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.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Southland Conference Hits the ReSet Button

Today’s post takes a conference wide look through the eyes of the quarterbacks for each of the SLC teams.  There isn’t much analysis in this post as much as there is calling your attention to all the names and suggesting that you pay close attention to the setters in the Southland Conference this year.

See, the SLC has pushed the reset button on the floor chiefs this year: 

Quick Question:  Can you name the All-Conference setters and their classifications from 2013?
Quick Question #2:  How many senior setters are there in the SLC in 2014?

The main operating premise I am working under in this post is that SLC 2014 “Setter of the Year” is wide open.  Probably as wide open as any year in recent memory.  As you’ll see in the rundown below, more than half of the teams in the Southland are using different setters in 2014 than they were in 2013.  Couple this with the fact that the answer to Quick Question #1 is comprised of three outgoing seniors from 2013 (Collins at UCA, Borque at TAMUCC, and Gray at SHSU) and that creates a situation ripe for a few new stars to emerge.  Who will they be?  Who are the best setters in our conference now that so many qualified seniors are gone?

In this list below, I’ll share a few opinions about the players with whom I am familiar.  If you’ve studied some of those that I haven’t, then feel free to chip in with a comment.  One final “hope” before the list:  I really “hope” that voters don’t just default to assists per set when choosing accolades for setters.  I’ve made this point before – a team can overcome adequate setting (not bad setting) with strong and versatile attackers, and excellent passing and floor defense.  Assists per set is not always the end-all-be-all for setters, just like digs per set isn’t a perfect measure of libero quality.  Let’s watch how these girls run the floor and discuss their abilities amongst each other to get a full picture of strengths before voting.

We all have different “blueprints” for what we like in a setter.  Former SFA assistant John Critzer and I would discuss this from time to time.  The two of us had/have fairly different molds that we like our favorite setters to fall into.  There may not be a right or wrong here, but just so you can get into my head a bit:  My favorite type of setter is a player 6’0” or taller, a strong blocker, and has a sort of lean, even wiry build.  For bonus points, I’ll choose left handed.

It is hard to imagine a player that is part of a 6-2 offense being able to win Setter of the Year.  Because of this, let’s start with the teams that primarily use one setter.  To this point in the season, 8 of the 13 teams in the SLC fall in this boat.  Southeastern Louisiana and SFA are special situations, so we will separate them out from this initial list of eight.

ACU:  Sarah Siemens (JR, 6’1”)  Last Year: Same Setter
Siemens is the one setter that I have not seen, that I am most looking forward to watch play.  She’s currently the tallest setter in the conference, and as I wrote earlier, I like setters on the tall side.  The combination of the big Siemens setting relatively small, but effective OH Loerch has to be interesting to see.  We’ll get that chance on our first SLC home stand.

UCA:  Amy South (JR, 5’6”)  Last Year:  Marissa Collins
The folks at UCA have raved about South in one-on-one conversations that I have had with them through the past two years.  Of course, Collins leaves huge shoes to fill.  This might be a case like what we addressed last year at Northwestern State.  UCA probably just needs South to be steady, rather than spectacular, given they have hitters like Schnars, Singleton, Petties and Dittrich and a good libero in Berringer.

HBU:  Kayla Armer (SO, 6’0”)  Last Year:  Same Setter
So, here it is.  This is my pick for setter of the year.  I’m afraid she won’t get it if her numbers are slightly below the setters for teams that may finish ahead of HBU.  I talked about her with head coach Trent Herman at last years’ conference tournament.  He said he has talked with her extensively about what made Collins, Borque and Gray so good.  She is the returning leader in assists per set in the SLC and she fits my “mold” of setter qualities perfectly.  She actually led the conference in total assists.  Only a sophomore, so watch out.. she could emerge as one of the consistent top setters in the Southland between now and 2016.  I like her a lot.

Lamar:  Ashley Ellis (SO, 5’6”)  Last Year:  Ellis & Alexa Johnson (at end of season)
I remember Johnson – she was setting when Lamar came to Nacogdoches last year.  But, I have never seen Ellis run an offense.  If her name has come up in conversation with players and coaches, I don’t remember it.  Lamar is winless and has only five set wins in 9 matches so far in 2014.  With a new coach, there are some things that might need some time to solidify here.

