Saturday, November 19, 2016

Conplete List & Links to All 2016 Southland Conference Tournament Interviews

Below are links to SoundCloud Audio Files and YouTube Videos for all interviews done during the 2016 Southland Conference Tournament.  This list will be periodically updated Saturday and Sunday.


Steve Greene (TAMUCC) [Thursday Night Team Meal]
Brittany Gilpin (TAMUCC) [Thursday Night Team Meal]
Justice Walker (SFA) [Friday, Post-Match]
Megan Nash (UCA) [Friday: Post-Match]
Samantha Anderson (UCA) [Friday: Post-Match]
Kristyn Nicholson (TAMUCC) [Saturday, Post-Match]
Steve Greene (TAMUCC) [Saturday, Post-Match]

MVP Brittany Gilpin (TAMUCC) [Sunday, Post-Match]


Debbie Humphreys (SFA) [Friday, Pre-Match]
Taylor Cunningham (SHSU) [Friday, Post-Match]
Jeni Jones Chatman (UCA) [Friday, Post-Match]
Ann Hollas (SFA) [Saturday, Pre-Match]
Kate Klepetka (TAMUCC) [Saturday, Pre-Match]
Morgan Carlson (TAMUCC) [Saturday, Pre-Match]
Brenda Gray (SHSU) [Saturday, Post-Match]
Kristyn Nicholson & Madeleine Doud (TAMUCC) [Sunday, Post-Match]
Kate Klepetka (TAMUCC) [Sunday, Post-Match]
Erin Mulcahey (TAMUCC) [Sunday, Post-Match]
Brenda Gray (SHSU) [Sunday, Post-Match]

Thursday, November 17, 2016

2016 Southland Senior Tributes: A List of Memories

One of the more enjoyable posts to create from last year was the 2015 Senior Tributes.  Sometimes I deliberate and edit posts for several hours, especially if there are statistical arguments in them.  I won't allow you to jack your thoughts up about the level of my nerdiness by revealing how many hours I spend on the All-Conference pick posts.  Let's just say it's close to analysis paralysis.  Swimming in numbers is my most comfortable domain.

That said, the Senior Tribute post  from last year flowed in effortless fashion.  Feverishly typing, I truly relished every paragraph because it was a complete memory dump.  It was so easy to write.  So, I committed to making it an annual thing.  After the 2015 version of this post went live,  I got some form of response from over half of the players on the list.  The most recent one was just last month when SFA went to play Incarnate Word.  After the match, I was waiting to interview our own Corin Evans and Haley Coleman.  Evans was out on the floor ready to talk, but Coleman was still in the locker room (How long does it take this gal to shower, get dressed and come out of the locker room to get on the bus?  Dang.  Eternity).

Anyway, I digress.  While waiting for an interview, I heard a voice behind me: "Mr. Miller?"  Yes, I said, turning around and then without realizing it I audiblized  "Viduarri".  Before I could pull the word back in my mouth and properly address her, UIW alum Angelique Vidaurri ask me:  "You're the writer for SFA who wrote the Senior Tribute, aren't you".  I acknowledged that she had it right and then she told me about reading it and that she wanted to personally thank me for writing it.

Now, I don't write these things for any other reason than to tell stories.  See, it's ME who wants to thank THEM.  I'm the fan.  They are the players.  THEY have made my life more enjoyable for a brief period of time by being able to watch them play and in a few cases, getting to talk with them and in fewer cases still, being able to actually interact and get to know them a little.  The minute after that face-to-face meeting with Angelique Vidaurri, I knew I would NEVER quit writing this post as long as I was blogging here.  So, here it goes:  The 2016 edition of my Senior Tributes.  To get us started I'll repeat an excerpt from last years'  explanation:

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.

The above paragraph from 2015 is still EXACTLY how I feel at this moment, so with that introduction, here are 10 seniors that made an impact on me as a volleyball fan.   There are some others that could be added to this list, but I'll keep it to 10 and acknowledge all the seniors in a list at the end of this post.  I hope you enjoy the stories.  The players are listed in alphabetical order by last name.

