Monday, November 16, 2015

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!!