McNeese:  Kelly Graham (JR, 5’10”)  Last Year:  Vanessa Bentley
Very interesting.  Very, very interesting.  I remember being impressed with Graham as a freshman.  I seem to always think McNeese gets shafted on recognition when they deserve it.  You can comb through past years’ posts to see what I mean.  However, Graham found the pine in favor of Bentley in 2013.  But, with a coaching change, Graham has emerged the starter again in Lake Charles.  This is an interesting situation to watch.  I remember showcasing Graham in a post on the 2012 freshman in the SLC.  Don’t be surprised if she is among the leader boards.  I’m going to make the road trip to McNeese this year.  This is one situation I hope to learn a little bit about while there.

UNO:  Sara Hammoutene (JR, 5’9”)  Last Year: primarily Celeste Ramirez (now at Libero)
We just got a look at the transfer from Paris, France, last weekend at the La Tech Tournament.  At one point in the weekend, I found myself perched in the stands with our brain trust and the reviews on Hammoutene’s game were positive.  In my interview with head coach Van Norden, she alludes to communication gains that will have to be made.  Overall, I think Hammoutene was a good get for New Orleans.  She looked very polished to me.  Probably not a difference maker, but certainly a stabilizer.  By the way, since Ramirez was the setter last year, let me take this opportunity to say that I think she is now one of the more underrated back row players in the Southland.  Ramirez is just a flat out good volleyball player.

Sam Houston:  Michelle Griffith (SO, 5’7”)  Last Year:  Tayler Gray
Much like South at UCA, I have been hearing people talk about Griffith for a few years. Several folks I know that now work in the Houston area raved about her when she was recruited out of Woodlands College Park high school.  I can’t imagine much of a tougher situation than to follow the coaches’ daughter as the quarterback.  That said, if Sam Houston keeps churning out wins, Griffith may wind up getting a fair amount of the credit.  Even though she hasn’t played until this year, I get the feeling that she is still a pretty well-known entity.

TAMUCC:  Kristyn Nicholson (FR, 6’0”)  Last Year:  Logan Borque
I feel like there is someone out there I know that can give me the scoop on Nicholson.  If you are that person, shoot me a text or email.  The Islanders brought in both Nicholson and a JUCO transfer (Chelby Stanford) as a plan of takeover for Borque.  Nicholson has held down the job of late.  I mentioned former SFA assistant John Critzer earlier.  In 2009, TAMUCC brought in a freshman setter that started named Courtney Wypiszynski.  She was really big…I loved her.  John really didn’t.  John won that setter debate as none other than Logan Borque was brought on in 2010 and Wypiszynski was never heard from again.  I’ll be more careful this time around, but clearly, the 6’0” Nicholson is someone I need to do more homework on.

Next, here are two schools that to this point have been a bit of a special case:

Southeastern La.:  Mikayla Shippy (JR, 6’0”) and Morgan Miller (SO, 5’9”)  Last Year: Shippy
It’s tough to tell having not watched an SLU match to this point, but it appears that the Lions have been shifting back and forth – even within matches – between Shippy and Miller looking to find the right setter spark.  Several recent matches have produced box scores where Shippy has started three of five or three of four sets and Miller come into set for the remaining set or two.  So, this is a situation that doesn’t belong in the two-setter section of this post, but instead appears to be a special case of using the tournament season to see which girl may emerge as the primary in conference play.  Shippy has started the vast majority of SLU matches, but hasn’t finished them all.  Stay tuned.

SFA: Paige Holland (SR, 5’10”) and Shannon Connell (SO, 5’8”)  Last Year:  Similar
As of late, as Ladyjack fans know, SFA has shifted back into one setter format using Holland.  SFA ended last year utilizing primarily the 6-2 offense and began 2014 with similar structure.  However, the team’s recent success has all been with just Holland on the floor, so I wouldn’t look for any changes heading into the last tournament of the pre-season.  Connell is still there, of course, if the situation dictates a flow back to the 6-2.  So, this situation isn’t the same as SLU’s, but still is a bit different from other SLC schools in that the issue is mainly 6-2 vs 5-1 as opposed to which setter to use in the 5-1.  For the immediate future, it looks like Holland’s job again.

Finally, there are three schools in the conference that have utilized two setter format to this point in the year.  Again, it is difficult from a pure statistics perspective to see the 2014 SLC Setter of the Year coming from one of these systems, but still, let’s complete the roll call of the Southland Setters.  Along the way, we will see that the answer to Quick Question #2 is just two.

