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.