Kayla Armer (HBU)
Truly one of my favorite setters in the 11 year history I have with working with SFA Volleyball and the two decades of watching SLC Volleyball.  Last year, when I made my 2015 All-Conference picks I said that Armer might make the lists even after she had graduated.  That's how strongly I feel about her talents.  She impressed me the VERY FIRST TIME I watched her play.  No growing into appreciating her.  It was an instant realization of how amazing she was at delivering the ball, reading blockers, footwork, incorporating everyone on the floor, court presence, leadership.  It all was just.. OBVIOUS.  Sometimes, it's hard to judge setters.  But you watch Armer, and you're like:  "Yeah, she's great. I see it."  During last season, HBU head coach Trent Herman helped me set up an interview with Armer and teammate Jessica Wooten.  I'm basically never nervous when doing TV, radio or interviews.  I don't have any anxiety about being on ESPN3 or any of that.  Some people are just wired differently. I don't get nervous.  But, I was SO nervous to interview Armer.  HBU has a great offense and it is primarily due to the quarterback.  This one I am really going to miss seeing play.  By the way, just so you know:  She led the NATION in total assists.  She was the only setter in our conference to average 10+ assists per set. She was the only setter in our conference e to do ALL of the following: get a kill per set, dig 2.5 balls per set, hit over .250 and block half a ball per set while garnering a player of the week award.  And, she wasn't the Setter of the Year.  Yeah, Ok.  That makes sense (insert sarcasm here).

Landry Bullock (Southeastern Louisiana)
Three (probably to be Four) time All-SLC Commissioner's Honor Roll, 2015 Honorable Mention All-SLC, 2016 Preseason All-SLC, several all-tournament teams and a slew of other awards.  All this and you probably still don't know her.  A shame.  For years, teams that have not done well in the standings have been shunned when it comes time to hand out individual awards.  For eight years in this blog, I have been rebelling against such nonsense, but the methods by which the SLC makes All-Conference picks is so tangled, so unnecessarily full of limitations and so much a standings popularity contest that players like Bullock (and Lexi Mercier from ACU who is on this list, too) get overlooked.  Bullock was hurt for part of this year, but it didn't stop her from making one of the most remarkable plays I saw all season:  When SLU came to Nacogdoches, we had one of the craziest matches I've ever called. The Lions got docked two points for an illegal substitution that set off a 22-minute delay.  After play resumed, Bullock comes in basically hobbling on one foot because of her leg brace.  Justice Walker runs a slide and Bullock blocks it solo straight down inside the 10-foot line.  Humphreys calls timeout and as Bullock is basically waddling back to the sideline, SLU Head Coach Jim Smoot says "That was one of the most incredible plays I've ever seen!".  He took the words right out of my mouth.  It was the monstrous block against our best player.  I'm trying not to respond to it given I am at the media table, but I couldn't help it.  It was just an awesome individual play.  Another great memory of Bullock was the INCREDIBLE effort she put out in last years' loss to Corpus Christi in the conference tournament.  She had over half of her team's kills in a dominating performance.  HALF HER TEAM'S Kills.  She's from Spring, TX.  I was raised there, so maybe I was destined to like her.

Morgan Carlson (Texas A&M Corpus Christi)
A late bloomer.  But man, when her stock hit if you weren't invested, then you missed quite a ride.  She only played in 33 sets during her first two years on the island.  After about 1/3 of the 2015 season had gone by, I was like "Morgan Carlson?  Wait.  She's been on the team for a while, right?  How is she good all the sudden?"  I seriously doubted.  I kept saying to myself that she hadn't been a factor her first two years, so the bubble was probably going to burst and she was going to lose playing time and all that jazz.  Uh, wrong.  Uh, very, very, very wrong.  She keeps putting up numbers, generating buzz, people asking me about her and I'm telling them:  "I don't know?  All the sudden she's awesome.  I don't know anything about her".  So, AMCC comes to Nacogdoches and I'm all pumped to see the girl they call "Carl".  So naturally, what happens?  Baresh gets 16 kills and 25 digs (of course), Gilpin: 15 kills, Nicholson: 62 freaking assists and a double-double, Madeline Doud doesn't make a single error and Kate The Great scoops up 35261 balls or something like that.  "Carl?  Hello, Carl.. table for one?... Yes, well, here's a nice .088 hitting percentage on an underwhelming 8 kills in five sets we have on the menu for you tonight."  So, I go all year not figuring this one out.  How is this happening?  But then, the conference tournament hits.  I get starting talking with Jacob Bell ( a super great dude BTW) who is the Sports Info Guy at AMCC.  Carlson is all he can talk about.  I mean, he is GUSHING about Carlson.  Then, the games start and Carlson leads the Islanders in kills in Match 1, Blocks 7 balls in Match 2 and gets named to the All-Tournament Team easily.  Sometimes, they bloom late.  Sometimes it takes a while for a fan to appreciate the changes.  Sometimes people impress you for four years.  Sometimes, they impress you in a period of just a few days like what happened to me at last year's tourney.  Don't worry.  I'm ready for her repeat performance at this years' event. I'm on board.

