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

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Role Model: Jordan McArdle

During the off-season before my senior year in high school,  our new varsity basketball coach found the team picture from my freshman year.  We looked so young, so scrawny and un-athletic in the photo.  As we all stood around, he started naming everyone and stating their role on the team as told to him by our old freshman coach. 

My freshman year in high school, I started every district game for the Freshman "A" team, but when the new coach got to describing me in the picture he said "..and there's Miller.. #12, your old coach says you were the sixth man - first off the bench."

With a dozen or more guys around, I immediately corrected the new coach in front of all my classmates stating clearly that I was a starter that year.  Later, after the group broke apart, I was left standing there a bit embarrassed that I had been so quick to clarify my role.  In that moment, it was more about me and less about team.  The distinction wasn't that important.  He was showing us the photo to get a good laugh and to show us how far we'd come, not to create classes of athletes by announcing who was a star, who was a starter, and who had a role off the bench.

Another #12, Jordan McArdle wears the same ring Jill Ivy does.  And every freshman on the 2015 Ladyjack Volleyball squad would do well to remember that given that McArdle is part of a  key leadership team initiated by head coach Debbie Humphreys this year.  McArdle is a role model.  She's a role model in the pure sense of the phrase due to her leadership qualities.  But, she is also a role model in the strict sense of the phrase in that she has accepted her limited playing role with grace and purpose.

If you have a Facebook account, do yourself a favor.  Take one minute (literally, the video is one minute long) and watch Herm Edwards, former NFL coach and now ESPN analyst,break down what it means to accept your role.  I thought Edwards was dead on and I specifically asked Jordan her thoughts on the issue in the interview you'll see.

I'm not going to be surprised if Jordan McArdle sees the court more often this year than she did last.  But, in case she doesn't... don't think for a minute that she doesn't embrace her role.  Don't think for a moment that she is any less of a leader than Olson or Bates.  Don't minimize players like McArdle.  The ring she wears should serve to remind you what she is and what she accomplished.

Team First.  Wins and losses and championships are not individual things. McArdle is a champion and SFA Volleyball is darn lucky to have her.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Replacing That Which is Lost, Part 1

This is the time of year where new college freshman abound all over campuses everywhere.  All that “new blood”.  All that energy.  There are 70 new freshmen listed on Southland Conference volleyball rosters in 2015.  Couple that with thirteen transfers, numerous new assistant coaches and two new head coaches and you’ve got a whole lot of fresh faces to see during the season.  Freshmen are unpredictable.  But while it will take several weekends – at least, to see which of them look ready to make an impact on their club, there is another set of folks that we know something certain about – those that are gone.

The Southland Conference no doubt gained some impact players among the 83 that are new to teams this year, but a lot of talent also went out the door over the summer.  Who lost the most?  Which teams have the most talent to replace?  Who gets to work with basically the same squad as they had in 2014?  That’s the subject of this weeks' posts.

This time of year we will see preseason polls paraded around as if they mean something more important than what they do.  Those at the top will cite that they got the respect they deserved.  Those at the bottom will feel underrepresented and use the low ranking as motivation to show coaches and SID’s they were wrong.  For everyone, “2015 is our year” can be the temporary mantra.  That is, until some teams begin to win and others begin to lose.

Let’s take a look at the impact of players lost to teams coming into 2015.  

For today:  The top six teams in the standings from last year.  We’ll cover the other seven clubs on Friday.

We’ll start with our own Ladyjacks – the reigning Southland Conference regular season champions.

Stephen F. Austin (2014: 24-8, 16-0 SLC)
Key Losses: SR RS Jill Ivy, SR S Paige Holland and JR DS Madison Martin (did not return)
Other Losses: Two seniors and two freshmen not returning
New: 8 Freshmen

Impact on 2015:  An offensive force like Ivy won’t be replaced with one arm.  Instead, SFA will look to get a “little bit more” from several contributors.  Holland will be replaced by JR Shannon Connell, who already has a decent amount of on-court experience in her first two years.  Martin’s back row passing and defense will be missed, but there are plenty of candidates to fill a passing role whether that being SO Lexus Cain or contributions from freshmen.

