests exactly that.  For now, I nominate Holland, Sander, Ivy and Baresh (in that order) as the most efficient servers in the conference.  Holland's ratio in the list below is just absurd:

Ace to Error Ratios of Top 20 Ace Producing Servers (SLC 2014)

1. Holland (SFA)            25/7 (3.57)
2. Sander (UNO)            27/14 (1.96)
3. Ivy (SFA)                   30/18 (1.67)
4. Baresh (AMCC)         39/28 (1.39)
5. DiFrancesco (NSU)   29/24 (1.21)
T6. Nash (UCA)             25/23 (1.09)
T6. Hammoutene (UNO) 25/23 (1.09)
8. Wells-Gibson (SHSU)  41/39 (1.05)
T9. Kilpatrick (SHSU)      30/29 (1.03)
T9. Homer (SHSU)           30/29  (1.03)
11. Sellers-Wiebe (UNO)  25/27 (0.93)
12. Sanchez (McNeese)     70/86  (0.81)
13. Graham (McNeese)      30/38 (0.79)
14. Nicholson (AMCC)     42/54 (0.78)
15. Egea (NICH)               30/39 (0.77)
16. Jaeger (NSU)               26/36 (0.72)
17. Schwartz (NICH)         28/39 (0.72)
18. Hollowell (LU)             27/41 (0.66)
19. Singleton (UCA)          44/74 (0.59)
20. McStravick (HBU)       25/50 (0.50)
21. Schnars (UCA)             36/85 (0.42)

Ace to Error Ratios of SLC Teams 2014:

1. SFA          1.26
2. NSU          0.86
3. TAMUCC 0.83
4. UNO         0.77
5. SHSU       0.77
6. McNeese  0.70
7. UCA         0.64
8. HBU         0.62
9. ACU         0.62
10. UIW        0.52
11. SLU        0.50
12. Lamar     0.39

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Interviews and Announcements

Links to recent audio interviews:

Senior Day:
Debbie Humphreys After UCA Match
Jill Ivy After UCA Match
Paige Holland After UCA Match

SFA 3, NSU 1:
Justice Walker After NSU Match (Natchitoches)
Jill Ivy & Paige Holland After NSU Match (Natchitoches)

I am happy to report that the Southland Conference has granted written permission to cover the 2014 Southland Conference Volleyball Tournament.  Of course, this event goes down in Natchitoches, LA next weekend - Friday, November 21 through Sunday, November 23.  I am pleased to be partnering with the conference office on this.  The first two days of the tournament will be covered by the Southland Digital Network.  The championship match will appear on ESPN3.  Details can be found at the SLC's Conference Tournament Central website.

Last year at this time I was ready to begin Internet radio broadcasts.  However, there really wasn't enough time to get the proper permissions and shortly before the tournament began in Corpus Christi, the league office let me know that it would be best if I didn't begin radio for the first time at the SLC Tourney.  In retrospect, this was wise.  By working out some kinks during the 2014 preseason, we were able to deliver 13 SFA broadcasts this year along with a special presentation of UCA @ NSU.  Response to the Internet Radio broadcasts has been positive.

I am repeatedly asked by fans when the next broadcast is planned.  I have received email and Facebook messages from several people saying that they have enjoyed staying connected in a fresh way during 2014. At a time where attendance at many SLC matches around the league is several hundred a night, it has been a strong showing to have had over 100 listeners many times during the season.  Our last broadcast topped out at 185 total listens.  The attendance listed in the box score for that match was 336.

There are some things I need to do better.  I've gone back and reviewed most of the broadcasts and noticed some things in terms of descriptions that I can do better.  Each time I do a game, I feel like it gets just a tad cleaner and more descriptive.  The goal is to quickly and accurately describe the play-by-play while sprinkling in a bit of analysis here and there.  Additionally, as all who know me pretty well are aware:  I am a passionate fan and so a fair bit of emotion comes through during the broadcasts.  I think this has to be measured, but I don't really intend to try and repeat the styles of larger media outlets.  I'll continue to be honest while always attempting to be respectful of both squads.  One thing I am committed to is complementing good play - even if it is from our opponent.  I've always believed that championing others doesn't have to be at the expense of "rooting for the home team". Good volleyball is good volleyball and listeners deserve to hear about strong efforts from all athletes involved.

This years' coverage of the Southland Conference Tournament will be more comprehensive than ever.  Last year, we posted 19 audio interviews during the three days and did live chats during all matches.  The 2014 Tournament coverage will be expanded to include:

1. SFAVolleyBlog Radio broadcasts all three days.  All seven matches will be broadcast live including all SFA matches.

2. Audio Interviews posted on the blog's SoundCloud site.  Many of these will be done between matches or right after matches are finished.  The audio interviews will be instantly processed and will appear online within 15 minutes of completion.  So, these will be "instant reaction" type interviews from players and coaches.

3. Video Interviews posted on the blog's YouTube channel.   Some of these interviews will be from a fixed location in Prather Coliseum that I'll set up on Friday morning when I arrive.  I wouldn't be surprised if there are one or two video interviews done on Friday and Saturday evening from the team hotels.  Since these have to be edited, they will go up at night.  This will provide you a bridge to the next day's games.

