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.