Shannon Connell (SFA)
Oh, there's no way I leave Shannon off here.  No freaking way.  You see, you WISH you had the total package of athlete and person that Shannon Connell has.  Her teammates LOVE her.  They LOVE her.  She's had a rough year.  What she went through was not easy.  Getting to your senior year and having to accept that you are going to sit in favor of a freshman had to be hard to do.  Hey, have you seen that Tony Romo video that has been circulating recently where he says that Dak Prescott deserves to be the Cowboys QB and all that?  Pure class.  Connell certainly would love to be playing, and it probably wouldn't be easy, but I could totally see Shannon giving some version of that speech.  I have been super impressed - and not just this year - with how she has handled her role.  It is no secret that setting at SFA is a tough assignment.  Setting for any team is tough, but I think it's tougher at SFA.  We are really demanding on our setters here, so there were plenty of opportunities for Shannon to show some chinks in the armor.  You know, pull one of those rants where you pretend nobody sees yet you really WANT everyone to see.  That would have been me.  No, Shannon's too classy for that. I'm sure she got pissed off at times and her closest friends saw it.  But, true colors come out in situations like what Shannon has had to accept.  That said, Shannon HAS had her court moments.  She got squeezed between 2014 Setter of the Year Paige Holland and 2016 Freshman of the Year Ann Hollas, but Shannon did a darn fine job with us during her junior season when she ran the show.  Just under 1000 assists and fourth in the league in assists per set.   But in the end, what I'll remember along with her great 2015 season is her personality.  Magnetic.  I wish I had the ability to gather people the way Shannon does.  Her teammates... they LOVE her.  Isn't that the ultimate respect?

Kaci Eaton (Nicholls)
Here we go again.  Two time honoree by Louisiana Sportswriters Association,  Honorable Mention All-SLC in 2015, all-academic teams and that amazing 2014 season where she was Newcomer of the Year in a landslide.  She was Nicholls main go-to and could score at will.  She killed 448 balls that season (448!!!!) and was third in the nation in attacks per set.  2014 was a weird year for Nicholls volleyball.  They had a libero named Kaylnn Egea who was in the national leaders in digs per set all year.  I put her on my 2nd team because I thought OJ Olson deserved the libero of the year.  Olson was key to our 16-0 regular SLC season.  The conference voters - again because the system is bat crap crazy - basically ignore Egea and I begin using hashtag  #FreeEgea on twitter.  It was awesome sauce.  At least Eaton got the recognition she deserved.  Plus, it's not like we are living in the past here.  Eaton was 2nd on her team THIS year in kills and 3rd in digs.  She got hurt in 2015 and that derailed what look like was going to be an awesome follow-up to her burst onto the Southland scene the year before.  I never met Eaton.  Nicholls has only won 15 Southland matches over the last four years.  AMCC won 16 in two years' straight.  So, Eaton really never got any of the spotlight and I never actually crossed paths with her.  This is more of an appreciation from afar for this senior.  She's the classic example of a really good player that more people would know about if she were on successful teams.  She's the kind of player I always wished we had at SFA: big (she's 6-2) six-rotation left side scoring machine.