I have a post about serving statistics in the works.  This will go up within a week.  Also, my 6th Annual SFAVolleyBlog All-Conference Teams will be posted on Monday, November 17.  I expect the conference to announce the official teams and awards on Wednesday, November 19 although that is not confirmed.  I like to get my lists out ahead of the official ones so that I cannot be accused of undue bias.  You can familiarize yourself with my system by reading last years' lists at this link.

I do want to address a position that I have taken in times past again here in this post:  I do NOT believe that All-Conference selections should be purposely skewed towards the top teams in the conference.  Last year I wrote this:

"I categorically reject the notion that All-Southland Conference teams are meant to honor those teams that finished high in the standings by default and design.  To do this is unquestionably biased and duplicative. As a scientist, I just can't do things that are by their very design biased and duplicative."

I stand by this statement 100%.  If a player on a 9th place team is the second or third best player at her position, then she deserves to be honored.  We have standings, trophies and NCAA bids for the best TEAMS.  All-SLC teams are about players, not teams.

My methodology evolves, of course.  This year, I have done even more statistical analysis than in the past - especially for the hitters.  But, I have also made more notes throughout the year based on personal observation, information I've gleaned from conversations with coaches and information on team websites.  All in all, I have spent more time constructing the lists in 2014 than in any other year.

 Last year, 16 of the 18 names on the official lists appeared on my lists.  Of course, the goal isn't to "guess what the conference will do".  There is no point in creating the lists unless I feel as though my lists have a level of respectability and accuracy.  Despite that position, the official lists comprise the votes of 26 individuals (coaches and SID's), and of course, my list, is just one person's opinion.  However, I do feel qualified to vote.  As in years' past, I suspect I will be granted the media privilege of voting for the All-Tournament Team and the Tournament MVP.  As always, I will publish my ballot after casting it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The 4-H Club

Last week while in Natchitoches to do radio for the NSU vs. UCA game, I wound up in a discussion with a handful of Sugar Bear fans who had made the trip down to Louisiana to support their team.  I love conversations like that.  They give such an opportunity to learn and to see how other people view players and teams - including how others think of SFA.

At one point - I guess after I had built up some credibility with them, a UCA fan ask me: "So, what's so different about SFA this year as opposed to last year?"  I gave an answer consisting of a subset of points in this post.  But, the question generated a lot of thought on the ride home and over the past day or so.  Thus, the blog gives me the forum for a wee bit of expansion.

So, what is different about this years' team?  What are the assignable causes of being 13-0 at this juncture as opposed to 7-8 with three matches remaining in conference play like we were in 2013?  Well, some of these areas of discussion are correlated, but here's a shot at what I think some of the main differences are:

The Team is Much More Healthy
Last year, it was tough to maintain a consistent lineup due to injuries both large and small.  In addition, the injuries were widespread.  I've always believed that roles are super important in volleyball.  Admittedly, I've come to realize I think this to a higher degree that many other people, but still 2013 was really a lesson in how difficult it is to obtain consistency and momentum with shifting roles.  Those roles shifted last year primarily out of necessity in trying to adjust to all the bumps and bruises.  This year, we lost JK Evans early in the year, but had the depth to accommodate that.  Plus, it wasn't a guarantee that she would play the majority of sets anyway.  Not in the way that it was more certain that Ivy, Olson, Allen and Walker would.

Like all teams, we have had our share of a few things pop up here and there.  Overall, though, it has been a healthy year to this point.  Madison Martin dodged a bullet and hopefully is just about over her wrist issue.  Given she played the entire match against UCA, I'd imagine that she'll be fine for Friday and next week.  Bartlett had to miss a match, maybe more, but there don't appear to be long term effects.

Health has allowed us to run basically the same personnel out there for the vast majority of matches while continuing to flirt with all the L2 possibilities or play the hot hand in that spot.  That consistency has allowed the club to gel and go out night after night trusting that the person playing on each side of you has familiarity with the entire system.  It's allowed us to establish that unquantifiable, yet important "feel" to the combinations on the court as we click around in the various rotations.

Paige Holland Has Taken Her Final Step Forward
What's to keep Holland from winning 2014 Southland Setter of the Year?  See, it's only a few weeks away from when all of the votes are counted and reported.  As I wrote about in the previous post on serve and receive (see last week, "First Contact"), we need to use both stats and the "eye" test when assessing players.  I've been (constructively) critical of voting in the SLC at times because I think people don't combine the two in the right dose.  This is one time where it is critical to use the right numbers.  Conference -Only statistics are important here since Holland's overall numbers include tournaments in which we still used the 6-2.  She is second in the league in assists per set in conference only matches.  Earlier in the year, I wrote about how wide open the setter situation was in 2014 across the conference.   In that post, I told  you my favorite was Kayla Armer of HBU.  She leads the conference in assists for conference matches and is only 0.02 assists per set behind Michelle Griffith of Sam Houston overall.  I have to think the three girls mentioned here are the candidates for the honor, with a wild card being freshman Nicholson at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.  HBU hasn't had the overall success that SFA and Sam Houston have had, so that may sway some voters away from Armer.  So, maybe it will come down to Holland and Griffith?  Who knows?  I really like Armer, but will have to really sit and think before making my pick.

