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.