Incarnate Word: (6-2 with Kaitlyn Brooks, JR, 5’8” and Taylor McClelland, JR, 5’6”)
Last Year:  (6-2 with McLelland and Danielle Suarez)
Honestly, the only player for UIW that I am decently familiar with is outside hitter Angelique Vidaurri.  Well, I know Brittani Dear had a good season for the Cardinals as a freshman last year, too.  But, truthfully, I am in the dark on these two setters.  UIW is probably the team I have the least total familiarity with among the 13 in the conference.  They come here as our first home conference opponent this year, so some of my ignorance may get removed.

Nicholls: (6-2 with Alyse Barclay, JR, 6’0” and Ainsley Marroccoli, SO, 5’6”)
Last Year: (A combination of the above two and Marlee Bean)
Dude, what happened to Nicholls last year?  Talk about no buzz at no time.  They don’t win a road match all year, finish 5-23, and lose their last 11 matches of the year.  Last year was Tommy Harold’s first year coaching the Colonels and they appear to be in a rebuild.  After a few wins against SWAC schools, Nicholls has lost five straight.  They have a few matches at the North Florida tourney this weekend that they might be able to win, so let’s see how they do before we face off with them to open SLC play.  Again, I don’t have an impression of either setter than sticks in my mind other than “Ainsley Marroccoli” has to be the coolest name in the conference.  A PA announcer’s dream.  Marroccoli.  Marroccoli.  Marroccoli.

Northwestern State  (6-2 with Emily Johnson, SR, 5’6” and Natalie Jaeger, SO, 5-9 and a little Madison Walford, FR, 5-8 mixed in for good measure)
Last Year: (6-2 with Johnson/Jaeger)
Exhibit 1A on the principle that when you are deep all across the front row and have a libero that is both fundamentally sound and acrobatic, all you need is decent setting and you can soar.  Of course, I’ve seen EJ and Jaeger plenty over the last year.  Neither will set the world on fire, but you could do a ton worse.  Northwestern State has a game plan, they stick to it, and they are able to get players like Johnson and Jaeger to thrive amidst the beasts that are on the pins and in the middle.  Walford is worth checking in on to see if she earns more trust and eventually bumps one on the others down a peg.  After last year, NSU staff, players and fans fully expect their team to get an NCAA bid this year.  With those expectations (and they’d have obtained my vote for top pre-season team in the conference), let’s not nitpick the setters.  They’ve proven they can handle it.

And with that, you get the answer to Quick Question #2.  Did you get it right when you read it?  The only two senior setters in the SLC this year are Paige Holland and Emily Johnson.  Do you know what that means?  We better pay attention.  Some of these girls are going to emerge and be the next generation of standouts in the conference.  It’s a different year.  Collins, Borque, Gray and all that senior studliness is gone.

Who among this crew will rise?  It’s really wide open isn’t it?  If UCA wins a lot of conference games, South will probably put up good numbers.  Same with Griffith at Sam Houston.  Could Nicholson become a more familiar name as the year progresses if TAMUCC is near the top?   What about Holland?  If SFA is in the running for a top seed, could she be what people point to?  Lots of questions and no really super clear answer.  Again, to be on record… I don’t expect HBU to be a top two or three team, but I think Kayla Armer is as good as any player listed here.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Weekend Links and Observations

This past weekend, SFA Volleyball won the Louisiana Tech Invitational in Ruston, LA.  Here's a recap, set of links to interviews (audio and video) and some observations about the teams' play at the tournament.

Weekend Results:

SFA 3, UNO 0 Box Score
SFA 3, UTPA 1  Box Score
SFA 3, Louisiana Tech 1  Box Score

Tournament MVP:  OJ Olson
All-Tournament From SFA:  Madison Martin and Justice Walker

OJ Olson Named Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Week

Tournament Interview Links:

Debbie Humphreys on Win over UNO (SoundCloud)

Paige Holland and Justice Walker on Win over UTPA (SoundCloud)

Interview with UNO Head Coach Millicent Van Norden (YouTube)

Interview with UTPA Head Coach Brian Yale (YouTube)

LA Lanford 2, Greg Miller 1 in Mini-Hoops Before UTPA Match (Twitter)

There were lots of positives from this weekend, the most important being that SFA is riding a four game winning streak into Houston.  We all knew when the schedule came out that the middle two tournaments were weekends where we expected to walk away with championship hardware.  After being in all the matches up in South Dakota, but only able to get one win, the Ladyjacks sealed the deal in Louisiana.