No matter all of the above talk about Setter of The Year, the point being made is that Holland has played very consistently during 2014.  She has done a fantastic job of getting all of the hitters involved throughout the year.  Plus, she has been attacking and dumping on 2nd touch more often.  Go back and look at box scores.  Lots of times her kill-error-attack line looks like 6-1-10 or the like. Several people (at other schools) have specifically mentioned to me how disruptive her presence has been to their game plans to defend us.   Roughly 2/3 of the time during SLC matches, Holland's kills plus digs has equated to double-figures.   Five times she has had five or more kills and 7 or more digs.  Now, think.. get the numbers in the right context:  SFA has played a TON of three set matches in conference.  So, many times Holland is putting up between 1.5 and 2.0 kills per set along with 2.0 to 2.5 digs per set.  It is outstanding for a setter to average one kill per set.  Indeed, for the ENTIRE conference slate to this point, Holland has averaged 1.17 kills per set and 2.07 digs per set.   Taken all together, Holland's 2014 contributions have been vital.  Dare I say, worthy of (an) honor.

Now, from honor to honesty...

Honesty on the Left
For all the talk about the match against ULM at home where we "turned things around", I believe it just as important to go back to the last non-conference match of the season against Rice.  Tori Bates, people.  Tori Bates.  We got our answer just in time.  After Bates provided a big spark against Rice, she has been a consistent and effective starter.

During SLC play, Bates has averaged 2.33 kills per set while hitting .241.  That is a fantastic attack percentage when hitting primarily from the left.  I mean, 10th place OVERALL in the conference for the entire year is a girl hitting .263.  Not to mention that people hitting above .250 are almost always middles or right sides.  I did a study back in 2010 that estimated that primary left-side attackers average a hitting percentage around .170 in our conference.

Further, notice that we have more depth (and that depth has been mostly healthy).  Bartlett has contributed to help keeping the left side honest.  During conference play, McIntyre has averaged just under two kills per set (1.92) and hit at a .169 clip... that's average production for a second left side.  It is important to note that McIntyre has improved as the year has gone on.  Her overall attack percentage is .076 and is weighed down by the non-conference learning curve matches.

Do not for a second underestimate the combined effect of Bates, Bartlett, McIntyre and occasionally Kainer.  I know that our middles are putting up incredible numbers and I know that Jill Ivy plays for us, but I still maintain that one of the HUGE differences between this year and recent years is that we have a nice (maybe even slightly above conference average) total production from the left.  This matters SO MUCH.  I know I really go on and on about this, but this year has really underscored how important it is to get production all across the net and not just in the middle and one pin.

Not to go off the deep end, but could you imagine what a juggernaut our offense would be if we had conference leading level production on the left?  Holy smokes.  But back to reality... forget that.  The point is that we have good left side production and that gets more good looks for Allen, Walker and Ivy due to blockers having to respect the left.  That's a big part of our offensive success.  Bates, Bartlett and McIntyre are relatively unsung.  Remember those three if you see girls hoisting a trophy overhead in the days before Thanksgiving.

I mean, check it out:  SFA is hitting .293 in conference matches (which is ridiculously high) and .232 overall for the year.  Last year, those numbers were .187 and .167, respectively.  That's what Health, Holland and Honesty will do for ya!! Welcome to the 3H Club, ya'll.

Other factors contributing to our success:  Allen and Walker are improved.  Recently, they have blocked better.  There is little question they are athletic.  Not always the most technically proficient blockers, the two of them have done much better in that regard as of late.

Additionally, Madison Martin is in the role where her value can be leveraged.  She has really made me a fan this year.  So solid.

OJ Olson didn't really get mentioned in this post.  You know why?  Because she is incredibly consistent.  She's as good as ever.  She was great last year too.  Without her, last year would have been worse.  This year, I've been frustrated watching inferior liberos like Kilpatrick at SHSU and Todd at SLU win recent Defensive Player of the Week awards.  Arneson at NSU got hurt, Egea at Nicholls has some great stats, but Olson just wins out on the eye + stat meter.  Some other teams in the conference don't have a girl like Madison Martin to flank their libero and so they  get some libero stat inflation.  I know I probably sound a little whiny here at the end, but c'mon Southland voters.. wake up.. OJ Olson is as good a pick as any for Libero of the Year.  OK, rant over.

Finally, let's not ignore coaching effectiveness.  Humphreys and crew have done a nice job with all of the points above.  Think about it:  Health?  Well, the coaching staff made adjustments to pre-season workout routines and the amount of rest time during certain intense weeks of the conference season.  They have better gauged how to increase the likelihood we stay healthy by adjusting workout regimens.  Holland?  Humphreys knew something wasn't quite right when the team got back from South Dakota.  She ditched the 6-2 and it paid off.  Honesty on the Left?  We've already covered the Midas touch that was putting in Bates against Rice.  Plus, it appears as though we've used Bartlett and McIntyre in just the right doses.  We've been able to give them valuable experience while also maximizing their contributions at the right points in the season. 

So, maybe it should be the 4H club? 

See, you thought the 4-H club was just the nation's largest youth development organization?  That organization's H's are "head, heart, hands and health"?  I think that's fits us pretty good.  Humphreys is the head, the left side has played with heart, Holland has the hands, and we've been healthy all year.  In fact, I'm so inspired that I have re-written the 4-H Club Motto to mold it more to SFA Volleyball.

4-H Motto:
I pledge my head to clearer thinking
My heart to greater loyalty
My hands to larger service
and my health to better living
for my club, my community, my country and my world.