Chelsea Grant (Lamar)
Oh my gosh.  Intimidating.  What an AMAZING athlete.  She put up some ridiculous numbers during her time in Beaumont.  Some players on this list are really good players that never got notoriety because they played on poor teams.  Well, Lamar only won 19 Southland conference matches and never appeared in the postseason tournament during Grant's four years.  But, Grant smashed right through all that.  Everyone knew who she was.  She was THAT good.  She is the only senior on this list that I picked to be on my top two All-SLC teams for all four years they played.  I picked her on my 2nd team in 2013 and she's been on my first team ever since (2014, 2015 and 2016).   She was the 5th leading vote getter in the All-SLC selections this year, and I had her ranked 4th overall (behind Walker, Gilpin and Banks).  She is a completely dominating player.  Every single coach in this conference would AUTOMATICALLY say yes if offered the chance to have her in the starting lineup.  She could have started at any school in the conference at any time during her four years playing for Lamar.  There are very few people that you'd even entertain making such a statement about but I genuinely believe it is true.  A middle blocker for her first three years, coach Alan Edwards shifted her over to the pin this year. Money.  Still cash money.  Could very well deserve the title of the most dynamic player in the league over the last four years not named Heather Schnars.  She TWICE had 28 kills this year and against Sam Houston last year she had 17 blocks.  How is that even possible?  17 blocks!!  Just let it sink in that we are talking about a first-team All-Conference middle blocker in 2015 who just lead the league in kills per set as an outsider hitter in 2016.  Plus, she had over 4 kills per set in conference matches - the only player in the Southland to do that.  There are too many memories of her dominance to count.  Despite how awesome she is, I STILL think the conference as  a whole underrated her early in her career.   One of the great ones, for sure.

Michelle Griffith (Sam Houston State)
Ok, I've been nice all season.  Really, I have.  I haven't totally flipped out at any point and used this writing space to just get on a soapbox like I usually do once or twice a year.  We've been a calmer, gentler blog over the last year or so.  But not now.  I'm sorry.  I'm gonna stick up for Michelle Griffith.  I will not name names, but she has been disrespected to my face many times by people around the league.  I have been told that I should take her off my lists by people around the league.  I am NOT talking about SFA folks here, I am talking about other people around the league.  Well, here's my blatant response: It's my blog and I'll pick who I damn please.  I know Sam Houston runs a crazy offense.   I know only THEY think it's normal and nobody else does.  I know people think this and that about her technique, but I'm just gonna leave this right here:  NO ONE IN THE SOUTHLAND CONFERENCE HAS MORE ASSISTS PER SET OVER THE LAST THREE YEARS COMBINED THAN MICHELLE GRIFFITH.  You can give me your reasons.  You can tell me why that doesn't mean much.  You can explain it away.  I'm sick of it.  At some point, numbers are numbers are numbers.  Giving me first pick of setters right now?  Sure, I am taking Armer and Nicholson, but hey man.. stop the hate.  Appreciate. Michelle, I hope you kick butt and take names at the conference tournament.  Except when you play us in the 2nd round. J

Natalie Jaeger (Northwestern State)
The only person in the history of the universe to go from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin to Natchitoches, Louisiana.  I had to check that last sentence 14 times to make sure I spelled everything right.  She'll graduate (she's super smart by the way) and probably go get a job in Reykjavik, Iceland or somewhere.  I'll always remember Jaeger as a great server - she was 12th in the nation in aces last year.  For a lot of her time at NSU, she was part of a two-setter scheme, but when Sean Kiracofe took over the program, Jaeger became the primary single setter for a large portion of the last two years.  Jaeger occasionally does this little thing where she will kick her feet out away from her body when she jumps to set.  It's like she's turning on the jets to her 5-9 frame to get a rocket boost right before she dishes the ball to an attacker.  Go to the NSU website and look up her bio and wait for the pictures to rotate on her page.. they got a good shot of her doing it in one of the photos.  There is no way that's an accident.  Someone noticed it and waited for just the right moment to shoot the shot.  I think I wanted to honor her play here because she was one of the younger, yet integral players on those awesome 2013 and 2014 Demon teams.  Everyone talked about the stars like DiFrancesco, Neely and O'Connell, but Jaeger was a big part too.  Her and EJ running the 6-2.  There aren't that many setters that stay a "starter" consistently for all four years they are on campus.  Quietly, Jaeger accomplished that.  I didn't have her on my lists.. but I thought it was cool that she made Honorable Mention All-SLC in a year that she was a primary setter.  Despite that well-deserved honor, she's in this post for her unsung role during her first two years at NSU.  She rightfully deserves her place among the great roll call of Demon players that resurrected NSU from the Southland Volleyball's version of Hades.