Overall Assessment of Losses: Sizeable, but not extreme

Blog’s Prediction:  SFA will finish first in the SLC standings again, but with a few conference losses this time around.

Central Arkansas (2014: 20-12, 13-3 SLC)
Key Losses: JR OH Evie Singleton (transferred), SR L Shelbee Berringer, SR MB Alicia Dittrich, Coach David McFatrich (to Mississippi State)
Other Losses: Two freshmen not returning
New: Coach Jeni Jones, 6 Freshmen, 1 Sophomore, 1 Transfer

Impact on 2015: At first blush, it might appear that UCA lost a good portion of their core, but I’d argue they lost less in total impact than people think.  Singleton, while a strong attacker, wilted in the conference tournament and will follow McFatrich to Mississippi State. Berringer was generally overrated during her time in purple.  Dittrich was an offense only MB as UCA didn’t rely much on her defense.  That said, she did tend to always hit for a high percentage.  There is a  lot lost here, and the  loss of head coach David McFatrich alone is impactful, but new coach Jones will still have plenty left behind to work with.

Overall Assessment of Losses: The loss of McFatrich and three starters is pretty severe.  UCA is a at a critical point in terms of sustaining success.

Blog’s Prediction:  This team is still good enough to finish near the top.  They have the incomparable Heather Schnars.  Petties and Nash will improve and you’ll need to get familiar with the name Rachel Sharp.  Just remember, I told you so.  I’ll pick them 2nd.

Sam Houston State (2014: 18-12, 11-5 SLC)
Key Losses: SR OH Deveney Wells-Gibson and JR MB Carling Urben (did not return)
Other Losses: One senior and one junior
New: 7 Freshmen

Impact on 2015: For the first time in recent memory, Sam Houston doesn’t appear to have a gigantic offensive force.  So much of the Bearkat offense was run through Wells-Gibson that her loss is magnified here more so that it would be at other programs.  That said, Sam Houston is everyone’s favorite school to hate on because of their helter-skelter schemes, yet they always seen to get things done pretty well in the end.  Five of the last six years, they have finished in the top 3 in the regular season standings.  Unless they have big contributions offensively from new players, this team might struggle a bit to get the ball to the floor.

Overall Assessment of Losses: Big enough to knock them out of the top tier.  I think they can hold things together reasonably well, but on the other hand, they have a pretty low floor.  All could unravel to an 8-8 finish.

Blog’s Prediction: Fourth.  At least recently, they always seem to do better than expected in the regular season.  Now, in the post-season?  Nope, they tend to always fall flat.

A&M Corpus Christi (2014, 19-16, 11-5 SLC)
Key Losses: SR OH Ashley Phelps and SR RS Brianna Brink
Other Losses: One junior and two freshmen not returning
New: 5 Freshmen

Impact on 2015: I honestly think this team can absorb the loss of Brink and Phelps really well.  It will be interesting to see how they use Ivy Baresh now that those two are gone.  Possibly, they will need get more offense from middles like Glipin and Felux.  Or, maybe Baresh will hit more.  She’s versatile enough to be used in several ways.  I think the team will look different on offense, but not necessarily be all that much more worse off.  That said, Brink was a solid contributor for years and not an easy player to just write off as easily replaceable.  Nicholson is a star in the making at setter.  They have enough to contend.

Overall Assessment of Losses:  Moderate.  If their incoming class of freshman contributes greatly, they could be SFA’s biggest threat.

Blog’s Prediction:  Third.  I won’t be surprised if they beat both SFA and UCA during the year.  They have a higher floor than a team like Sam Houston.  I’d be shocked to see a big drop off, and wouldn’t be surprised to see them make a run at it all.  For what it’s worth, I think the gap between SFA, UCA and TAMUCC and the next tier is of decent size.