The SFA 4-H Motto:
We pledge to head coach Debbie Humphreys
Our left side created greater honesty
Our setting hands belong to Holland
and our health has made us better.
We play as a team, for our university and the volleyball world is taking notice.

I should have been a poet rather than a statistician.

Maybe Not.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

First Contact

I've entered another dimension.  The dimension of coaching volleyball.  Well, let's clarify this:  Technically, what I am coaching really isn't VOLLEYball.  Given that the team is made up of 7 and 8 year old girls, many of which have never played on a sports team before, there really isn't much volleying going on.  The ball rarely clears the net on a serve and comes back to the team that initiated first contact.  The concept of rally is completely non-existent and "volleys" are rare and far between.  I've noticed there is plenty of squealing, though.

Virtually every practice is comprised of derivatives of two basic drills:  one focusing on serving and one focused on passing.  There is no "setting" and "attacking" in seven year old volleyball.  But, there are kneepads.  Boy, do they love to slide around on them when they should be listening to "Coach Greg".

Despite this young offshoot of the game we all love, I have been struck with some similarities to the college game.  Never were the basics of "first contact" more on display than last week when SFA hosted Northwestern State.  The match - almost entirely - could be described as a battle between serve and serve receive.

Two years ago, I was interviewing Paige Holland for this blog.  I had a legal pad with a page full of setting related questions.  At one point, I asked Holland what things a beginning player should work on.  Since she was a setter, I initially thought her answer might in some way have to do with setting, footwork used by setters, how to hold one's hands while trying to set, etc.  Of course, about a millisecond after I had asked the question, I realized that any reasonable answer wasn't going to have anything to do with setting in the sense that we see Paige Holland or any other college setter perform.

Paige succinctly said that she would have the girls work on serve and receive, since they are the two basic tenants of the game.  Two years later, she has, of course, been proven very right by my brief experiences.  The answer made sense to me then.  It makes more sense to me now, but it is truly profound that volleyball can at many times have basically NOTHING to do with volleying.

The point of first contact for each team is so very important.  How many times have you heard coaches refer to a "service run" as a momentum changer?  How many times have you seen timeouts taken after a couple of shanked returns?  Why is there a position called "defensive specialist" and not "offensive specialist"?  Why are certain players "hidden" in the corner in various receive patterns?  Why did Paige work to perfect the short serve and why has Jill Ivy continued to serve from the neighboring county?

Because serve and receive are the most fundamental skills in the game.

I basically can't write a post without stating that I love digs.  I love, love , love - in rally, back row defense.  But, you can't even have a dig until the ball returns to the serving team.  The concept of the "dig" requires the beginning of a rally.  An ace serve, a serve into the net or out of bounds, a shanked receive, a miscommunication on the back row - all of these preclude there being even one dig on the play.  Yes, even I have to admit (and it's really an easy call when you think about it), serving and receiving serve are generally more important than digging up attacks.

Because of my career profession, I have a penchant for numbers.  I love sports statistics and at times am able to make convincing arguments using them and at other times probably over state their importance.  Honestly, volleyball is sorely lacking in truly meaningful statistics.  There are statistics that could be created that would be more representative of talent, but they'd require review of film to accurately record.  Either that or many people on the sideline tracking very specific information.  Now, it's really hard to record the volleyball statistics that we do have at our disposal due to the pace of the game.  Any time someone new works at a volleyball media table, one of the first things they remark about is the "stat calling" that takes place.  Often times it takes three people to record the statistics that you see in a typical volleyball box score:  an "inputter" , a "caller" and a "writer". The input person basically doesn't see the match.  He/she is typing at a furious pace based at what they hear from the caller.  The caller just barks out codes - for two hours straight.

"Serve Home 11, receive 5, attack 9, dig 12, attack 2, over, dig 11, attack 15, kill, assist 1"

This would be what a caller would say on a very short rally.  Now imagine the ball going over the net more than three or four times in a rally.  It gets INSANE.  That's why you often have a "writer".  The writers job?  Simply to write down - in shorthand - everything the caller says.  Why?  Because over the course of two hours there probably are going to be close to a thousand calls.  At least several hundred.  Do you think that can be done without occasionally mistaking a "3" for an "8" on a jersey?  Or occasionally not saying "over" when the ball is blocked or batted back on to the attacking side without a dig?  Corrections in the flow of play have to be made.

Two years ago, we played at Louisiana-Monroe and the "caller" and the "inputter" were both rookies.  Plus, they didn't use a "writer".  It was horrible.  Absolutely horrible.  At the end of three sets, we had scored more than 70 points and our setter had 5 assists in the box score.  This is almost physically impossible to actually happen.  That is, unless it is 7 and 8 year old league!  The entire box score was redone later that night, in part by using Katzy Randall's stats that she had recorded on the sideline just for coaching purposes.  It was an utter disaster and without Katzy's help, the statistics would have had to been completely redone by video.

So, it is hard to imagine that volleyball will ever adopt many more "official statistics".  What the game needs is a stat that accurately measures serve and receive effectiveness.  Aces are a nice stat, but they are too course.  As mentioned in previous posts, many teams use a passing "point system" whereby points are given to passers based on how accurately their passes go to target.  But, despite these numbers being important they miss one huge component:  the correlation between the quality of the serve and the quality of the pass.  It simply is not true that the accuracy of a pass can be claimed to be independent of the quality of the serve.