Lexi Mercier (ACU)
I thought about using Mercier's paragraph as my one in 10 to bust a gasket.  But since I did that in Griffith's spot, I'll stay civil here.  Mercier led the league in blocks per set as a freshman.  For that, she got basically no recognition from the league.  She finished in the top 8 in blocks per set all four years as a Wildcat. No player has more total blocks over the last four years than Mercier.  See, why don't people know this stuff?  Do they not care?  I don't get it.  I mean, she's a middle blocker and nobody blocked more balls than her in the last four years.  Did you know Mercier is 15th in the nation in active career blocks?  See, now you know.  Can we just recognize that for the simplicity that it is?  Mercier is the most underrated player in this Senior Tribute and earlier in the week I made the promise to not forget the ACU Wildcats and UIW Cardinals that paved the way for their teams to play in the postseason.  (Looks for Bible to place hand on.. found it on computer table next to me).  Repeat after me:  "I do so solemnly swear that when ACU plays in the Conference Tourney in 2017 that Lexi Mercier will be acknowledged in all ACU broadcasts".  Whew.  I feel better now.  Every time I watched ACU play, she was the first player I followed on the court.  Four straight seasons of over 100 blocks.  Consistency, man.  Not consistently kinda good.. that's 100 rejections a year good.  There are some players that as a fan you just latch onto early in their careers and always look for their names in box scores or focus on when your team plays theirs. That's Mercier for me.  She always had my attention so she had to be in these spaces as a senior. I've raved for two years about Blair Gillard at HBU, but Mercier could have very easily been my always-have-to-talk-about-because-you-think-she-is-more-awesome-than-everyone-else-does player. I always have one or two of those.  Wow.  Last year, Jennifer Loerch and now Lexi Mercier.  They went 11-5 in league play.  Someone, please start paying attention to ACU Volleyball.  Please?  See, I said it nice and didn't bust a gasket.

Justice Walker (SFA)
Hey, I know its alphabetical, but we saved the best for last, didn't we?  I can hardly believe how good Walker has become in her last couple of years as SFA.  Jacque Allen was a dominant middle blocker, but you could see Justice emerging from her shadow last year.  Walker has 437 career blocks and led the Southland in both attack percentage and blocks per set this year.  She just posted the 2nd highest block per set rate (1.32) in SFA Volleyball history (Traci Rohde, 2006, 1.37).  She was clearly the best middle blocker in the league and had a Player of the Year worthy campaign in 2016.  One of my favorite Justice Walker stories is from our 2014 year that was so special.  We had a tournament over at Louisiana Tech and after a match, I went down into the tunnel to find the SFA locker room.  This is a team that had Allen, Ivy, Holland, Olson, etc, and all those players were used to doing interviews with me.  They were the stars and I'd get their comments a lot.  Justice walked out of the locker room and I ask her if I could talk to her for a minute about the great match she had just played (11 kills, no errors, .500 vs. UTPA).  Jill Ivy had 21 kills in this same match and had just given me this awesome set of comments in an interview.  Jill was a pro at these things.  Justice looks straight at me and says "You want to talk to me?  On that thing? [Pointing at my recorder].  I'm not good at talking in interviews!".  She did fine, but I didn't ask her for comments much after that because I didn't want to make her uncomfortable.  She is so different now.  I've interviewed her a few times this year and she has completely grown into the star that she is.  I wish a lot of the players on this list had received more praise.. and so, I am rallying around them.  Justice is different.  Justice Walker is a name everyone in this conference knows.  Justice is a three time first-team all conference player.  The thing I think most about when it comes to her is how proud I am of her accomplishments.  She makes me proud that I cover SFA Volleyball.   I mean that in the most sincere way possible.  Just a joy to watch play for four years.  Huge, huge shoes to fill next year for sure!!

Five other Seniors that stick out to me as I think back over the years....

