Saturday, November 21, 2015

Complete List of 2015 SLC Tourney Interviews

Links to interviews done at the 2015 Southland Conference Tournament:

Sunday, November 22 (SLC Championship)

Interviews Done After Texas A&M Corpus Christi Defeats HBU 3-1 in the Tournament Final:

VIDEO:  Ivy Baresh
VIDEO:  Tony Graystone
AUDIO:  Morgan Carlson
AUDIO:  Kristyn Nicholson
AUDIO:  Kelsee Felux

Saturday, November 21

VIDEO: HBU:  Jessica Wooten
VIDEO: Texas A&M Corpus Christi: Madeleine Doud
AUDIO: McNeese: Amber Fryer and Bridget Justis
AUDIO: HBU: Trent Herman

Friday, November 20

VIDEO:  Texas A&M Corpus Christi:  Morgan Carlson
AUDIO:  Southeastern Louisiana:   Jim Smoot
AUDIO:  Texas A&M Corpus Christi:  Tony Graystone
AUDIO:  HBU:  Trent Herman, Allison Doerpinghaus & Blair Gillard
AUDIO:  Sam Houston: Brenda Gray, Jordan Vaughn & Brooke White

Thursday, November 19

VIDEO:  Texas A&M Corpus Christi:  Kristyn Nicholson & Kate Klepetka
AUDIO:  McNeese:  Ashleigh Fitzgerald, Malina Sanchez & Kelly Graham

SLC Tourney Day 2: Rapid Fire Reactions

As I did last night, I'll end my day by writing down a few thoughts about today's semifinal matches.  Again, this is rapid fire, so excuse the lack of creative adjectives and grammar along the way.

Match 1: Islanders/Cowgirls

I thought Texas A&M Corpus Christi showed their depth again. Madeleine Doud didn't have a ton of kills, but she had some outstanding blocks at key moments (See Video Link Above) and she and Carlson played with a ton of emotion. Kelsee Felux, who didn't even play yesterday, was one kill away from tying Baresh for the team lead. The Islanders were really loose before the match.  They bring their own boom-box out onto the floor for early warm ups and they all were singing and dancing while getting warmed up.

The most impressive thing about the Islanders has been their depth and the blocking.  I didn't expect this many blocks at all.  Gilpin had 10 yesterday, Doud had 6 today and Carlson 7. As great a blocking team as HBU is.. and they have 25 blocks in two games, the Islanders have 23, and of course, they've played one less set.

Really, until the final points of each set, I thought McNeese stayed with them well.  The service run by Baresh at the end of Set 1 was a killer, but the Cowgirls played a respectable match for sure.  Bridget Justis leads the tournament with 6.86 digs per set.  McNeese just never really had a huge offensive set.  They hit basically exactly .100 in all three sets.  Credit the Islanders defense.  Also, it seemed like every time the Cowgirls were about to tie or shrink the lead to 1, something strange would happen:  service error, ball off the tape and no reaction, call wouldn't go their way, miscommunication of some sort, etc.  To finish in the Top 4 in the standings and make the tournament Final Four legitimizes the progress McNeese has made.

Match 2: Huskies/Bearkats

Now that it's over I can write this:  I told our assistant coach LA Lanford late Friday night Sam Houston seems to always have a bad Day 2 at the tournament and that was the reason I would go with HBU.  I didn't know what else to think given all the upsets on Day 1.  Against UCA, all of Vaughn, Cunningham and White were scoring.  Really, Vaughn was the only offense for SHSU today.  White came back with a nice third set, but she was high error in the first two.  They had to go deep down the bench after playing only 7 girls on Friday and none of those moves sparked them.  That said, Gooch was solid off the pine getting a couple kills and three blocks, but it wasn't enough to get the Bearkats over the hump.

SHSU just had a ton of errors:  29 attack errors.. they hit .000, four return errors and six missed serves.  HBU didn't hit lights out, and they had more service errors than Sam Houston, but the big three:  Wooten, Doerpinghaus and Gillard were too much.  Wooten now has two straight double doubles and a total of 23 kills and 32 digs in seven sets (3.29 k/s and 4.57 d/s)

HBU would be the lowest seed in tournament history to win it if they are able to pull off the upset tomorrow.  The Huskies' back row - particularly Fuchs and Erickson are going to need to have stellar matches.  TAMUCC's back row has a HUGE edge over the Huskies.  On the front, it should be a great battle to see if Nicholson can keep Doerpinghaus and Gillard guessing and spread the ball around and try and create isolation looks.

I'll be on SFAVolleyBlog Radio rather than on SLCDN or ESPN3 tomorrow, so I can make a prediction on this one and it not seem out of place.  I'll say Klepetka has a monster match on the back row and Corpus wins in three.. two sets being really close and one not.

SLC Tourney: First Day Rapid Fire Reactions

Several people today asked me if I was going to do a write up of Day 1 of the 2015 SLC Tournament.  I hadn't intended to, but before I call it a night (it's technically already Saturday) I decided I'd pen some thoughts that have kept coming back to my mind.  I'll try to be brief.  This is rapid fire. No grammar rules here, so be on guard!

Match 1:  Islanders/Lions
So, I don't pick Giplin on my SLC lists, primarily b/c she was 17th among all starting MB's in the SLC in blocks and blocks per set & what happens?  She gets 10 blocks.  That was ridiculous. And how about Morgan Carlson?  (See Video link in other post).  Are you kidding me?  Hitting.500 and now you have her and Baresh to worry about?  Plus, Gilpin is usually more offense than defense.  If Corpus spreads the net on offense like that the rest of the tourney, then I don't see anyone beating them.  Go look at the stats on the year.  Baresh literally averages 10 k/10 dig per match and what does she get?  10/10 exactly.

Hey voters... Landry Bullock?  Reward good players on low seeded teams?  Have we heard this call here, oh, I don't know.. 1000 times. Bullock was lights out (18 kills) and she made my point of my All-SLC Tourney picks perfectly.  Glad she's only a JR so we get to see that again.  Just realized Monica Ramon had 20 digs in three sets.  Nice.

Match 2: Cowgirls/Privateers
Holy moly Amber Fryer?  What in the world was that?  14-1-23 (.565).  I did NOT see that one coming at all.  And, my pick for Newcomer of the Year, Bridget Justis got the most digs of anyone on Day 1 with 29.  Seriously, how can  you not like this McNeese team.  They are so loose, so funny and clearly they are downright scary.  That said, this match truly could have gone either way when you look back on the first three sets.  If UNO gets one of those first two, then this would have gone 5 and then.. who knows.  Good showing by the Privateers.  They did not roll over - they represented themselves well and were in positions to win each of the first three sets.  Dunn had a double double and we'll get to enjoy her and the other young UNO players for several years. They look like a tournament team again in the near future.

Match 3: 'Jacks/Huskies
Set 3 was a killer.  What if we had pulled that set out?  We had such problems in first sets this year that after we stormed back in Set 2, I wasn't worried a bit.  In fact, until the very last points of Set 3, it seemed like matches I've seen all year long that we won in 4 or 5.  That said, it was odd to see Walker and Allen so low in the stat counts.  Justice finished with 6 blocks, but many of her 7 kills were in latter sets.  To get 23 kills between Hanna and Coleman was nice, but our offensive formula was out of whack.  It's unfortunate that Jacque was never really in sync, but I was glad to see OJ and Tori have good final matches of their career.  It's always a hollow feeling after a tournament loss.  Preparing to broadcast UCA/SHSU I kept looking over at our players just sitting in the stands stone-faced.  I hate that.  I know they hate losing more than me, but still.. I hate losing.  Just empty feeling inside and you feel like you should "do something", but there is nothing to do.  It's done and we lost.  Stinks.  I anticipate winning so much that it's an emotional letdown when we don't.. you know what I's the fan in me/you.

Honestly, I was concerned about us playing at a high-level three straight times, but I would have given you three-to-one odds we were going to win.  I didn't expect us to lose in the first round at all.  And as goofy as this might sound now (hindsight is 20/20), I told LA Lanford late Friday night that the low seed I expected to have the greatest chance of an upset was actually Southeastern La.  Still, we had a good season.  20 more wins.  We'll have Abby, HannaMac and (Fathead) Coleman on the outside next year.  Plus, Walker might be the VERY early odds on favorite for Player of the Year, who knows?  As always, I was proud to be part of another winning season.  We'll be up near the top again with a few tweaks, changes and additions.  Not too worried about our future -we'll cause trouble and be in the mix.