Simply put, if I am serving, an opposing team will score better on their passing score than if Jill Ivy or Paige Holland is serving.  An extreme example, but still one that makes the point.  Some players simply don't have the serving skill that others do.  So, if you are tracking passing scores on the sideline, your recorded numbers are artificially inflated when you play poor serving teams.  Likewise, they are systematically depressed when you play a tough serving team.  So, your recorded ability to receive is correlated to the quality of serves you face.  No volleyball metric I know factors these two things in TOGETHER.  They are always separated.  That's at least marginally deceiving.  In some cases, it may render what you are recording close to useless.

On a similar note, take a look at this:  Last Tuesday, SFA won the first set against Northwestern State despite being outhit .200 to .194.  Now, of course, that difference is negligible.   There is no meaningful difference in those attack percentages across dozens of games, much less a single set.  It's just that one starts with a "2" and the other starts with a "1", so it has a different feel.  In the second set against the Demons, SFA won the set despite hitting only .041.  You hardly ever win sets in which you hit that low.  Northwestern State hit only .065 in that second set.  If all you saw was the box score, you might conclude that both teams were having awful attacking nights.  Actually, that wasn't really the case.

Additionally, if you look only at the numbers you'll find that SFA had six aces compared to just one for Northwestern State.  This isn't overly impressive in and of itself.  Six aces is not a HUGE total for three sets.  SFA averages about four aces per three sets, so six isn't ridiculously large compared to average.

Now, if you were to go back and watch the tape of the match, you'd be inclined to believe that Demon OH Caiti O'Connell had a nice attacking match.  However, the stats say she had 9 kills with 7 errors on 32 swings for paltry .062 attack percentage.   Still, I claim O'Connell kept the Demons in the first two sets with her attacking.

Why?  What gives here with all these seemingly poor numbers?  They don't come close to telling the real story.  And there is a simple explanation why.  All of these numbers depend upon first contact for each side being clean in order to have a high level of relevance.  O'Connell's nine kills were virtually all skillful attacks on out-of-system balls.  Many of the 16 attacks that didn't result in a kill or error were artful plays just to keep the ball in alive.  Those nine kills were hardly EVER in system.  Most of them were off junk sets by Jaeger or Johnson - balls just flipped to O'Connell because she was the only place the ball could go.  Yet, O'Connell scored on some of them and kept others in a rally.

The missing link here?  Attack percentage is correlated to receive quality.  Yet, we have no true measure of this correlation.  Northwestern State REALLY struggled to pass against us last week.  Their poor first contact led (in part) to poor attacking numbers. 

Why?  How much of it is due to Bailey Martin having an off match?  How much of it is due to SFA serving the Demons tough?  See, I think both of those things are true.  I think SFA served REALLY well, but yet six aces don't tell that story completely.  I also think that Bailey Martin really struggled.  Bad.  Her four reception errors tell part of that story, but they don't come close to explaining all the times that the Demon setters were sent sprinting all over the court for second touch.

Now, hey, this is not to dog on Martin.  Martin actually has played well in place of Keelie Arneson.  Plus, the other back row serve receive players for NWLA weren't exactly blameless either.  The Demons just did not pass well and if you go by the recorded stats alone you really wouldn't think it was the biggest key to the match - yet, it was.

One number we can see is .103.  Northwestern State hit .103 for the entire match.  This number is almost entirely due to each teams' first contact.  That number is FAR better explained by SFA's serving and NWLA's receipt of serve as opposed to the swings of the Demon hitters.  So, here what I am saying.  In THIS case, the poor "attack" percentage of .103 had little to do with "attacking".  It had far more to do with serving and passing.

The point being made here is one that we all need to keep in mind when looking at just box scores, or things like GameTracker.  The point is especially relevant for statheads like me.  This is certainly one of those "talk in the mirror" type posts.

We love numbers in sports.  Some of us adore them more than others.  It's often said that the numbers don't lie - and to a point, that is true.  However, in volleyball so many of our main numbers are correlated or associated with variables that we can "see" when we watch matches, but that we don't have a statistic for.  This is particularly true when it comes to serve and receive.

A better measure of serve quality than aces would be:  "What fraction of serves lead to the other team becoming out-of-system over and above what would be expected by an average reception team?"  This is almost impossible to measure.

A better measure of reception would be "What fraction of balls on serves of average difficulty are passed to target?"  Then, ask the question again replacing the phrase "average difficulty" with "low/high degree of difficulty".  This might could be measured, but we'd have to try and define what average/low/high degree of difficulty serves would be.  This is difficult and surely subjective.

Instead, we relegate ourselves to the yes/no granularity of "ace or no ace".  Likewise, we subjectively rate serve receives as things like "1's" or "2's".  Finally, serve receive is almost always rated by the team doing the receiving and not someone acting in a neutral capacity.  So, I claim passing scores rated by the bench are subject to some degree of human error and bias.  This doesn't render these numbers useless.  It just means they are a function of the actual person doing the recording. 

On the other hand:  A kill is a kill.  An ace is an ace.  An assist is an assist.  A dig is a dig.  There is little to no subjectivity in their definitions.  So, we record these things.

Volleyball needs both statistics and the "eye test".  That said, to measure true talent, volleyball needs to consider adopting progressive performance measures that utilize the concept of correlation in some succinct way. 