Overall, I thought the three players that earned All-Tournament honors definitely deserved them.  I know Debbie Humphreys talked to me several times during the weekend about how steady the floor defense had been and that she wanted the net defense to rise to the same level.  Walker had a great hitting performance on Saturday by hitting 24-1-49 (.469) total.  That is truly outstanding work on offense.  No wonder she said in her interview she would rather get a big kill than blocks!  Of course, Justice got five blocks in the championship so she was doing her job there too.

SFA was granted three spots on the all-tourney team.  Again, all three girls named deserved it.  Despite the awesomeness of the back row (and my penchant to always acknowledge it), I think I would have voted Holland for MVP, and then cast my other two votes for Ivy and Olson.  Ivy had 46 kills in 11 sets (4.18 k/s) and Holland was simply magnificent at setter.  All that being said, I love it when passers and back row players get some glory.. they are usually the unsung heroes, so I don't begrudge the light being shined on players like Madison Martin at all. Can we start her fan club?  I am so glad we've gone to an offensive set where she can play across the back row.  It is a HUGE addition to the defense when she is in there.

The pin block on the right side attack against UTPA leaked a bit.  I am sure that is something that will get a lot of attention in practice.  The players teaming up there with the MB's are young.. and they'll progress and get better at net responsibilities on defense as we go from week to week.

All in all, it was a big step forward.  The company we will keep this weekend (Louisville, Rice) will be tough.  Because of that, I like the fact that we don't have a mid-week match and have more time to prepare.  We know we have to take additional steps forward in our overall game if we are going to hang with the Cardinals and Owls. Louisville is still receiving a few votes for the Top 25 and Rice just knocked off Marquette who was just outside the Top 25 earlier in the year.

Finally, heading into conference play next week, I love the challenges that Michigan, Arkansas, Louisville and Rice have brought us.  This has been my favorite non-conference schedule of the last few years that I can remember.  We have some momentum.  I am all for turning it up a notch in Houston this weekend and keeping the winning streak alive.

Expect a mid-week post focused on setters of the Southland Conference and who knows, maybe we can get to another YouTube video before Houston.  My microphone is scheduled for delivery tomorrow and I'll be anxious to try it out.

Internet Radio all weekend long in Houston.  We had 64 listeners for the UNO match, a record 118 for the UTPA match and 67 for the LaTech match (which overlapped with SFA Football).

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Junior Achievement

YouTube Interviews!!!

This week we are focusing exclusively on the Juniors.  We've got a lot of 'em.  Seven, to be exact.  As you'll read below, there is a ton of talent in this class and that is really exciting when thinking forward to their 2015 senior season.  It gives peace of mind to consider that the team will have this much experience and leadership.

But before we get to the player capsules, I can't help but put something down on paper about the match against Louisiana-Monroe in Shelton Gym last Wednesday.  Was that a crazy match or what?  I honestly think that the 2nd set of that match was one of the most zany sets I have ever seen. C'mon - how many times do you see a team that has one setter listed on their roster?  Basically never.  Now, how many times have you ever seen a team with one setter listed on their roster have that girl get hurt and then shift into a TWO setter offense?  That's just insane!  It's more humorous to think about now that we won the match.  At the time, it was almost surreal.

The set played out with incredible drama because it was clear that ULM was patching things together and holding on for dear life.  With all due respect, there is no way ULM wins that set if it is played to 35 rather than 25.  SFA dug themselves an early hole, getting down by as many as seven with the score 7-14.  A play or two later, ULM setter Bayleigh Hoffman hurts her ankle and has to leave the game.  From that point forward in Set 2, the Warhawks went to hitter Hope Pawlik and DS Mary Anselmo in a 6-2 offense.  When Pawlik was setting, she set the middle approximately 90% of the time.  It was incredible - an absolute grasping at straws.  SFA managed to go on a 16-9 run to tie it at 23.  Now I swear, if you had just given us one or two more rotations, we would have pushed ahead.  Instead, an attack error... and then a kill by "setter" Pawlik, of all people, ended the set and sent us down 0-2 at the half.

That 10 minute break was one of disbelief and frustration. But, you know, all is well that ends well and boy, did it ever "end well".  After intermission, the block showed up big time and Kelsi Bartlett gave us a lift.  That, coupled with a switch to a 5-1, allowed SFA to motor on to three straight set wins and a five set overall victory.  The ULM game is one that everyone there soon won't forget.   Just a crazy, crazy, Jekyll and Hyde match.