Meanwhile, Blair Gillard for President.  I said it when I interviewed Armer and Wooten earlier in the year, I said it when I was breaking down the All-SLC picks, I said it to everyone that would listen to my incessant volleyball exuberance today, Blair Gillard is for realz.  I'm going to be shocked out of my goard if she's not an All-SLC player the next two years.  You could bottle that energy and sell it on Wall Street and I'd invest some of my retirement money in it.  Just so fun.  And, while we're at it.. another quiet day at the office for Jessica Wooten: 12 kills, 19 digs and five blocks in four sets.  No big deal.  Not flashy... just GOOD.

Match 4: Bearkats/Sugar Bears
Woah.  Talk about hushing the home crowd.  I'll be honest:  All week I have been studying for the broadcasts and I have done my very best to put personal thoughts aside as I prepared and delivered content.  These teams deserve the best coverage I can provide and I know I am still learning.  Now, as a fan, I was hoping UCA would lose... just selfishly since we were on their side of the bracket. But, man, after that match, it was painful for me to watch Schnars and South get emotional.  I didn't realize I would feel the way I did after that match.  I was really hit by how honest their emotions were.  I don't want to say I felt "sorry" for them.  I mean, they don't need my pity.. they are great athletes.  But, just to see the disappointment and such honest emotions was difficult for me to take in.. I had made up my mind I was going to try once again to talk with Schnars during this tournament after not being able to last year.  But, after that..I had/have no place.  I'll just write again how much I admire her play and how much this conference will miss her level of talent.

Sam Houston - The word I kept coming back to:  RESULTS.  They just got it done.  Michelle Griffith didn't get any post-season honors.  Ok.  Again, she's a polarizing player for people to analyze.  I've always liked her as a setter.  Some folks I talk to want to talk about her negatives before her positives and I get it.  But hey, RESULTS. 2nd to Nicholson in assists per set overall and in conference play and tonight she spread it around beautifully... 14 kills for Vaughn, 13 for White and 12 for Cunningham.  I also thought Kilpatrick played well.. better than at other times I've watched her.  To me, UCA's defense actually looked confused.  Plus, there were tons of shots SHSU took where I thought:  That scored????  UCA's front line was kept guessing and a lot of balls that I thought were going to be dug were not.

I have no idea what to think about HBU vs. SHSU tomorrow.  None.  Can either one of these teams really put together three matches in a row?  I guess we'll find out.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

2015 SLC Tournament: Complete Broadcast Schedule

Broadcast Schedule for 2015 Southland Conference Volleyball Tournament:
Friday, November 20
Match 1:  #1 TAMUCC  vs. #8 SLU (11 AM, SLDN, Greg Miller)
Match 2:  #4 McNeese vs. #5 UNO (1:30 PM, SLDN, Greg Miller)
Match 3:  #3  SFA vs. #6 HBU (4:00 PM, SLDN, Chris Mycoskie)
                   (Match 3 Internet Radio: Here at SFAVolleyBlog)

Match 4:  #2 UCAvs. #7 Sam Houston (6:30 PM, Greg Miller)

Saturday, November 21

Match 5:   Match 1 Winner vs. Match 2 Winner (Noon, Greg Miller)*
Match 6:   Match 3 Winner vs. Match 4 Winner (2:30, Chris Mycoskie)*#
                  (Match 6 Internet Radio:  Here at SFAVolleyBlog)

*Games could be jointly called by Chris Mycoskie and Greg Miller.  Decision: TBA

# If SFA is not involved in Match 6, Greg Miller would call & no Internet radio broadcast would be done.

Sunday, November 22

Match 7  Southland Conference Tournament Championship (ESPN3, Lincoln Rose and Brooke Bentley)
(Internet Radio for Championship Here at SFAVolleyBlog)

I am pleased to have been asked to work for the Southland Conference Digital Network this weekend and provide streaming coverage of many of the matches on Friday and Saturday.  Chris Mycoskie, Assistant Commissioner of the Southland Conference and lead contact for Southland Television and Electronic Media will also call some matches as he has done in years past.

Chris has many talents and responsibilities and so he approached me last week about helping out delivering content so that he could aid in other duties while in Conway.  We hope this partnership will strengthen the overall "team" effort of providing the very best coverage of this weekends event.

I am honored - on the heels of my first season in charge of being the ESPN3 commentator for SFA Volleyball - to be asked to take on such an important and visible role.  This will be my 7th Southland Conference Tournament to cover, but first to involve television/Internet streaming.

Chris wisely felt it best if in this first year of partnership, that he call the matches which involve SFA.  I will run radio through my blog for those that would like to listen to the Ladyjacks in that format.  Of course, I have and would always try and provide the best coverage for ANY match I was assigned.  However, this arrangement allows viewers to dispel any worries concerning my SFA loyalties.

In the truest sense, for these broadcasts, I do not work for ESPN or SFA, but instead work for the Southland Conference.  I take that very seriously.  My pledge is to provide the highest quality description and experience that I possibly can.  I am quite familiar with each team in the conference and confident that I can provide the viewer with an experience that is complementary to the real showcase:  the athletes and coaches attempting to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Special thanks to my readers, SFA Volleyball, Athletic Director Robert Hill at SFA, all the players, coaches, administrators and fans that have supported - and critiqued - me for these last seven years.

SFAVolleyBlog's official partnership with the Southland Conference marks a major step forward for this blog and for it's mission of bringing you courtside with Ladyjack and Southland Conference Volleyball.

For seven years,we have been SFA Volleyball's Strongest Presence on the 'Net. I am ALWAYS receptive to meeting new people and talking "shop".  Please, introduce yourself.  If you are a fan of one of these eight teams, we already have a common bond.

Monday, November 16, 2015

7th Annual SFA All Conference Teams


Well, for the 7th time, here we go.  This is my list for All-Conference performances in 2015. In case you are reading this after 11/19/15,  please note that this list was released well before the official conference announcement which will come on Wednesday, November 18.

Like in previous years, I suspect I will periodically comment on this article over the next week.  I will indicate updates at the bottom of the post with boldface time stamps.  For now, I will repeat a few phrases from years gone by about my selection process:

Recall,  I actually pick "teams". The conference does not do this. Typically, the conference puts 12 girls on the first team, six girls on the 2nd team and has 6 to 9 girls listed as honorable mention for a total of 24 to 27 girls recognized. I will have three teams of seven for 21 girls honored and then a list of the players I considered for the lists and "just missed".

As I have said each of the last six years: "There are seven starters each night for any particular team, so we will pick seven girls per team. Each team is required to have a a setter, libero, two middle blockers, two hitters and a seventh player that can either be MB or OH."

2015 SFA All-Southland Conference Teams and Awards:

First Team:

OH Heather Schnars, Central Arkansas
OH Ivy Baresh, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
MB Chelsea Grant, Lamar
MB Justice Walker, SFA
MB Jacque Allen, SFA
S Kristyn Nicholson, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
L Kate Klepetka, Texas A&M Corpus Christi

Second Team:

OH Malina Sanchez, McNeese
OH Jessica Wooten, HBU
MB Megan Nash, Central Arkansas
MB Allison Doerpinghaus, HBU
OH Jennifer Loerch, ACU
S Michelle Griffith, Sam Houston State
L OJ Olson, SFA

Third Team:

OH Autumn Lockley, Incarnate Word
OH Landry Bullock, Southeastern Louisiana
MB Glynna Johnson, Northwestern State
MB Cortney Moore, Lamar
OH Jordan Vaughn, Sam Houston State
S Kayla Armer, HBU
L Madison Hoover, ACU

Just Missed (in order of position played):  OH Brooke White (SHSU), OH Kaci Eaton (Nicholls), OH Anna Niederhauser (Nicholls), RS Morgan Carlson (TAMUCC), MB Blair Gillard (HBU), MB Brittany Gilpin (TAMUCC), S Sarah Siemens (ACU), S Amy South (UCA), L Bridget Justis (McNeese)

Player of the Year:  Heather Schnars, Central Arkansas
Setter of the Year:  Kristyn Nicholson, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
Libero of the Year:  Kate Klepetka, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
Newcomer of the Year: Bridget Justis, McNeese
Freshman of the Year:  Autumn Lockley, Incarnate Word
Coach of the Year:  Tony Graystone, Texas A&M Corpus Christi

Tuesday, November 17 9:00 PM:  Thought Processes

I wanted to come back and edit this post before the official lists are released tomorrow and add a few lines about some of my thought processes and difficulties in making these lists.