I'm not holding my breath on the last of these suggestions become a reality soon.  It just isn't functional.  The game is too fast to ask for recording much more than what we already record.  So, in the meantime, we should try and use numbers in the proper context.  We should try and realize they are informative, but not without multiple causes for their creation.  We should always look to not only describe WHAT happened, but HOW and WHY it happened.  For those harder questions, box scores like those created in the game between Northwestern State and SFA last Tuesday should be relegated to lesser importance.

Northwestern State lost to SFA in large part because they passed poorly.  The box score doesn't provide much more to that main story line.

"Numbers Never Lie" isn't the same thing as saying they tell the whole truth.  For last week's match against the Demons, they most certainly did not.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Monday, October 6, 2014

Taking the Bates

Currently, we find ourselves 18 games into what has been a successful season to this point for the Ladyjacks.  A strong non-conference schedule has paid off with four straight conference wins.  Despite many tough opponents still on the slate, SFA sits at 11-7, needing only five more wins to match last season's entire total.  To me, two points in time stick out so far in this season. 

First, the match against ULM.  The comeback against the Warhawks saved the 'Jacks from what would have been one of the more crushing defeats in recent memory.  Instead, it served as a springboard for more solid play to wrap up the tournament pre-season and set the club on a positive track going into SLC play.  The second turning point to date that sticks out is the insertion of Junior OH Tori Bates in the second set of the match against Rice.  Having started both Kelsi Bartlett and Abby McIntyre, Debbie Humphreys was hoping to see what both freshmen could do against a bigger, physical team like the Owls.  But, by the  end of the first set, SFA was hitting just .029 with seven of the teams' 10 attack errors coming from the freshman duo.

Humphreys then made a change that turned out to be gold.  Bates was inserted for McIntyre.  Bartlett, who had mixed in some kills with the errors was allowed to stay on the floor.  Despite not winning the match, SFA turned the entire game around.  Rice pushed through 26-24 in the pivotal second set.  The Owls scored five of the sets' last six points to take a commanding two set lead.  It was a set SFA should have won - a set they played well enough to win.  Bates insertion provided an immediate spark and despite being down two sets, the Ladyjacks came  out of the half in fine form and took the third set.  Had SFA been able to close out the second set, the match would have gone five and of course.. who knows what would have happened then?  Bates finished with a 14 kills to pair up with Jill Ivy's 17.  A total of 31 pin kills, plus the six times Bartlett found the floor.  It was a MAJOR spark.  I couldn't stop raving about it on the radio that day and I wondered all the way home if Bates would get the start the following Thursday in Thibodeaux.  Indeed, she's started ever since.

I have always been a Bates advocate.  Tori had one good match in South Dakota. But then the remainder of that tournament and then in Ruston and Houston she hadn't played hardly at all.  During that time, several people asked me what I thought about her being relegated primarily to the bench.  Yes, it's true.  Various nagging injuries have hampered lateral movement and the freshman season hasn't been duplicated yet.  But still, looking back, the answer is obvious now.  It just wasn't "Tori Bates Time" yet.  Playing four matches in three days or five matches in five days doesn't fit Bates style at this point.  But, once conference play rolled around and the schedule became regulated with two matches a week, that proved to be just the right dose of rest to then unleash Bates' maximum efficiency. 

Hey, we've got a lot of McIntyre to look forward to.  She is going to contribute. All during the tournament season, Humphreys raved about what she could become almost every time we talked together.  And I need to say at this point, I made the commitment to talk with Humphreys more in season this year and I've stuck to that.  By doing so, I've learned just how valued McIntyre is to the future plans of the club. 

That said, imagine if SFA had been swept at Rice and McIntyre had played just well enough to stay on the floor.  That might have made it harder to insert Bates once conference play started and then we might have had to take a loss or two in order to get to the combination that has worked so well for the last three weeks.  Given it would mean conference losses, they might have had a bigger impact on November.
Now, we took a loss or two in South Dakota that convinced the brain trust to return to a 5-1 offense. The matches against Valparaiso and UMKC were also winnable games, but those matched served to haunt Humphreys a bit.  She'd tell me that she knew the talent was here.  But, she just felt something wasn't quite right.  That something turned out to be the decision to go 6-2 rather than 5-1.  So, we switched.  That's an example of the tournament season teaching us something valuable.  But, the timing at Rice was divine.  We got production from Bates at the most opportune moment.  Her insertion into the lineup has been a stabilizing force over the first four games of conference - when it matters most.  It has actually taken a little pressure off Bartlett and allowed McIntyre to watch and refine herself in practice so that she is ready when her name is called again.

But now, and you knew it was coming... there is a strong statistical argument to go with Bates from this point forward.  SFA has the depth to be respectable on both pins, and on most nights stellar on the right one with Ivy.  Generally speaking, one or both of Allen and/or Walker will chip in their share of kills. So, that sums up to a balanced offense under the current setup with Bates/Bartlett.

 Here is the recent data.  Take a look and then compare it with history.

Bates is hitting .198 overall for .2014.  That's respectable, especially for a lot of the attacks coming from the left.  But, before the Rice match she was at 39-19-144 for a .139 attack percentage and since that time she has hit 47-17-109 for a .275 hitting percentage.  The numbers are even better if you focus on just conference play where she is hitting a cool .299.  Attack percentages that high are extremely good on the pin.  Will those numbers tend to regulate a bit as the sample size grows?  Sure, probably the law of large numbers will kick in.  But, now consider this list.