Let's take a look at our junior class for 2014.  For each player, we will briefly talk about what she brings to the court and then I'll finish the "blurb" with a personal observation from the fans point of view...

Let's just go in alphabetical order by last name.

Jacque Allen (MB)
What she brings:  a ton of raw athletic talent, Jacque can be an absolute beast at the net.  Last year, she was among the conference leaders in blocks per set and it would be a safe bet to see her on the leader boards again this year.  If there is one player that is likely to come away with that phenomenal, inside the 10-foot line, thundering is Jacque.  You know those plays that send people rocking back in their seat, covering their mouths, and elbowing the dudes sitting next to them?  Yeah, that's Jacque Allen.

My Take:  One day during August, I happened to pop in on a practice where the team was testing vertical leap.  You may have seen these devices that have spikes that players reach for to touch in order to measure how high they can jump/reach.  After the entire team had their measurements taken, Jacque asked for another turn.  She was sure she could reach that extra inch even though she hadn't been able to get it when it was her turn.   The team all clapped in unison and Jacque stepped back to get her approach.  She got the extra spike on her final attempt.  That day told me something about her resilience.

Tori Bates (OH)
What she brings:  A little bit of everything and the potential for a whole lot of one thing.  Tori has had games where she was an offensive force and other games where she has steadied the back row.  She has the capability to play all the way around due to her total package skill set.  Injuries have at times necessitated only three rotations at a time.  But, when this has come up, Tori has typically responded well.  There is a saying that once you've proven you have a skill, then you own it.  Tori has a track record and because of that, deservedly will get a shot at establishing herself as an integral part of the lineup.

My take:  Since she first came on campus, Bates has been one of my favorite players at SFA.  I think there is room for additional growth in terms of her last two years productivity in purple.  The team has the flexibility to switch up her role until they find just the right level of utility to maximize overall team synchronicity when she is on the floor.  Tori makes it easy to root for her.  She is extremely kind and polite.  We'll need her. My hope is she is as healthy as she possibly can be and takes a step forward to become the force that she was easily projected to be after her freshman year.

J'Keisha Evans (OH)
What she brings:  Athleticism.  In droves.  Her experience at Panola certainly projected her to provide part of the team's foundation on the left side.  She just needs a bit of time to adjust to the uptick in the quality of the game at this level.  Unfortunately, she'll have to spent some measure of that time this year learning from the sidelines as a knee injury has temporarily derailed the JK train.  The timetable for her recovery is still developing.  It will be interesting to see what she can positively add to her game by watching our system and being forced to only participate mentally, rather than physically be on the floor.  Here is hoping for a speedy recovery and time well spent during rehab.

My take:  Before she was injured, my thought was that she would be really good as a senior.  To me, it looked like she needed to take 2014 to adjust and then next year, she'd probably cut loose.  Now, two things:  First, that could still very much happen.  In fact, I'd almost bet on it.  Secondly, and a bit retrospectively at this point, she very much had playing time in her future THIS YEAR if not for the knee injury.  So, SFA has themselves a very useful player here.  Don't fall asleep on her eventual role.  She could be a nice surprise on the outside after healing and a little more experience kick in.

Keeley Kainer (OH)
What she brings:  We are about to find out.  Until now, Kainer has been strictly a role player at best.  She's had very little playing time during her first two years in purple.  Sparks?  Yes.  You'll hear me discuss last years' match at HBU in her interview.  That match showed you what is in there.  Long time regarded as a player that could catch fire on the challenge team in practice, Keeley is now poised to carve a different path.  With Freshmen outside hitters challenging for playing time, Kainer has needed the added resolve and confidence she has displayed so far during 2014.  She'll also need that "overcomers" spirit the first time a dry patch hits.  Overall, could this be a breakout?  That sure would be wonderful to see, huh?

My take:  She's the #1 player I've enjoyed watching during early season scrimmages and tournament matches.  After 11 kills against just one error vs. ULM, if she has a big tournament at LaTech, I am practically going to be BEGGING Sports Information Assistant Director Kyle Rogers to submit her name for Player of the Week.  Now, I may be getting ahead of myself, but Kainer is my favorite story so far early in 2014.  It's more important how you finish that how you start.  If Kainer keeps this up, nobody is going to remember that she wore her warm-up jacket for most of her first two years.