1) On one hand, it seems like UCA, being the 2nd seed, should possibly have more representation than just two girls on my three teams.  But, who?  Should South be moved up?  I personally, just can't justify that.  Samantha Anderson?  Who?  Nobody else's individual performances stand out to me.  Now, the way this goes is that coaches submit ranked sets of names.  So, knowing how the conference does it, I'll bet South is higher on the actual list than mine.  That's just a guess.

2) New Orleans?  Nobody on my list.  That seems odd, right?  I mean, they did have a season that to this point has FAR exceeded other folks expectations.  But again, who stands out here?  Maybe this is actually symbolic of the fact that UNO - as a TEAM - has collectively achieved at a higher level than what was originally predicted.  I looked over things many times looking for a UNO representative.  Blessing Dunn and Kaitlyn Grice got onto my radar - meaning they made the "spreadsheet" of massive statistical analysis.  But, even when I talked to others about their thoughts of UNO, I got different names every time.  So, I am really curious if any of their girls show up on the official lists.  I am anxious to see their freshman play Friday, but can you take one over Lockley for this list?  I just can't do that.

3) Newcomer of the Year.  I didn't see an obvious pick.  Maybe someone can help me here, but I thought this one was tough because no one really seems to jump out.  I went with Justis for two reasons:  a) she stabilized the Cowgirl back line and that allowed some of the new players and Sanchez to contribute more on the front, which I think was a key to their "getting out of the pit" and b) I like back row players as a default.  So, that one was rather unscientific.

4) As I've said in past years, I think the official lists tend to under represent strong performances by athletes on low-seed or out-of-tournament teams.  I have had very respectable people (read:  coaches/administrators) tell me that the top teams should have a FIXED number of first teamers, second teamers, etc... and/or that if a team doesn't make the tournament then they don't deserve players to make All-SLC.  My response to that:  Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat? So, no dissing the Lockley/Bullock/Niederhauser placing. Bullock was 6th among all pin-oriented players in total kills AND attack percentage.  That's doesn't deserve at least 3rd team?  Chelsea Grant:  First teamer.  Any other conclusion is team bias.

Other quick hits on some things:

  • In one version of this, I had Malina Sanchez on first team.
  • I have to refrain from being a hypocrite concerning my incessant dogging of the conference for leaving off Kayln Egea at Nicholls last year after she was Top 5 in digs/set in DI NCAA.  Thus, I can't hometown it concerning Olson and Klepetka.  Klepetka's stats are just too much to look away from.  They BOTH should be on the official first team or I'm going to go bananas.
  • Wooten could also be higher.  Automatic official list first teamer.
  • Schnars and Nicholson are complete runaways.  It's a joke of amazing proportions if they don't win POTY/SOTY, respectively.  Same, with Graystone... it's a lock.
  • Cortney Moore might finish higher in the actual lists, but I prefer to weigh defense high for MB's.  Moore was 14th among all MB's in blocks per set.
  • I might take some heat for Gilpin.  But, in my view, just because you lead the conference in attack percentage doesn't mean that you deserve All-Conference.  I know some people will disagree. Among all blockers, she was 17th in total blocks and blocks per set.  Players with more blocks:  Emily Weimer (NICH), Kaitlyn Grice (UNO), Monica Hudgins (McNeese), Sarea Alexander (UIW), Samantha Anderson (UCA), Lauren Walker (ACU)... and her teammate Madeline Doud.  That's my point.  We know that MB's are going to be at the top of the attack % leaderboards. Don't give extra points for what is normal.  That said, Gilpin's .377, Johnson's .376 and Grant's .369 are REALLY high for this conferences' typical attack percentage leaders.  The leader is usually around .330-.335.
  • I see such a separation between Allen, Walker, Grant and the next tier of MB's that I bumped a hitter (Wooten/Sanchez) off my first team to accommodate all three.
  • Kayla Armer might make the list next year even after she has graduated.  I'm joking of course, but we all have just our personal favorites as fans. Like Jessica Pancratz of ORU a few years ago and Egea at Nicholls last year, you just have your players that in your eyes can do no wrong.  Good thing I've already got Blair Gillard - also of HBU - picked out for fan club status in 2016.
  • Fun times! Page view counts up 500% over last two days!  Glad you are reading.

Reaction to Official All-Southland Teams Announced Wednesday, November 18

Honestly, I think this is the most pleased I've been with the Southland voters in the last four of five years.  I breathed a sigh of relief that we didn't have any true absurdity.  There have been years in the past where I have truly felt the deliberation in some choices was not up to par.  This year, I think the list is really well done and I take this as a step forward in the necessity of using both traditional scouting techniques and analytics to reach a group of great picks.

Of the 12 players on the SLC First Team, 10 of them appear on my Top 12 (Teams 1 and 2).  If you notice Autumn Lockley is the first name on my 3rd team, then the similarity improves to including 11 of the conference's top 13 picks.  So, at the top of the heap, the voters and I disagree rarely.

There is one player - a very good player - that appears on the official SLC First Team that I have already addressed in my "Thought Processes" section from last night.  You can read that logic above.  I address this situation again below coupled with my main point that is coming.

There is also one name that is on my Top 12 (Teams 1 and 2), that appears nowhere on the official lists.  Regarding that situation... I have wised up through the years.  I think I know what is going on there.  My personal opinion is that IF.. and that's a big IF... I am right, then what is happening is shameful.  But, since I can't prove I am right, I will just go back to stating that if there is only a difference of two players of 13, then clearly there is little disagreement.

Now, to my only real main point of this reaction:  The one thing that we need as a group to get better at is to realize that these are NOT TEAM AWARDS.  I write this every year and I am going to keep flying this flag and making this point until I am blue in the face.  Team awards are what we are playing for this weekend.  They are trophies, championships, regular season titles, and NCAA bids.  All-Conference lists are INDIVIDUAL awards.  Surely, great teams will be comprised of great individual performances to some reasonable degree.  My point is, we've taken it too far.

SLC voters, please:  STOP biasing these lists against players from teams with low-seeds or that didn't make the tournament.  It is entirely reasonable for an outstanding player on a last place team to make the top of one of the All-Conference lists.  STOP giving extra points to players that have average to above average overall seasons so that we falsely claim they are among the very best in the conference.  This trend is incredibly disingenuous to players who have outstanding seasons, but whose teams are sub-par. Their teams have already suffered the fate of not making the tournament or having to play from a low seed.  Don't turn around and deny them individually so that what you are really doing is discarding their great season just because the rest of their team couldn't match their output.  It's just wrong.

When you figure out why Player A is a 1st Team Pick, Player B is Honorable Mention and Player C got nothing.. then you let me know.  Player A is a good player.  I'm arguing more FOR a harder look at Player B and C than I am arguing AGAINST Player A.  They all three play middle blocker and to be completely fair, I tend to weigh defense at that position more than others.  So, if you are someone that believes that offense at middle blocker should weigh more than defense, then you probably won't agree with my overall conclusion.  And of course, you are not obliged to agree with me ever.

Player A: 240 kills, 2.45 k/s, .363 %, 74 blocks, .74 bl/s
Player B: 204 kills, 1.92 k/s, .377 %, 101 blocks, .95 bl/s
Player C: 318 kills, 2.84 k/s, .336 %, 93 blocks, .83 b/s

You know what the difference is between hitting .363 and .336?  Do the math, it's pretty simple subtraction and division.  If Player A got one less KILL A WEEK each week, then she would have hit exactly .336.  So, since Player C's stats are better in EVERY way except hitting percentage, then are you willing to say that one extra kill a week is the difference between 1st Team Honors and Nothing?  And that's assuming that you think it's a tie before comparing hitting percentages... and clearly, it's not.

So, what gives?  Look, every year people tell me there are things that stats can't measure and they are absolutely correct.  No doubt, there are intangibles.  That is at least one - possibly the only one - reason why coaches submitting ranked lists is defensible of how the process begins.  More on that below. But, you've got A LOT of explaining to do if you think Player A and Player C are so separated on intangibles that one deserves a first team selection and the other deserves nothing.  

Maybe the coach of Player C left her completely off the ballot.  It wouldn't be the first time that's happened.  So, if that is true we have a whole other issue that is way more bewildering.  I've gone to this well too many times to count.  Read in years' past commentary.  Coaches have too much power when it comes to these lists.  They shouldn't submit lists.  The pool of players to pick from should be those that wear a jersey.  Period.