Attack Percentages By All SFA Freshman Pin-Hitters Since 2009 (Min: 250 attacks)

Jill Ivy (2011)                                   .183
Emily Franklin (2009)                       .152
Tori Bates (2012)                             .145
Kaitlyn Granger (2013)                     .116
Katzy Randall (2011)                        .103
Monica Pannone (2010)                    .069

It is probably not surprising that our current best player had the best attack percentage as a freshman of any pin hitter over the last five years.  But, the aggregate data is what is important.  The typical percentage put up by this group hovers right around .130.  As of this writing, Bartlett is hitting .141 in 2014.

And now, my main point:

Bates could regress slightly over the next few weeks and the combined offensive production put up by her and Bartlett would project to be above what the aggregate numbers above suggest from two freshman. 

Indeed, as you can see from the chart above, the last year SFA used two freshman frequently on the pins was 2011.   Correlation isn't causation, but that year SFA was 7-10 in conference play.  That team needed one more year to mature before it made a serious run at the conference tournament championship in 2012.  Plus, I'll remind you that Bates, then a freshman, had a double-double in the semifinal game we lost to eventual champ UCA.

Right now, Bates/Bartlett is the right veteran/rookie combination.  The Rice match was a huge blessing in that regard.  McIntyre's day will come.  Maybe like Bates in 2011, McIntyre will team with Bates and Bartlett in 2015 for a conference tournament run.  But, this is 2014 and we are interested in making a run sooner rather than later.  All signs point to us being in the mix to do just that. 

It's time to set the hook for the rest of the conference.  Here's hoping they take the Bates.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Cowgirls Riding a Dark Horse?

Over the last handful of years, McNeese Volleyball has not been considered one of the pinnacle programs in the Southland Conference.  Despite this, my readers are aware that I feel that there have been times when the Cowgirls deserved some mention of credit and failed to get it.  Maybe the episode that got me the most riled up was in 2009 when all of Chanel Tyler, Nicole Bowden and Sarah Cartie got left completely off of the All-SLC teams.  It was ridiculous then, and it still is now.  I’ll leave you to go relive history and look up stats and talk to folks about it if you care.  Over the past six of years of writing this blog, that was the first, and maybe most obvious case of McNeese getting dissed by the conference.

Despite my penchant for noting McNeese’s positives more than most Southland observers, it’s not like McNeese can claim they deserve high praise.  It’s been six seasons since the Cowgirls were over .500 in the conference.  True, last year they were 9-9 and in 2010 they were an even 8-8.  But they’ve mixed a couple of 5-11 seasons in there along with the ugly 1-17 from just two years ago.  Yep, the last time the Cowgirls were flying relatively high was around 2006-2007.  In those two years, they won 23 conference games and lost only nine.  Those were the middle of the Dale Starr years as head coach in Lake Charles.  Yes, Dale Starr… he of the vain popping out on the partially bald forehead as he literally screamed at folks running around out of the hardwood.  There were a few times when we played at Johnson Coliseum that I almost had to shut down the mic doing PA since Starr was so darn vocal.. and shall we say, “colorful” with his choice of words.  A couple years ago, Starr made a return to Nacogdoches as current head coach of Robert Morris University and I found him much more complacent than I remember him while wearing yellow and blue.

But during those “glory days”, or if not glorious, at least respectful days of McNeese volleyball, do you know who was Starr’s assistant?  Ashleigh Fitzgerald.  And  after Terry Gamble decided to move on to coach at Jacksonville State, what did the athletics administration at McNeese do?  They decided to return to the glory days by tapping Fitzgerald as the new head coach in Lake Charles earlier this year.

I have the feeling that an instant impact has been felt in Memorial Gym.  It’s early on in the Southland Conference season, but I have heard more than one person tout McNeese as improved.  Certainly, the team is hungry after last years’ one-and-done in the conference tournament in Corpus Christi. 

McNeese is good.  I mean, legitimately good.  Both SID’s and coaches picked this club as a tournament team in the pre-season and I completely agree.  In fact, this team could be a dark horse.  Shoot?  Why not play with reckless abandon?  No one is going to give these gals much credit – no one ever does.  Until McNeese upsets someone big (and it almost happened last night), probably no one is going to really sit up and notice anyway.  After all, they only had one player on the pre-season all-conference teams and that same girl was the only player to receive any mention at all on last years’ post-season teams.  It’s not like the team is comprised of stars and names that even SLC volleyball aficionados recognize.

Something tells me that McNeese is fine with being underrated.  But, I say a team like this could really be dangerous and could find themselves in the hunt for playing on the second day of the tournament this time around.  Ask yourself: Has anyone in the Southland looked dominant so far?  No.  Universally, UCA and Northwestern State were regarded as the top two teams in the conference.  Now, they may very well be the top two.  But, it’s not exactly like those two teams are off to fast starts.  In fact, I’m a little surprised by the lack of progress by both teams to this point. I understand the only record that counts is the Southland record, and I understand that each team has played some tough matches.  Yes, each has a “signature win” (Demons over Mizzou and Sugar Bears over LSU), but really both teams have had some struggles.

