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!