Last week while in Natchitoches to do radio for the NSU vs. UCA game, I wound up in a discussion with a handful of Sugar Bear fans who had made the trip down to Louisiana to support their team. I love conversations like that. They give such an opportunity to learn and to see how other people view players and teams - including how others think of SFA.
At one point - I guess after I had built up some credibility with them, a UCA fan ask me: "So, what's so different about SFA this year as opposed to last year?" I gave an answer consisting of a subset of points in this post. But, the question generated a lot of thought on the ride home and over the past day or so. Thus, the blog gives me the forum for a wee bit of expansion.
So, what is different about this years' team? What are the assignable causes of being 13-0 at this juncture as opposed to 7-8 with three matches remaining in conference play like we were in 2013? Well, some of these areas of discussion are correlated, but here's a shot at what I think some of the main differences are:
The Team is Much More Healthy
Last year, it was tough to maintain a consistent lineup due to injuries both large and small. In addition, the injuries were widespread. I've always believed that roles are super important in volleyball. Admittedly, I've come to realize I think this to a higher degree that many other people, but still 2013 was really a lesson in how difficult it is to obtain consistency and momentum with shifting roles. Those roles shifted last year primarily out of necessity in trying to adjust to all the bumps and bruises. This year, we lost JK Evans early in the year, but had the depth to accommodate that. Plus, it wasn't a guarantee that she would play the majority of sets anyway. Not in the way that it was more certain that Ivy, Olson, Allen and Walker would.
Like all teams, we have had our share of a few things pop up here and there. Overall, though, it has been a healthy year to this point. Madison Martin dodged a bullet and hopefully is just about over her wrist issue. Given she played the entire match against UCA, I'd imagine that she'll be fine for Friday and next week. Bartlett had to miss a match, maybe more, but there don't appear to be long term effects.
Health has allowed us to run basically the same personnel out there for the vast majority of matches while continuing to flirt with all the L2 possibilities or play the hot hand in that spot. That consistency has allowed the club to gel and go out night after night trusting that the person playing on each side of you has familiarity with the entire system. It's allowed us to establish that unquantifiable, yet important "feel" to the combinations on the court as we click around in the various rotations.
Paige Holland Has Taken Her Final Step Forward
What's to keep Holland from winning 2014 Southland Setter of the Year? See, it's only a few weeks away from when all of the votes are counted and reported. As I wrote about in the previous post on serve and receive (see last week, "First Contact"), we need to use both stats and the "eye" test when assessing players. I've been (constructively) critical of voting in the SLC at times because I think people don't combine the two in the right dose. This is one time where it is critical to use the right numbers. Conference -Only statistics are important here since Holland's overall numbers include tournaments in which we still used the 6-2. She is second in the league in assists per set in conference only matches. Earlier in the year, I wrote about how wide open the setter situation was in 2014 across the conference. In that post, I told you my favorite was Kayla Armer of HBU. She leads the conference in assists for conference matches and is only 0.02 assists per set behind Michelle Griffith of Sam Houston overall. I have to think the three girls mentioned here are the candidates for the honor, with a wild card being freshman Nicholson at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. HBU hasn't had the overall success that SFA and Sam Houston have had, so that may sway some voters away from Armer. So, maybe it will come down to Holland and Griffith? Who knows? I really like Armer, but will have to really sit and think before making my pick.
No matter all of the above talk about Setter of The Year, the point being made is that Holland has played very consistently during 2014. She has done a fantastic job of getting all of the hitters involved throughout the year. Plus, she has been attacking and dumping on 2nd touch more often. Go back and look at box scores. Lots of times her kill-error-attack line looks like 6-1-10 or the like. Several people (at other schools) have specifically mentioned to me how disruptive her presence has been to their game plans to defend us. Roughly 2/3 of the time during SLC matches, Holland's kills plus digs has equated to double-figures. Five times she has had five or more kills and 7 or more digs. Now, think.. get the numbers in the right context: SFA has played a TON of three set matches in conference. So, many times Holland is putting up between 1.5 and 2.0 kills per set along with 2.0 to 2.5 digs per set. It is outstanding for a setter to average one kill per set. Indeed, for the ENTIRE conference slate to this point, Holland has averaged 1.17 kills per set and 2.07 digs per set. Taken all together, Holland's 2014 contributions have been vital. Dare I say, worthy of (an) honor.
Now, from honor to honesty...