Even if Player C was left off the ballot, I'd still like my overall point to be thoughtfully considered.

Is it at least possible that why Player A and Player B and Player C got such different accolades is that there are people who make a policy of just refusing to vote for girls on poor teams?  

Kick the habit, guys and gals.  Teams get trophies.  Give players, regardless of their team, the recognition they deserve.

2015 Southland Senior Tribute: 10 Memories

There have been fewer posts this season than in the past.  That's not for lack of ideas, but rather a byproduct of attention being split while still covering the SLC and SFA in other ways.  This year, the attention at SFA has clearly been on ESPN broadcasts, of which I was incredibly honored and proud to deliver.  In terms of SLC coverage, I have focused on more videos of players.   Behind the scenes, professionally, I have begun a new consulting company this year which has been incredibly rewarding regarding my work as a statistician.

This post, however, is something that I intend to do every year going forward.  I have never formally turned this list into post until now, but with all of the SLC schools having completed their "Senior Days", this article began to gel and be written in my head.  It's a little more of a personal, rather than scientific nature - the latter of which is my typical writing style.

Below are 10 seniors that have made an impact on me as a volleyball fan over the past four years.  I track this conference hard.  There are many people with more smarts and talents around this conference, but few that know and study the rosters and statistics to the depth that I do.  Because of this, as a fan - there are certain players that you come to appreciate even if you only get to see them play two or three times a year.  People tell stories about them: stories about trying to defend them or strategize against them, stories about their character or interests.  Most of these stories come from coaches, other players and administrators.  My personal observations blend with these stories to create a true interest in their careers.

Below, in alphabetical order are the 10 senior stories with a personal touch and a link to a time - if applicable, where I got a chance to speak with them.  Thanks to each and every one of these players for their time and generosity.  A complete list of 2015 Southland Seniors rounds out the post.

Jacque Allen (SFA)
Could there be any happier player around a volleyball court than Jacque?  Every team needs someone to provide lighter moments whether after a crucial loss or in celebration on the bus home.  Jacque is that person.  Early in her career, I wondered if she would fully round into form at SFA and be a dominant player.  Boy, did she ever.  One of the most respected middle blockers in the conference, she has 438 career blocks (6th all time at SFA) including 86 solos (2nd all time).  If she gets five blocks in the tournament this week, she can move into fifth all time at SFA.  I'd say that's rounding into form.  She was always one of the first players to greet me in the gym - whether at home or when she spotted me on the road preparing for covering a match.  She was always friendly and always accommodating for interviews and conversations.

Ivy Baresh (TAMUCC)
One of the greatest six-rotation players this conference has seen in recent years.  I remember a former assistant coach at SFA telling me about her the on the day she signed her letter of intent.  He raved - I mean RAVED - at how good he thought she was going to be.  He was right.  Baresh is immensely talented.  A rock solid passer, the Islanders can trust her on the back row without hesitation.  To ease her back from injury, when she couldn't fully jump, the team trusted her defense so much that they used her at libero a bit in 2014.  Now, here in her final season, we have seen a full resurgence to Baresh Form.  She'll finish the year with over 300 kills and 300 digs which is pretty much insane.  But, given she is the only Islander in history with 1000+ kills and digs would you expect any less?  If drafting a Southland Conference Volleyball fantasy team, she's an automatic first rounder in any format.

Glynna Johnson (NSU)
Such an imposing figure when you watch her play, but such a gentle and humble spirit off the court.  Despite an incredible career that sees her among the Top 10 in the NCAA in active career blocks, you wouldn't know it talking to her.  But, man, do her teammates respect her.  The limelight shone on players like Stacey DiFrancesco, Mackenzie Neely and Keelie Arneson - and all for good reason, but each one of them repeatedly would credit Glynna with being an anchor.  I'll always remember these recent Demon squads.  The stories of my dismissing this group early in their careers are well chronicled.  Amazingly, the Northwestern State fans, parents, and players have been able to (at least half-heartedly) forgive me for all that. After all, I was the one that was wrong and wound up embarrassed and even retracting comments after NSU built such an impressive set of teams around players like Johnson.  I'm better for all of that.  I have many friends at NSU because of it.  I'm glad Glynna Johnson was a part of something great.  Players with her skill and humble demeanor deserve it.

Jennifer Loerch (ACU)
Underrated.  Look up the phrase "Just Get it Done" in your sports reference guide thingy and you'll probably see a picture of Jennie Loerch in the margin.  You are aware she will finish in the Top 10 in the Southland in kills per set for the THIRD straight year, right? Oh, you're not? That's right, no one pays enough attention to ACU.  Well, I do and let me tell you that Loerch is incredible.  It's one thing to be strong, intimidating and powerful like some of the hitters on this list.  Now, Loerch is no push-over, but she 's not exactly the size of even the typical NCAA DI team kill leader.  Doesn't matter, Loerch will eat you alive. Loerch had 24 kills on her senior day and then came back with 21 kills in her final match in a win at Northwestern State.  Just punctuation at home AND on the road to an amazing career.  A workhorse, always taking a ton of swings, she is someone who literally doesn't know her own stats because she is just interested in beating you down.  ACU will play in the SLC Tourney for the first time in 2017 and the groundwork for future Wildcat success was paved in large part by players like Jennie Loerch.

Cortney Moore (Lamar)
This is the second year in a row that Moore will hit over .330.  Last year, only the aforementioned Jacque Allen hit for a higher percentage that Moore.  The first thing out of anyone's mouth over the last two years when you talk about Lamar Volleyball is "those athletic middles".  I've heard it from all around the conference - players, coaches, parents, fans: "Those middles at Lamar". People KNOW Cortney Moore. Just one look at her and you realize that she is just pure athleticism.  Consistent and dominant.  Her career began as the Freshman of the Year in 2012 and will end leading her team in kills, kills per set, hitting percentage and finishing in the Top 5 in the conference in hitting % as well. In case you see all this offense and happen to forget:  She tallied 93 blocks this year and 77 the year before.  A true go-to player, I'd always shutter when the game was on the line with Lamar because I just knew they would set Moore.  And "Moore Often Than Not".. it was a kill.

Unfortunately, Lamar has been rather mum on returning requests for interviews over the past two years.  I regret that I've never had a chance to talk with Cortney Moore.

Caiti O' Connell (NSU)
The runner up to Moore in 2012 in the Freshman of the Year balloting, O'Connell was an absolute delight to watch play.  Quick:  Who had more kills per set among the Demon squad that won the 2014 SLC Tourney.. her or DiFrancesco?  You know why I ask.. because the answer is O'Connell. O'Connell never led the Demons in total kills or kills per set in her four years in Natchitoches, but she ALWAYS was in the top 3.  On many, many Southland teams over the last few years she would have been the go to hitter.  Her stable presence only proves how deep Northwestern State has been with talent over the last few years.  I happen to know that O'Connell is as smart as they come and I've first hand observed a high level of integrity and leadership.  She was part of that big recruiting class that came to NSU in 2011, but O'Connell took a redshirt her first year on campus.  She was the perfect compliment on so many well rounded teams in the last four years at NSU.  Had she gone somewhere else, she probably would have even more accolades.  But, two Southland pre-season team honors, two Louisiana Sports Writers honors, the 2012 Louisiana Sports Writers Freshman of the Year and one SLC Tourney Team honor should serve to remind you of her impact.  Oh yeah, and there's that thing about a ring, too.  Caiti O'Connell's built quite the resume.  She was always a delight to chat with as well.

OJ Olson (SFA)
I admit it.  OJ is just flat out one of my favorite players in the 10 years I've been working for SFA Volleyball.  She's a math major and I'm around her each week whether we are in season or in the Spring semester.  I've had OJ in one of my classes.  She's sat and talked with me in my office many times.  So, I easily know her better than anyone in this article.  Everyone who reads here knows I love back row defense.  We have been blessed with some fantastic liberos through the years, but OJ has as strong a claim on "next best to Figgers" as anyone.  Olson has 2114 career digs.  That's good for third all-time at SFA.  She needs just 7 digs this weekend to break her own season high of 645.  When she does, she will occupy both 2nd & 3rd place on the season dig leaders at SFA.  She and Figgers are the only two liberos in SFA history with multiple 600-dig seasons.   The fact that she wasn't a first-team SLC honoree last year was a complete joke.  The libero voting in 2014 was flat out horrible.  If by some act of pure madness, her and Kate Klepetka at TAMUCC aren't the top vote getters at libero this year, I might just blow a gasket.  Stop letting sentimental coaches' internal player rankings (*cough **UCA last year** cough*) swaying you!   C'mon people.. for her senior year.. get it right for once.