Over the last few years, the Southland has become more and more wide open.  We may finally be seeing the culmination of all this building parity.  Just look at last night as conference play opened:  McNeese was right there with Northwestern State – they very easily could have won that match.  Abilene Christian stretched UCA to five sets and Southeastern Louisiana beat Texas A&M Corpus Christi.  Now, sure, I know UCA still has a 30-match win streak in conference.  I haven’t forgotten that.  Additionally, the Demons squad that played so brilliantly in the conference tournament last year is still completely intact.  Those programs aren’t going to fold up and go home anytime soon.  But with a myriad of other teams scratching at the door, one of which should be our own SFA Ladyjacks, a team like McNeese most certainly cannot be dismissed.  This is a team that could cause a lot of problems.  Plus, other than one lone senior, this entire team will be back in 2015.  So, what if they do make the tournament again?  What if they do get a mid-level seed and knock off another mid-level seed?  What if they play a top level seed and push them on Day 2?  Then, the team has even more momentum going into  2015.  Who knows, this team could be considered near the top tier this time next year.  We’ve seen things happen like this before.

As the ‘Jacks prepare for battle with the Pokes, let’s break the team down a bit so that SFA fans and others around the conference know what they are getting themselves into.

The Hitters:  There is one star here, but several others that can really leap up and bite you if you key on her.  Malina Sanchez is legit.  All of 5-foot-8, but I will jump out of the gym and bust you up Malina Sanchez.  Offense.  Defense.  You name it.  She can do it.  She’s as unsung a star at the SLC has.  She has 38 aces already.  That’s close to tops in the NATION.  She AVERAGES a double-double.  Averages.  At 2.87 kills per set, and 3.09 digs per set, you can expect Sanchez to put up 11-12 kills and 12 digs in a FOUR set match.  I got a chance to interview her at the SLC Tourney last year and she was an absolute delight.  Then, another underrated player:  Rachel Cagnina (Cag-KNEE-nuh).  While you are over there on the left trying to stop the hops of Sanchez, Cagnina can come rough you up on the right.  To be fair, Sanchez can score from anywhere on the floor… probably the locker room, so to call her “just” a left-side is too limiting.  Cagnina is actually leading the team in kills per set at an even 3.00, which is scary considering how good Sanchez is.  Cagnina is the only senior, and she is serving notice to the conference with a .303 hitting percentage which is good for third best in the SLC so far.  Amber Fryer can also be a big presence as she has chipped in with 2.40 kills per set and is 10th in the league hitting .224.  McNeese can claim three of the top 10 hitting percentage players in the conference coming into this week’s play.  These three girls can provide plenty of offense as they showed last night as they combined for a whopping 47 kills.

The Setter:  Look out.  To me, this is the most interesting development over the last year for McNeese.  Kelly Graham (left handed) has regained the starting role that she had as a freshman in 2012.  During that year, I wrote a post titled “Twelve for ‘12” in which I highlighted a dozen freshman making an impact.  By the way, Sanchez, Fryer and Graham comprised a quarter of that list.  Here is part of what I wrote about her two years ago:

“Graham looks poised to grow up alongside of a long list of young McNeese players.  After that crop gets a year or two under their belt, Graham may emerge as a team leader.  Few girls get the opportunity to start at setter for four consecutive seasons.  We’ll have to see if Graham fits the bill.”

Prophesy, I tell ya.  Sure enough, Graham didn’t start last year as Gamble elected to use Vanessa Bentley.  Graham is back out there though for Fitzgerald’s team and really, you might need to include her in the “hitters” section above.  Graham is at .247 which is good for 5th in the conference.  And…Guess who is the only setter in the conference is averaging over a kill per set? (1.23, actually).  Graham.  Without question, this is the player I am most interested in seeing in the match against SFA.

The Blockers: Fryer can play in the middle a bit and along with RS Cagnina has decent blocking numbers.  But, McNeese is led in the middle by sophomore Chrysta Stuart.  Here is the one player that if you have watched McNeese in the last couple years, you probably won’t be familiar with.  Stuart didn’t play much last year, but is off to a good start averaging just under a block per set (0.91 b/s).  The conference does this crazy thing where you have to average 1.00 b/s to even be listed on the leaderboard.  Only five girls have done that so far, so I am left to surmise that Stuart would be in the Top 10.  Possibly, she is as high as 6th or 7th in the conference so far in blocks per set.

The Back Row:   Hmmm.  Interesting.  In their first tournament, McNeese started three different liberos in the three opening matches of the year.  Since that time it has been junior Kimberlyn Patterson.  That is, until last night against Northwestern State.  Last night, freshman Adison Giambrone got the call.  Now, Patterson still played in a DS role.  In fact, Patterson had more digs than Giambrone (24 vs. 21).  Sophomore Kara Rockey also helps on defense.  Last year, the libero role was split up quite a bit, so no one here really can claim the title of incumbent.  It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, winds up with the full time job as the conference slate wears on.  For now, it seems as though the combination  of these three girls is doing an adequate, but not spectacular job on the back row.  For what it is worth, none of these names really stand out in conversations around the league.  That’s not a negative statement.  It’s just that many other teams have back row players that are more highly regarded than those at McNeese.

The Coach:  You can see for yourself!  I have an interview scheduled with Coach Fitzgerald on Saturday before the match.  Check that out on Sunday afternoon at our YouTube Channel.

This will be a good road test for SFA.  After a sweep of Nichols, I expect a bit more of a battle in Lake Charles on Saturday.  Internet Radio coverage begins at 1:50 PM right here in this space.