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 kill...it 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.