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.