Dorothy Swanson (ACU):  great ball control, could pretty much play anywhere on the court.  Always the fan of using passing sleeves.

Bridget Justis (McNeese): only been in the league two years, but stabilized the Cowgirl back row in a hurry.  Feisty!  Love, love, love the 5'4" back row players.  #BackRow.

Kali Schwartz (Nicholls):  A great right-side attack.  Blistered us when Nicholls came to Nacogdoches. Always someone you had to be aware of.

Claire Kilpatrick (Sam Houston State):  Good player to bring up in conversations.  Always got a full range of opinions.  Some people would give praise, others were dismissive.  Played good in Huntsville vs. us this year.

Breanna Homer (Sam Houston State):  Another player than you could stick just about anywhere.  A multi-sport star.  All-conference at third base in softball.

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

UCA: Rachel Sharp
HBU: Melissa Fuchs and Ashlee Vann
UIW:  Claudia Hernandez and Shaina Garza
Lamar: Nicole Parrish, Ashley Ellis and Lauren Stahlman
McNeese: Hailee Showers and Rebecca Korenek
UNO: Keke Richards and Takierra Boughton
Nicholls: Lucija Barac
Northwestern State:  Bailey Martin and Lauren Agan
Sam Houston State:  Shelby Genung
Southeastern Louisiana:  Parrie Hartley, Rachel Bunn and Madi Odom

Monday, November 14, 2016

8th Annual SFA All Conference Teams

For the 8th time in as many years, here are my picks.  This is my list for All-Conference performances in 2016. In case you are reading this after 11/17/16,  please note that this list was released well before the official conference announcement which will come on Wednesday, November 16.

The "system" by which I am making these picks has become more and more refined each year.  I'm confident that my combination of season notes that I take coupled with statistical analysis (which is my "day" job) has led to a more and more defensible set of picks as I've had more and more practice.  That isn't to say that this is easy.  It's very hard.  I'll get into some of this years' difficulties below.

Like in previous years, I suspect I will periodically comment on this article over the next week.  People love to debate this stuff and I'm fine with that.  After all, trying to decide who to honor is a noble pursuit and I can appreciate the passion that other fans have for their picks.  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 seven 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."

I am happy to show anyone my spreadsheet of notes and statistics.  There is nothing black-box or secretive in what I do.  That said, I let the numbers talk.  In God We Trust.  All Others Must Bring Data.

2016 SFA All-Southland Conference Teams and Awards:

First Team:

OH Brittany Gilpin, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
OH Bailey Banks, HBU
MB Justice Walker, SFA
MB Megan Nash, Central Arkansas
MB Madi Fitzsimmons, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
S Kayla Armer, HBU
L Lexus Cain, SFA

Second Team:

OH Chelsea Grant, Lamar
OH Autumn Lockley, UIW
RS Morgan Carlson, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
MB Blair Gillard, HBU
MB Danae Daron, SFA
S Kristyn Nicholson, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
L Kate Klepetka, Texas A&M Corpus Christi

Third Team:

OH Brooke White, Sam Houston
OH Jordyn Vaughn, Sam Houston
RS Samantha Anderson, Central Arkansas
MB Lexi Mercier, ACU
MB Taylor Cunningham, Sam Houston
S Michelle Griffith, Sam Houston
L Channing Burleson, Northwestern State

Just Missed (in order of position played):  OH Haley Tippett (UCA), OH Jacey Smith (ACU), RS Abby McIntyre (SFA), MB Lauren Walker (ACU), S Alexandra Aguilera (McNeese), L Bridget Justis (McNeese), L Amanda Chapa (ACU).