Malina Sanchez (McNeese)
I am so glad to see Sanchez getting back to her dominant ways this year.  If she has a big game on Friday and/or McNeese advances to Round 2, she has a great shot at going over 400 kills on the season.  She and Jessica Wooten (HBU) are the only two that have a chance to join Heather Schnars (424) at that plateau.  I still remember seeing Sanchez as a freshman in Shelton Gym when the Cowgirls came to play SFA in 2012.  She  probably made the most immediate impact on me of any freshman I've seen in the last four or five years.  I thought she was going to jump out of the gym.  Like Baresh, Sanchez is great on the back row.  McNeese's back row went in the tank several times last year and so Sanchez had to rotate back to help out at libero at times and play more of a defensive posture.  This year, McNeese is more stable in the off-colored jersey and Sanchez has gone back to what head coach Ashleigh Fitzgerald tends to call "poundtown".   Sanchez is one of the players this weekend that I most want to seek out and talk with again.  If for no other reason, just to tell her how much I enjoy watching her play. Just a delight.

Heather Schnars (UCA)
I can't say anything in this space that you don't already know.  My words can't add to the awesomeness that is Heather Schnars.  It is so ironic that this week I will drive back to UCA and cover matches in the Ferris Center.  You see, in 2012, the SLC Tourney was there as well.  When the tournament was over one player was on my mind in terms of breaking out for her sophomore year:  Schnars.  I was SO impressed - absolutely mesmerized.   I remember a conversation I had with then head coach David McFatrich at that tournament.  He looked me straight in the eye and said "I am SO  glad we decided to finally commit and pursue her coming here.  If we had let her go, it would have been one of my most horrible mistakes".  He had this sincere, grateful look in his eye and I remembered that all off-season before Schnars came back and began her complete assault on the league.  Yes, there have been times where I have questioned the aggressive serving.  Yes, I took Wells-Gibson over her for player of the year last year.  But let me leave this out here in the most unequivocal way I possibly can:  There is no better player currently in the Southland Conference than Heather Schnars.  If you have to have a kill, everyone in the gym knows it's going to her.  If you are on the other side, you might as well pack it in.. you're already dead.  You're NOT stopping her.

Angelique Vidaurri (UIW)

Like Loerch at ACU, Vidaurri has spent the last four years at Incarnate Word knowing that she wouldn't have an opportunity to play in the postseason.  Like Loerch, she's been out on the West side of the conference and relatively dismissed with exception only of those that really study the numbers.  Make no mistake, Vidaurri - like Loerch - is terribly underrated.  Vidaurri is pretty fierce.  I've watched her for several years against SFA and I'll tell you this:  She wants the ball and she is an amazing competitor.  Earlier I wrote that Baresh would be an automatic first rounder if we could create a Southland Conference Volleyball fantasy league.  Schnars, of course, would be the first pick.  But, if you've ever played fantasy sports, then you know there is that ONE player that you have circled that you think everyone else is going to pass on and you are going to snatch up a round or two early.  That's Angelique Vidaurri - the ultimate value pick.  2012: Led her team in kills as a freshman.  2013: Honorable Mention All-Southland.  2014:  Went over 400 kills.  This year, the emergence of freshman Autumn Lockley eased some of her load, but she is still second on the team in total kills.  Like Loerch, someone owes Vidaurri a "thank you for paving the road" when UIW steps on the court for the 2017 Southland Conference Tourney.

I spoke briefly with Vidaurri last week after UIW beat SFA in her final collegiate match.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to schedule an interview with her before the match due to preparations for our own Senior Day festivities.  Due to purely random scheduling conflicts, I never was able to travel to San Antonio with SFA while she was at UIW.  

Five other seniors that stick out to me as I think back over the years:

Amy South (UCA).. very gracious in granting a video interview last year

Allison Doerpinghaus (HBU)... towering.. I remember sidling up to her in 2014 before a match to see if she was legit 6'4" since I am that tall... the answer was yes.

Kelly Graham (McNeese).... smooth.. love the ball coming off her hands.   One of my fave setters.

Celeste Ramirez (UNO)... see Graham.. always loved that Ramirez was good at libero AND setter.

Tori Bates (SFA).... class.  I'll just leave it at that.  So, classy.

Congrats and thank you to all of the 15 seniors above as well as these that round out this year's class:

ACU:  Sarah Siemens and Madison Hoover
UCA:  Corri Hunt
UIW:  Kaitlyn Brooks, Taylor McClelland and Jordan Reifsteck
LU:  Jenna Jackson
McNeese:  Amber Fryer
UNO:  Sara Hammotene, Lauren Levy and Milica Zmiric
Nicholls:  Alyse Barclay
NSU: Amanda Kunz
SLU: Mikayla Shippy, Shelby Devlin, Tiffany Thomas, Veronica Turk and Brooke Balser
TAMUCC: Kelsee Felux, Hailey King and Shayla Maldonado
SFA:  Jordan McArdle
Sam Houston didn't have any seniors!

See you at the Tournament on Friday!!

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Southland Conference Has Lost Its Serving Mind!

I'm a statistician. It's what I do. 

This post is short and sweet.  I've covered this topic before, so I won't belabor it.  I think there are players that rack up a ton of aces, but this is offset - and then some - by boat loads of errors.  I think many people see the aces totals and believe this helps their teams.  I disagree.

If a player has 47 aces and 77 service errors, then you have to demonstrate to me 30 non-ace definitive times that their serve has manifested itself in a point immediately following the serve without rally JUST TO BREAK EVEN.  Once these 30 times have been demonstrated, this server has had the same impact on scoring as someone who has zero aces and zero service errors, or 20 service aces and 20 service errors.  This assumes, of course, that these last two servers NEVER had situations where their serves resulted in non-ace, yet immediate scoring opportunities for their team (which probably is not true and thus makes the 47 ace, 77 error server still look less valuable than them).

Think about what has been written above.  Really think about it.  We glorify aces, but turn our back on a mountain of errors.  Have we lost our minds?

Now, here is a graph of the Top 40 players in NCAA Division I volleyball in aces.   The horizontal  axis is aces and the vertical axis is service errors.  Can you spot the outlier?  Hint:  47 aces, 77 errors.

Look at where the bulk of the data lies and then consider this:  If you remove the outlier, there are a total of 1100 aces represented and 1152 service errors- two values that are roughly the same when considering there are 40 players represented.  

In fact, just to add a little statistical flavor to this, if you calculate the correlation between aces and errors WITHOUT the outlier, you get a correlation coefficient of r =.17. For the nerds among us, the p-value for that being significantly different than zero is .30.  So, simply speaking, without the outlier, the above cluster of points is essentially random scatter.

If you re-run the correlation analysis WITH the outlier in the data set, then the correlation coefficient jumps to .54, which is significantly different than zero (p-value now .0005).  Thus, the inclusion of the outlier changes the correlation from being considered statistically zero to statistically non-zero BY ITSELF.  THAT, my friends, is an OUTLIER.

Four of the 40 data points in the above graph belong to Southland Conference players:

Heather Schnars (UCA): 47 aces, 77 errors
Nat Jaeger (NW St): 33 aces, 40 errors
Jessica Wooten (HBU): 29 aces, 21 errors
Kristyn Nicholson (TAMUCC):  25 aces, 41 errors

Nicholson's data point looks slightly out of line with the national trend among ace leaders, but Schnars is the outlier.

Heather Schnars is the reigning Southland Conference Player of the Year.  Heather Schnars is one of the best players to ever play in this conference.

I picked Devaney Wells-Gibson as my player of the year last year in part... I emphasize IN PART... due to this type of analysis.  And, I will reiterate one more time for the record, that I have ZERO qualms with Schnars winning last year.

Heather Schnars leads the nation in aces.  Heather Schnars leads the nation in service errors.

By the way, Northwestern State leads the nation in service errors and UCA is second.

The Southland Conference leads all conferences in total aces.  The Southland Conference leads all conferences in total service errors.

Aggressive serving to the point of being an outlier as mentioned above?  I say it isn't worth it.  And I'd coach the player to stop.  You'll need to provide me with quantitative evidence to the contrary to get me to change my mind.  Don't start telling me anecdotal stories of getting teams out of system here and there.  Service errors give the other team a point 100% of the time they occur.  I want data.