Northwestern State (2014, 16-17, 10-6 SLC)
Key Losses: SR UTIL Stacey DiFrancesco, SR RS Mackenzie Neely,  SR Keelie Arneson (transfer), Coaches Hugh and Stephanie Hernesman (to Clemson)
Other Losses: two seniors, one sophomore not returning and one freshman not returning.
New: Coach Sean Kiracofe, 6 Freshmen

Impact on 2015:  The bubble burst.  The Demons peaked early and sustained it for the last few years, but now they lose basically an entire starting lineup in one year.  Plus, the “other losses” here are not run-of-the-mill.  Setter Emily Johnson and MB Vanessa Coleman were multi-year starters.  Ashley Elrod was freshman of the year two years ago and Aubrey Davis was a solid contributor as a freshman last year.  They. Are. All. Gone.  Plus, the  loss of the wizards Hugh and Stephanie Hernesman is a big blow.  Look, the Demons won the tournament on their home floor.  They deserve credit for that. However, they finished just 10-6 during the regular season.  A lot would have to go right to repeat that in 2015.

Overall Assessment of Losses:  Extreme.  No one in the conference lost more than Northwestern State.  Coach Kiracofe comes with high praise from several sources I’ve talked with, but there are definitive challenges ahead.  This looks like a 9-7 team to me.

Blog’s Prediction: Tied for Fifth With HBU.

Houston Baptist (2014, 15-17, 9-7 SLC)
Key Losses: SR OH Megan McStravick
Other Losses: two additional seniors, one sophomore not returning
New: 5 Freshmen and 1 Transfer

Impact on 2015: Losing McStravick and senior right side Bailey Keith shouldn’t pose much hardship on Trent Herman and staff.  Both were good, not great players that don’t leave the dent that Ivy, Singleton, DiFrancesco, Brink, Wells-Gibson, et al. do.  In fact, HBU could be sneaky good.  I always go into the year with a few unheralded players that I like more than other folks do.. let me give you one name:  Blair Gillard.  In fact, HBU has a ton of players than I individually really like:  Kayla Armer is my favorite non-SFA setter and how can you not be impressed with Jessica Wooten?  If they have a few aces in the hole.. look out.. this could be a dark horse. Transfer OH Bailey Banks could be an interesting addition.

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

Blog’s Prediction:  Tied for 5th With Northwestern State. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

7th Season of Begins August 19

The 7th season of the most comprehensive coverage of SFA Volleyball begins Wednesday, August 19.  The 2015 season will bring you more great coverage of Ladyjack and Southland Conference Volleyball that you've come to expect. This year we will continue and expand our YouTube videos, audio interviews you can hear on SoundCloud, and also bring you live radio from select road matches.  As always, posts featuring commentary, analysis and information from around the league will appear in this space all season long.  Of course, our full assault coverage of the 2015 Southland Conference Tournament will head to Conway in November as the blog has garnered quite the reputation for continuous coverage during tournament time!

This year, I will switch duties in Shelton Gym as I am proud to announce that I will be handling the ESPN3 broadcasts of all home games.  It's an honor to be tabbed to deliver this content and I hope all of you that can't make it to Nacogdoches for home matches will watch live on ESPN3 as the 'Jacks defend their 2014 Southland Conference Championship.

The first content post of 2015 will rundown the players lost heading into this years' Southland Conference slate.  We look at all 13 teams and let you know who lost the most experience and who brings back essentially the same squad as you saw in 2014.  We'll highlight the two coaching changes in the conference and let you know which teams have the most talent to replace as they restock for 2015.

Interviews with Ladyjack Seniors are right around the bend as well.  Get ready fans, it's volleyball season again and we are SFA Volleyball's Strongest Presence on the 'Net for seven years running!