Player of the Year:  Justice Walker, SFA
Setter of the Year:  Kayla Armer, HBU
Libero of the Year:  Lexus Cain, SFA
Newcomer of the Year: Madi Fitzsimmons, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
Freshman of the Year:  Danae Daron, SFA
Coach of the Year:  Steve Greene, Texas A&M Corpus Christi


Some Thoughts At the Time of Posting the Lists:

Maybe some more defense later, but for now.. some thoughts:

  • I'm perfectly fine with Gilpin or even Banks winning Player of the Year.  I picked Walker not exclusively from the fact that she plays for SFA, but instead, I think it is clear she had the best year of any middle blocker in the conference.  I do NOT think it is clear that Gilpin had the best year of any outside hitter:
Banks:  3.66 k/s, .232, 3.29 d/s, .38 bl/s, 32 aces, 1 POW, 6-rotations
Gilpin:  3.46 k/s, .262, 2.61 d/s, .51 bl/s, 4 aces, 3 POW, 6-rotations

Banks was 2nd in k/s and 2nd in attack % among 6-rotation OH's
Gilpin was 4th in k/s and 1st in attack % among 6-rotation OH's
Neither led the SLC in either statistic.

Walker was 1st in blocks per set AND attack percentage among all MB's and led the SLC in BOTH statistics.

I'm going to be surprised if I am right on both Walker and Cain.  The conference tends to WAY overweight team records in this process.  They always have and there is no denying it.  I do NOT believe these are team awards at all and I have plainly made my arguments in this post in years' past.  You can read them there or talk to me in person about it.  I've had coaches tell me they would support a fixed number of spots on these teams based on season record, which is both wrong and boring.

There is no real clear cut Player of the Year this year in my opinion.  The Walker, Gilpin, Banks talk pales a little to years past when I was deliberating over Heather Schnars and Devaney Wells-Gibson, etc, etc.  Islander fans will clamor that since they were 16-0, they deserve some of the individual player awards.  I get that.  Gilpin, Nicholson and Klepeka are all great.  Everyone who has read here or seen my interviews knows I respect them.  The choices above don't disrespect their efforts and I think the Islander fans that know me realize that.  I'm not going to cry foul if Gilpin wins POY and Klepetka wins LOY again.

  • Lexus Cain was in the Top 10 in digs per set in the nation all year until last week.  She missed finishing in the Top 10 by two digs.  She finished 13th in the nation.  If anyone asks me why I picked her over Klepetka I will repeat the above three sentences until I am blue in the face.

  • Hardest Decision at the Top:  Trying to separate Nash, Fitzsimmons and Gillard at middle blocker.  I think those three with Walker are clearly the top four MB's this year.  You could rotate Nash, Fitzsimmons and Gillard in any permutation and I'd be OK.  All four of these players should make the long list of actual SLC first-teamers that the conference will give out.  It was hard putting 163 blocks on my second team, especially because I am president of the Blair Gillard fan-club.

  • Given they finished 3rd, I looked hard for spots to honor ACU, but I couldn't justify it except for Mercier (who, her whole career has been woefully underrated) and a plethora of "just missed".  Smith was my 10th ranked pin hitter, Lauren Walker might should have bumped Cunningham down..they were virtually tied in my ranks and Chapa was rated my 5th libero.  For what it's worth, Justin Bibler makes a fine honorable mention for Coach of the Year.  Hey, AMCC was PICKED to win it, maybe Bibler should get it outright (ACU was picked 6th/7th).  Can't go there, though.  Walking into a program that was 16-0 as a new coach and keeping it there rather than having no real dropoff when you lose 2015 tourney MVP Baresh? That isn't as easy as it sounds.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

UIW and ACU Look Ready For Full Membership

While eight teams will gather in Conway, AR on Friday, both UIW Volleyball and ACU Volleyball have closed the books on 2016.  With no disrespect to seventh seeded Southeastern Louisiana and eighth seeded McNeese, they roll into Arkansas because of asterisks.  Their performance in 2016 won't be good enough to join the 2017 party in Corpus Christi.  For four years, the University of the Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian University have been required to wear the tag of "probationary" membership in the Southland Conference.  But in the volleyball sense - this temporary, but what must have seemed like eternal wait -is over.   Both schools gain full membership status in 2017.

When the Southland announced that UIW and ACU would join us in 2013, I wasn't sure what to think.  I thought the addition of Oral Roberts in 2012 was a step in the right direction both in terms of geographic  footprint and athletic contributions.  ORU had a good program and made an instant upgrade on the SLC volleyball landscape.  Central Arkansas had been recently admitted and was in the  middle of a dominant run.  Volleyball was getting better and the loss of perennially good programs like Texas State, UT-Arlington and UTSA looked like it could be pacified a bit.  Incarnate Word?  Abilene Christian?  I wasn't completely deriding of their fit, but it took more of a squint rather than an eyes wide open gaze to visualize their potential impact.