Has anyone else noticed all this?

Friday, October 2, 2015

Libero Swapero

Last night in San Antonio, the fans in the McDermott Convocation Center and those of us viewing online sure got our money's worth.  Well, given it was free, I guess we got way more than our actual money's worth out of the match between SFA and UIW.  There were several story lines and I'll try to scoot through them all at some point in this post, but the libero swap between the 3rd and 4th sets is what I want to focus on.

You will occasionally see teams switch liberos in the middle of the match.  Almost always it is due to poor performance of the original starting libero.  Often in cases such as this,  a team doesn't have a particularly strong libero and if adjustments have to get make in-match because of performance, two girls will switch out and put on new jerseys.  I recall seeing this happen several times in Southland Conference play over the past few years.

That wasn't what happened Thursday night.  What happened Thursday night was a masterful counterpunch to the University of Incarnate Word's strategy.  In the process, it showcased just how deep the back row is of Stephen F. Austin and in particular, just how improved sophomore Lexus Cain is when compared to her already strong showing from last year.

No, Thursday wasn't about back row problems, it was about back row dominance.  Earlier in the year at one of the tournaments we played in, Debbie Humphreys told me right before the match that she had talked to her offense about consistently hitting and serving away from the other team's libero.  This is clearly what was going on last night from UIW's standpoint.  I went back to look if I could dig up the reception numbers, but the StatTracker had been reset for UIW's game vs. Northwestern State tomorrow.  I do specifically remember at one point seeing that Cain had 30 service receptions compared to OJ Olson's 9.  Clearly, Incarnate Word was attempting to avoid Olson and make others pass and dig around her.

On the surface it seems reasonable.  Olson is going to be in the Libero of the Year conversation at the end of the year.  At least one reason I am writing this post is in the hope that some voters will realize after her 12 digs in five sets last night, she should be considered MORE for the award now than before.  Because HER stats don't tell the story. The respect that UIW has for her ability is what does.

The problem with UIW's seemingly reasonable strategy to hit and serve away from Olson has one flaw:  Lexus Cain is really freakin' good.

Knowing this, after SFA lost a marathon third set that saw the 'Jacks negate six straight UIW set points, 28-year savvy veteran coach Debbie Humphreys had Cain move into the Libero spot and Olson switch to support.  Think about it.  Now what?  At this point, UIW is forced to do one of two things:  1) They can stick with their strategy that by now has been both mentally and physically ingrained into their hitters for three sets:  hit opposite the libero if possible.  If they do, Olson may be in better position to dig/pass. Or, 2) go away from the game plan and start hitting at Cain in the libero jersey.  Only problem is, Lexus Cain is good enough to play libero right now for some of the schools on our schedule.


And, it worked.

After the switch, SFA got the lead at the 4th point of the 4th set and despite UIW playing close, never relinquished it and won to tie up the match 2-2.  Then, in the decisive 5th set, the Ladyjacks jumped way out to a 10-4 lead only to see a feisty Cardinal team scratch all the way back before SFA finally closed out the match.

Give credit to Incarnate Word.  They played well, and much like McNeese the week before, gave SFA all they could handle.  Downright scary at times.  Freshman Autumn Lockley is a great complement to the underrated Angelique Vidaurri and the much improved Bryaunea Hall.  But, when you've got TWO stellar back row players like Olson and Cain, SFA really doesn't lose much by switching the two of their roles. At that point, UIW was forced to either stick with the main gain plan or come up with their own adjustments.  In the end, going away from Olson led only to SFA having FIVE girls in double-digit digs. Everyone had Olson's back and it was beautiful to watch.

Now, I realize that UIW could have easily won that match and if they had, I probably wouldn't be writing this.  But hey, when changes work, they make coaching staffs and teams look like geniuses and I haven't been able to get the whole libero switcheroo out of my mind all day today.  It was just awesome to see that move pay off and see the 'Jacks win a very emotional five set thriller.

We've already mentioned the amazing third set that went to 31-29. There's a decent chance that will be the longest set SFA plays this year.  Reflecting on that set, and then reading Humphreys game wrap quote that "there are definitely some things we have to improve on" leads to finishing this post with a two-up, two-down approach to get you to think on some of what she might be referring to. 

Two Down:

SFA has GOT to get off to better starts.  We are 11-8 on the year, but just 8-11 in first sets.  Too often, an opponent has come out of the gate firing on us and put us back on our heels.  We never lead in Set 1 and found ourselves down by as many as eight against UIW.  Again, credit the Cardinals for a well-played set, but the 'Jacks need to be ready to roll from Serve 1.

Second, these leads!  We have to hold them when we get them, right?  I guarantee you Humphreys was impressed with the fight displayed by the team in losing Set 3 (that's actually one of the Ups below), but hey.. we were ahead 18-12 in that set!  It shouldn't have gone to 31!  After the score was 18-12, UIW scored 10 of the next 11 points.  That can't happen.  I've already mentioned we were up 10-4 in Set 5 and that evaporated as well.  So, look for SFA to improve upon sealing the deal when they are up five, six, seven points late in sets.

Two Up:

Say it with me:  Abigail P. McIntyre.  Actually, her middle initial isn't P.  At least, I don't think so.  And, well, I don't even know if her birth name is Abigail either, but it sounds cool. My point?  We are watching McIntyre flourish into a much better all around player here in Year 2.  She was amazing last night.  Are you kidding me?  Almost a triple-double?  14 kills, 12 digs, 7 blocks and 3 aces.  Yeah, that's good.

Second, I love the team "fight".  No backing down.  I asked Humphreys after the five-set comeback against Tulsa if that was a match that they could look back on if they got down during SLC play to remind themselves that they could scratch back.  Just call me Prophet Blogger.  No, wait.  That sounds stupid.  Abigail P. McIntyre sounds better.  But, I digress.  The point is that in the Tulsa match, and others, the team has developed some edginess and resiliency.

I like it.  I like it, I tell ya.

Oh, and one last thing.. don't mess with our back row.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

Just ROLL With It: The Upward Trend of Tori Bates

You can watch all the 2015 Senior Interviews By Clicking HERE

Four years ago at this time, Tori Bates was a few short months away from graduating from the largest high school in Texas.  Rather than follow suit and launch off to a mega-campus like the ones in Austin or College Station, Tori made her way to Nacogdoches and began a new four year trek - this time in Ladyjack purple.  Now, to be sure, Bates' journey at SFA has had its pinnacles and valleys.  When it is all said and done at the end of the 2015 season,  she won't be in position to crack any all-time Top 10 lists or sit atop any leader boards.  But, it'd be hard to argue that the 'Jacks success over the last several years doesn't have some deep roots in what Tori Bates has been able to accomplish.

Out of the gate in her freshman year of 2012, Tori was as central a player to the offense as SFA had.  Think about all the exciting Freshmen we have now - Coleman, Hanna, Schade  -  and then realize this: They've already sat more during their freshman year in pre-SLC games than Bates sat her entire first campaign.  You can count on one hand the number of sets that Bates didn't start as a true freshman. Of course, that's a super rare accomplishment in and of itself, but the Honorable Mention All-SLC award at the end of 2012 really put a cap on it.

Coming into 2013 expectations were high.   As the season wore on, however, SFA had a lot of issues and most of them related to injuries.  The team staggered to a 16-16 finish and were below .500 in SLC play.  Emotions ran in conflicting directions and while some of us armchair quarterbacks sat around and tried to analyze things to death, the simple truth was that the team never really could get its core group on the floor  and we had suffered through a season of never being able to show what we could do. 

During that Sophomore season, Tori missed virtually all of the non-conference schedule with injuries.  She started out the season in our first tournament, but by the time the team was ready for the home opener against Louisiana Tech, Bates' just couldn't go.  Many will remember the crushing scene of Tori in agony right before first serve having hurt her back in warm-ups.  She literally had to be carried from the court and you could feel the air in Shelton Gym get tight around your throat.  But, Bates played well upon her return during the conference slate.  She hit at a clip that left her second to only Jill Ivy in kills per set on the club in what was otherwise a year the 'Jacks would have to bury.  Still, the promise was there.  Bates had improved her hitting percentage from her first year and scored more total points per set while in action.

Then, 2014 happened.  Magic.  While at a tournament at Rice, Debbie Humphreys made what I personally consider the defining decision of the entire year.  Many will point to SFA's salvage comeback against ULM in five sets at home as the swing point to 2015.  But for me, the tide turned for good on September 20, 2014 - one year and one day ago from the time of this writing - when Bates got inserted against the Owls in the second set.