Honesty on the Left
For all the talk about the match against ULM at home where we "turned things around", I believe it just as important to go back to the last non-conference match of the season against Rice. Tori Bates, people. Tori Bates. We got our answer just in time. After Bates provided a big spark against Rice, she has been a consistent and effective starter.
During SLC play, Bates has averaged 2.33 kills per set while hitting .241. That is a fantastic attack percentage when hitting primarily from the left. I mean, 10th place OVERALL in the conference for the entire year is a girl hitting .263. Not to mention that people hitting above .250 are almost always middles or right sides. I did a study back in 2010 that estimated that primary left-side attackers average a hitting percentage around .170 in our conference.
Further, notice that we have more depth (and that depth has been mostly healthy). Bartlett has contributed to help keeping the left side honest. During conference play, McIntyre has averaged just under two kills per set (1.92) and hit at a .169 clip... that's average production for a second left side. It is important to note that McIntyre has improved as the year has gone on. Her overall attack percentage is .076 and is weighed down by the non-conference learning curve matches.
Do not for a second underestimate the combined effect of Bates, Bartlett, McIntyre and occasionally Kainer. I know that our middles are putting up incredible numbers and I know that Jill Ivy plays for us, but I still maintain that one of the HUGE differences between this year and recent years is that we have a nice (maybe even slightly above conference average) total production from the left. This matters SO MUCH. I know I really go on and on about this, but this year has really underscored how important it is to get production all across the net and not just in the middle and one pin.
Not to go off the deep end, but could you imagine what a juggernaut our offense would be if we had conference leading level production on the left? Holy smokes. But back to reality... forget that. The point is that we have good left side production and that gets more good looks for Allen, Walker and Ivy due to blockers having to respect the left. That's a big part of our offensive success. Bates, Bartlett and McIntyre are relatively unsung. Remember those three if you see girls hoisting a trophy overhead in the days before Thanksgiving.
I mean, check it out: SFA is hitting .293 in conference matches (which is ridiculously high) and .232 overall for the year. Last year, those numbers were .187 and .167, respectively. That's what Health, Holland and Honesty will do for ya!! Welcome to the 3H Club, ya'll.
Other factors contributing to our success: Allen and Walker are improved. Recently, they have blocked better. There is little question they are athletic. Not always the most technically proficient blockers, the two of them have done much better in that regard as of late.
Additionally, Madison Martin is in the role where her value can be leveraged. She has really made me a fan this year. So solid.
OJ Olson didn't really get mentioned in this post. You know why? Because she is incredibly consistent. She's as good as ever. She was great last year too. Without her, last year would have been worse. This year, I've been frustrated watching inferior liberos like Kilpatrick at SHSU and Todd at SLU win recent Defensive Player of the Week awards. Arneson at NSU got hurt, Egea at Nicholls has some great stats, but Olson just wins out on the eye + stat meter. Some other teams in the conference don't have a girl like Madison Martin to flank their libero and so they get some libero stat inflation. I know I probably sound a little whiny here at the end, but c'mon Southland voters.. wake up.. OJ Olson is as good a pick as any for Libero of the Year. OK, rant over.
Finally, let's not ignore coaching effectiveness. Humphreys and crew have done a nice job with all of the points above. Think about it: Health? Well, the coaching staff made adjustments to pre-season workout routines and the amount of rest time during certain intense weeks of the conference season. They have better gauged how to increase the likelihood we stay healthy by adjusting workout regimens. Holland? Humphreys knew something wasn't quite right when the team got back from South Dakota. She ditched the 6-2 and it paid off. Honesty on the Left? We've already covered the Midas touch that was putting in Bates against Rice. Plus, it appears as though we've used Bartlett and McIntyre in just the right doses. We've been able to give them valuable experience while also maximizing their contributions at the right points in the season.
So, maybe it should be the 4H club?
See, you thought the 4-H club was just the nation's largest youth development organization? That organization's H's are "head, heart, hands and health"? I think that's fits us pretty good. Humphreys is the head, the left side has played with heart, Holland has the hands, and we've been healthy all year. In fact, I'm so inspired that I have re-written the 4-H Club Motto to mold it more to SFA Volleyball.
I pledge my head to clearer thinking
My heart to greater loyalty
My hands to larger service
and my health to better living
for my club, my community, my country and my world.
The SFA 4-H Motto:
We pledge to head coach Debbie Humphreys
Our left side created greater honesty
Our setting hands belong to Holland
and our health has made us better.
We play as a team, for our university and the volleyball world is taking notice.
I should have been a poet rather than a statistician.