Madison Martin (BCOH)
What she brings:  See that "BC" in parenthesis?  That stands for "ball control" outside hitter.  Man, I love me some ball control on the back row.  Martin is an absolute gem to watch on defense.  Just so solid.  I know there will always be pros and cons of 6-2 vs.  5-1 offenses , but you need six rotation outsides if you are going to sub in those setters.  With the substitutions a little more relaxed in the 5-1, players  like Martin have a greater chance to shine.  She has the moxie to make a valiant effort if asked to play on the front, but really.. her best role is exactly what she is doing now.. three rotations of nothing gets past her on the back row.  Every team needs a player like this.

My take:  I like her as back row, three rotation option numero uno.   Passing is not easy and Martin is one of the best we have at it.  I think she provides stabilization.  I like it when she's in there.  All our middle blockers ought to love her back there covering their butts.  Back row defense is always going to get my complements.  Ask Les Jackson who sits next to me this year at the media table in Shelton:  I spend half my time off mic reacting to all of Olson and Martin's sick digs.  Being a former middle, Les probably gets tired of it.  I don't care.  #BackRow, baby.  #BackRow. Yeah, I kind of want her autograph. 

Jordan McArdle (OH)
What she brings:  Something we really need  -  Depth for the outside.  Jordan is one of those players than you just know will get playing time in spurts.  She's started here and there, and come in off the bench at other times.  When a team doesn't have a 20 kill-per-night left side hitter, you need a set of Kainer's and McArdle's to go along with the freshmen like Bartlett and McIntyre.  Players like McArdle steady the ship when freshman predictably get lost or your go-to's like Ivy, Allen and Bates are on the struggle bus.  She can hit.  It's one thing to have depth by numbers.  It's another thing to have depth by quality.  McArdle is more the latter.

My take:  I think Jordan's got a pretty big "fun side" to her.  I don't mean that in any other way than positive.  When you watch her play, warm up or while on the sidelines, she looks like she genuinely is having fun.  I'll bet she's a prankster.  Hey, her favorite animal is a giraffe.  Just thought I'd pass that along since it was in last night's script and I didn't get to it.  Gotta do an interview with her soon, right? Maybe I've got her totally pegged wrong, but she looks like a barrel-of-monkeys fun, joking personality.  Oh, and she's got a whip of a fast arm swing.  What's not to like?

OJ Olson (L)
What she brings:  Can I make this last entry short and to the point?  OJ Olson was in the mix for libero of the year last year.  She will be this year.  She will be next year.  You got any more questions?  Good, then sit down, shut up and enjoy the dig show.

My take:  Have you noticed that the 2014 team poster features the head coach, seniors and OJ Olson?  Have you noticed whose picture is on the "Game Day" poster that sits outside of Shelton before matches?  Have you noticed who is one of only three players in the Southland averaging over 5 digs per set?  Have you noticed who has rattled off five straight matches with 20+ digs?  If you answered "no" to any of those questions... what kind of fan are you,anyway?  Figgers, Hanlan, Olson.  #LiberoUniversity.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Shine The Light On: Juniors

This week as we prepare for ULM on Wednesday in Shelton Gym and then the Louisiana Tech Tournament in Ruston, we will shine the light on the large junior class so central to SFA's success this season.

We will get started with an interview with "ball control" outside hitter Madison Martin.  You can watch the interview here.  I'll let you in on a little secret.  Madison didn't know we were going to do a "video" interview and was concerned how this would turn out.  As you'll see, just like digging up balls on the back row, she was a pro.. this interview actually turned out to be one of the best we've had.  Thanks so much to Madison, who I hadn't had the pleasure of doing an interview with before, for her time and great answers.

The long awaited "post" with capsules on all the juniors will appear this week and then on Friday.. drum roll, please... we'll have another video interview with Junior OH Keeley Kainer.  Now, this was an interview I had really been anxious to do since Keeley has stepped in and played so well from pre-season scrimmages to the first handful of matches in 2014.  Since we play on Wednesday and again on Friday, you will want to watch Keeley's interview on Friday to get prepped for the UNO match later that day.

As we did in Arkansas, all of SFA's matches in Ruston are scheduled to be broadcast on SFA VolleyBlog radio.

So, lots of good stuff for you this week:  two video interviews (at least), three broadcasts, one post on all the Juniors, and audio interviews after some or all of the Ruston matches.  As always, SFA VolleyBlog is Ladyjack Volleyball's Strongest Presence on the 'Net.   Radio. Video. Audio. Posts.  No one covers their team like SFA Athletics and