For the matches immediately prior to this one, Bates had been resting.  The 'Jacks were trying to ease her along to conference play remembering that she had contributed the year before down the stretch.  Plus, the team wanted to see what it had in freshman hitters Abby McIntyre and Kelsi Bartlett.  McIntyre struggled in Set 1 and Bates came in and got four kills in Set 2.  Then, in the last two sets of the match, a fire gets lit.  Now, we lost.  But, go look at the box score and see what happens.  No, forget that, I'll make it easy on you.  It reads basically like this:

Kill by Bates, Tori (assisted by Holland, Paige)
Kill by Ivy, Jill (assisted by Holland, Paige
Kill by Bates, Tori (assisted by Holland, Paige)
Kill by Ivy, Jill (assisted by Holland, Paige)
Kill by Bates, Tori (assisted by Holland, Paige)

You get my drift.  Throw in a Jacque Allen kill in there every once in a while if you got bored.  This was it.  This was the combination.  Humphreys' knew it.  The players knew.  Shoot, my little measly volleyball mind knew it.  I drove home from Houston that afternoon realizing that right there before SLC play, we had figured it out, despite the loss.  Sure enough, Bates and company go on a roll and well, you have the T-shirt that says 16-0 to tell how  that story played out.

Early in conference play, Tori put on a clinic at Corpus Christi and in Houston against HBU.  In arguably the best attacking game of her entire career, Bates tallied 14 kills (she had 14 in the Rice Magic Match, too) on only 26 swings.  ZERO attack errors.  Two days later, Bates followed that effort up with 11 kills on 22 attacks.  Bates was there when we needed her at the end, too.  In the season ending match against Northwestern State in the SLC Tournament, go look who led the team in kills.  Once again, I'll save you the homework.  Thirteen kills for Jill Ivy.  Thirteen kills for Tori Bates.

Sure Bates has been hurt at times and her career path didn't skyrocket like it looked it might at the end of 2012.  But, Tori can bring it.  And she's shown that early in 2015.  At times during the last four years when things haven't gone right, various folks - mostly people in opposing gyms - would begin to drag Bates' name into conversations to assign cause for an SFA stumble here and there.  We'd talk and then after a few minutes the person chatting with me would say "You defend her a lot... you must particularly be a Tori Bates fan or something."  Well, those that have read in this space over the years know that I'm not an SFA apologist.  If anything, at times, I've painfully called it like I've seen it.  But if you want to call me a Tori Bates fan?  Then fine, guilty as charged.

Maybe the reason why I look past Bates shortcomings faster than many is that for years I've waited for SFA to suit up a big gun left side hitter. Humphreys and I have had that conversation too many times. That said, almost completely, Humphreys has been proven right and 2014 is the prime example.  It wasn't that SFA needed a left side per se, it was that we needed a dominating hitter on the pin - and Ivy was that on the right.  Still, I've dreamed of the player that can destroy the conventional 4-set over and over and over and over from the left side.  Emma Ridley (TAMUCC).  Heather Schnars (UCA).  Carli Kolbe and Devaney Wells-Gibson (why do they always have to be at Sam?)

In 2012, when Bates was a freshman, I saw a flash of this dominance and it's stuck in my brain.  But actually, trying to go to "pound town" on the left pin over and over like she did as a freshman isn't what has made Bates successful.  In fact, in 2012 when her main ideas were thundering line and crossing shots she hit .145.  Since then?  .174 in 2013 and .187 in 2014.  Coming into this weekend in Waco, she was hitting .208.  That upward trend isn't due to trying to cram stuff, its due to smarts.  Bates has as almost exquisite roll shot to the middle of the court.  She's developed much more savvy and variety to how she tries to get balls to the floor.

Those who pay attention across the conference still know her name. That's evidenced by the 2015 pre-season All-SLC nod.  Here's hoping for a healthy and productive 2015 from Tori Bates. So far, so good. Finally, character matters too.  And Tori has it in spades.  Check out the interview where she explains why she wears "28". 

She's one that will probably stick with me well after she's gone.  But let's not say goodbye yet.  There is plenty of work left to be done!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Replacing That Which is Lost, Part 2

Last week, we began our look at the impact of players lost to Southland teams coming into 2015.  In the first installment, we focused on the clubs that finished in the top half of the regular season standings last year.  Today, we’ll cover the other half of the conference.  Is there a team here that can make a move in 2015 to get into the top half?  Are there teams that lost a lot and now are rebuilding? 

We’ll use the same format as we did the first time around.  Read below for each team’s key losses, the impact on 2015 and the blog’s predicted finish.

Southeastern Louisiana (2014: 11-18, 8-8 SLC)
Key Losses: JR L Morgan Todd (did not return)
Other Losses: One senior, two sophomores and one freshman did not return
New: 4 Freshmen, 1 Transfer

Impact on 2015:  There’s a story here that clearly I don’t know.  Todd was an honorable mention All-SLC libero for the Lions last year.  The best I can tell, she had a year remaining, but she is not on the 2015 roster.  Normally, I can get a story on happenings like this, but my (few) sources and other searching turned up nothing.  At any rate, Todd was one of the Lions best players and this represents a decent loss to the back row consistency at SLU.  So far, one of the new freshman – Monica Ramon – has taken over.  I’ll add her to the “watch” list.

Overall Assessment of Losses: Moderate to Low

Blog’s Prediction:  I don’t think there is enough push from the bottom part of the conference to knock SLU out of the tournament seeds.  I’ll pick them 7th.

Nicholls State (2014: 10-20, 6-10 SLC)
Key Losses: SR L Kaylnn Egea
Other Losses: One junior and one sophomore not returning
New: 3 Freshmen and 2 Transfers

Impact on 2015: Occasionally good players make their way into our conference and seemingly nobody pays them any mind.  Such is the case with Egea, who was third in the country (NCAA DI) in digs per set last year and got crickets from the SLC voters when it came time to hand out hardware.  When things like that happen, it’s just an embarrassment to the flawed procedure that I outlined in the first part of this series.  Egea leaves a big hole, but otherwise, the Nicholls team from 2014 is intact.  It looks like Stephanie Tobison, a sophomore who held down a OH/DS role last year, has slid into the libero slot so far.

Overall Assessment of Losses: Moderate – just because Egea could keep so many balls off the floor.

Blog’s Prediction:  Not feeling it.  They have basically no impact players.  10th.

Incarnate Word (2014: 10-24, 6-10 SLC)
Key Losses: None
Other Losses: One senior
New: 3 Freshmen

Impact on 2015: No impact at all.  This is basically the exact same UIW team we saw in 2014.  Of course, it remains to be seen if any of the newcomers consistently break into playing rotations.  So far, freshman OH Autumn Lockley is seeing the court and in the early going is 2nd in kills per set on the club to Angelique Vidaurri – who frankly, is the face of the team.  This year is interesting for UIW because we’ll get a chance to see how far the underclassmen have come.  That is, whether or not the team as whole is getting better via experience.  That said, this is Vidaurri’s last rodeo and UIW still is not eligible for post-season play.

Overall Assessment of Losses: Minimal.  UIW gets to watch players they already had mature and see if one or two freshmen can mix in.  It probably means they can be better, but not make a huge jump.

Blog’s Prediction: Eighth, which is what they tied for last year.

McNeese State (2014, 15-17, 5-11 SLC)
Key Losses: None individually but…collectively?
Other Losses: One senior, three juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen not returning.
New: 4 Freshmen and 3 Transfer

Impact on 2015: Welcome to your 2015 McNeese State Cowgirls:  veteran high-hopper Malina Sanchez and a whole new roster.  Clearly, second year coach Ashleigh Fitzgerald is working with an overhauled list.  Of course, that could be by design or it could just be repercussions of coaching changes – don’t know which (yet).  At any rate, this could all just be “six of one – half dozen of another”, as they say.  We’ll have to see if all the new faces make an immediate impact.  My guess is probably not and that we are witnessing a rebuild.  To be fair, they do still have setter Kelly Graham (who’s game I’ve liked) and MB Amber Fryer (who’s game I haven’t),  but all in all, this is an overhaul.

Overall Assessment of Losses:  Who knows?  None of the losses were really big impact players, but the sheer volume of turnover is enough to make you stand up and notice.

Blog’s Prediction:  11th.  It’s gonna take time.  McNeese typically has been a program that I thought could be sneaky good.  But, I’m not going to make them my sleeper this year.. that’ll go to HBU.

Lamar (2014, 5-23, 5-11 SLC)
Key Losses: None
Other Losses: two seniors, one sophomore not returning and one freshman not returning.
New: 6 Freshmen and 1 Transfer

Impact on 2015:  No real impact.  The two seniors had decent roles while in Cardinal red, but they are replaceable.  This team was pretty brutal to watch in 2014.  When they came to Nacogdoches (and in the few times I saw them elsewhere), they looked as though they were completely worn out and beaten down.  They exhibited a complete lack of energy and collectiveness.  Surely, like Fitzgerald at McNeese, second year head coach Alan Edwards is looking to build something here.  MB Chelsea Grant still hasn’t got her due.. she’s better than people realize.  I have to wonder if this is a team that will do a ton of mixing and matching before SLC play.

Overall Assessment of Losses:  Minimal.  Like at McNeese, it’s about growth at Lamar right now.  Depending upon the incoming talent, LU might be a step ahead of the Cowgirls in their process.

Blog’s Prediction: 9th, but in the last tourney spot since UIW can’t go.  So, I guess I’m predicting this will be our first round opponent in Conway.  We’ll see.

Abilene Christian (2014, 6-24, 4-12 SLC)
Key Losses: None, but like McNeese they lost a ton of “volume”.
Other Losses: two seniors, three sophomores and two freshman not returning
New: 5 Freshmen and 1 Transfer

Impact on 2015: Very few of the many players that did not return garnered any significant playing time.  That said, Neely Borger (MB) was a regular starter – she was one of the seniors that is done – and Brooke Ray led them team in digs, albeit with only 288.  ACU is still in the transition of trying to “move up” to the overall quality of volleyball in the Southland.  They’ll get there, but they are still probably a few years away.

Overall Assessment of Losses:  On the low end of moderate.  Maybe minimal.

Blog’s Prediction:  Next to last with somewhere between three to five SLC wins. 

New Orleans (2014, 6-24, 0-16 SLC)
Key Losses: None, but again, like McNeese and ACU, a fair quantity of players did not return.  This sort of thing happens on teams that don’t have a lot of wins to show for their efforts.
Other Losses: two seniors finished, one junior,  one sophomore and three freshman not returning
New: 6 Freshmen and 3 Transfer

Impact on 2015: Tough to tell.  Taylor Berry (JR), Brooklyn Frank (SO) and Mikayla Sellers-Weibe (SO) were all pretty regular starters last year.  Of course, the team struggled as it makes the transition to the Southland so one has wonder how many of those players would have seen consistent time with other SLC schools.  Coach Millicent Van Norden may be looking to replace what they brought last year with the transfer help.  Several of the transfers have played regularly in the early going.  Two players to mention for UNO:  I have always like Celeste Ramirez, who has shuffled from setter to libero off-and-on.  She’s very athletic and seemed to have the best overall talent on the 2014 squad.  Also, I heard several people praise setter Sara Hammoutene who came over from France last year. I like what she brings as well.

Overall Assessment of Losses:  I’ll judge it to be minimal because it looks like they’ve got the transfer replacement parts.

Blog’s Prediction:  Last, but I won’t be surprised at all if they pick up some conference wins this time around. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Anchor of the Back Row: OJ Olson

Click here to go to the YouTube video interview with OJ Olson

Let's get straight to it:  OJ Olson is the odds on favorite for 2015 Libero of the Year in the Southland Conference.  In the interview you'll watch (link above), she clearly states she wouldn't trade that honor for the championship she helped the 'Jacks earn in 2014 and I have no doubt that response is genuine.  Still, as someone who picks All-Conference teams each year here at this site, one has to wonder what Olson has left to prove.

Olson will cement herself as a digging legend when all is said and done in December.  There is Stephanie Figgers and then everyone else when it comes to 'Jacks back row defenders.  Figgers was the best libero this league has ever seen. Olson is on pace to finish near Maddie Hanlan in total digs as a 'Jack.  Health permitting, OJ will join Figgers and Hanlan as the only Ladyjacks to amass 2000+ digs in their time in purple.

Unlike some of the other other all-time leaderboards at SFA, I've seen all the top stat-gatherers at libero that SFA has put on the floor.  If you want to call Olson the 2nd best libero in SFA history, I probably won't argue with you.  I'm still sorting out her strengths versus Hanlan's in my mind.  By the end of the year, I may get off the fence.  One benefit of OJ's career is that she has been healthy her entire time here in Nacogdoches.  Hanlan, unfortunately, had to deal with several large scale injuries and recoveries during her playing career.

Honestly, this may be a down year for off-colored jersey in the Southland.  I made a list of all the projected liberos recently and the tally of truly strong players at that position can probably be counted on one hand.  There are many new liberos and inexperienced ones suiting up for our Southland competition in  2015.  That, coupled with OJ's sheer dominance and reputation should set her up for a strong run at hardware come voting time in November.

Actually, she was as good a choice as any for the award in 2014.  She was my pick as you can recount here.  Part of the trouble with individual awards in this conference is that the voters seem to forget that these aren't team awards.  Or at least, if they realize it, they don't apply their knowledge when they vote.  Two things repeatedly happen in SLC voting for all-conference:  1) Because the process is flawed, undeserving players get too many votes because of coach submitted pre-rankings and 2) standout players on poor teams don't get their due.

Coaches submit ranked lists of up to five players and then other coaches and SID's use these lists to pick their top players overall in the conference (by ranking them from 1 to 18).  The top 12 get first team (as if, 12 is a team?) and then the next six form the second team.  This sort of convoluted way of voting allows coaches to have too much power and creates crazy lists of "teams" sometimes containing 6 blockers, 3 setters and no liberos or something like that.  Case in point, last years' 2nd team All-SLC squad had three middles, two liberos and one outside hitter.  I've never seen that combination of girls form a "team" in my entire life.

I know the point is to obtain a list of the top 18 players in the conference, but wouldn't you think that if that were really the goal then coaches and SID's could just make their 18 picks without the lists of five submitted by each coach?  A few times, coaches have COMPLETELY left a player off the ballot that others thought were highly deserving (see Pancratz, Jessica, Oral Roberts University, 2012).  At other times - like SFA last year - the list serves to minimize the contributions of players on strong teams.  SFA had Jill Ivy, Paige Holland, Jacque Allen, Justice Walker and OJ Olson  all deserving of post-season honors. Shoot, maybe all five should have been on the first team.  But, Humphreys unfortunately is asked to rank those five players.  Now, whoever gets ranked 4th or 5th on that list is going to look less-valued to the rest of the voters when that simply isn't the case.

If instead, coaches and SID's are asked to submit a list of 18 or so players without the coaches pre-ranks, an SID or opposing coach can reasonably look at the season, the stats, and use their memory to assess that SFA has five players all deserving of being in the Top 12.  But, there is less chance of that happening while they are sitting there looking at a list that has a name like OJ Olson or Justice Walker listed 4th or 5th on the team ranks.  Now, I want to be clear.  I don't 100% KNOW that Olson was ranked 4th or 5th.  Humphreys' might have told me how she set them - sometimes I know that after the fact - and sometimes I don't.  I have NEVER asked her how she voted, yet we talk about players together a lot.

For instance, I know she had winner Heather Schnars at the top of her picks last year, whereas I would have chosen Devaney Wells-Gibson.  She read my post to learn my choice and the coaching staff and I talked about how they preferred Schnars while we were all sitting around between matches at the SLC Tourney last year.  I know people that voted like she did.  I know people that submitted actual votes like my blog ballot.  I don't have an actual vote in the All-SLC teams published by the conference, but do occasionally get a media vote for All-Tournament teams.  I print my lists here before the conference does and so I specifically do NOT want to know how coaches are setting their lists to avoid the bias I am arguing against here in this post.

Oh well, that's in the past.  The facts for the here-and-now are that OJ Olson is the best libero in the conference.  If she puts up stats and we get wins and she leads the way like she has for the last two years, you can bet I'll be clamoring all season long for the voters to get it right this time.  See - that's just the thing - Olson is so good that she probably can eventually overcome any balloting system.

She just shouldn't have to.

SFA has been blessed by having back-to-back standouts in Maddie Hanlan and OJ Olson anchoring the back row.

It sure is nice knowing we'll have the libero advantage all season long when we make our run at a repeat for conference champions!  #AxeEm