Fast forward to 2016 and the field of vision has cleared.  Both schools have established that they can compete well in the Southland volleyball  race.  If anything, UIW and ACU have added some pressure to some of the SLC programs in Louisiana to get their act together or get used to decorating for Thanksgiving early each year while the rest of us enjoy the postseason.

In four probationary seasons, UIW went  27-35 in Southland play and ACU was just a win behind at 26-36.  Those two records aren't all that impressive, but they don't tell the full story of what is being built.  This year UIW was 8-8 and would have been SFA's opponent in the first round of the tournament if both teams were eligible.  From 2013-2016, UIW would have made the tournament in three of their four probationary years, albeit never higher that the 7th seed.  ACU finished a remarkable 11-5 in Southland play this year after posting a 9-7 mark the year before.  They would have been seeded in the three-hole this year and in slot #5 last year.  Pretty impressive when you consider the team won just six conference matches total over their first two years in the SLC.  From a home town perspective, SFA has won 23 conference games in the last two years and ACU has won 20. 

Incarnate Word gave a city of great importance back to the Southland.  San Antonio became a stop on the tour again and for the sake of conference visibility alone this is a good thing.  As full SLC members it wouldn't surprise me in the least if by 2020, UIW was winning bids to host conference events in the Alamo City.  People love travelling to San Antonio and it would make a great host for a volleyball championship in the near future.  The McDermott Convocation Center would be a fine size arena for hosting the SLC VB Tourney and the backdrop of the city would provide a great atmosphere.  Parking might be an issue for a larger event and the lighting in McDermott, which is downright poor, would have to be improved. But, the size of the gym is comparable to the Dugan Wellness Center where we've been before and will be again in 2017.

Besides giving SFA fits at times, the Cardinals began and ended the 2016 SLC slate with a bang.  Their early win over UCA cast doubts about the strength of the Sugar Bears and their win over Lamar last week sunk the Cardinals postseason chances.  The win over HBU also served notice that they were a dangerous team.  With Autumn Lockley having emerged as a star in this league and many other 2016 contributors returning, UIW looks primed to be right in the thick of things for years to come.  They have a rich set of local talent to try and pull from as they continue their build.

Until this year, UIW ( Nicholls?) was the SLC school that I personally had the least intersection with during my blogging and broadcasting years.  That all ended when the gracious Jen Montoya (along with Lockley) met with me for a full hour this year after I made an interview request.  It was classic.  One of my favorite memories of 2016 will be just sitting around the visting team hotel with Montoya and Lockley talking about UIW and volleyball in general.  They were very inclusive and complementary.  I drove away kicking myself for not initiating contact with the folks at UIW earlier.  Clearly, I had missed out on getting to know good people and since contacts are what I need to continue to foster a solid reputation, I was grateful for the time that the UIW staff and players afforded me.

How much good can be said about Abilene Christian University and how they portray themselves?  Well, here is the highest praise I can give:  I have a high school senior in my house who was born and raised here in Nacogdoches and ACU is on his short list of schools to attend in the Fall.  In fact, he has already been accepted there.  So, my first born may wind up a Wildcat and I'd be darn proud if that's the way it turns out.

No school in the Southland - and I mean this with an honest heart - is more true in their marketing, advertising and social media presence to their mission than ACU.  Impressive.  Just absolutely first rate.  Back in 2014, when I first met head coach Jason Bibler,  I told him this.  I told him to go back and tell his administration that people notice.  I love it when schools make it crystal clear what they stand for.  ACU does this in spades and it's refreshing:  twitter posts with athletes doing Bible studies while on the road, a spirited student fan club called the Wildcat Reign, an athletic director who pens  regular articles that feature prominently on a well organized website.  All of this and more reflects well on the university and the Southland Conference as a whole.  Personally, I am glad to see two Christian schools like ACU and UIW actively live out their mission rather than be defensive about it.  It's the pride that I've always had in Baylor as my alma matter despite our recent troubles and embarrassments.

I'm not going to lie - when I saw ACU play earlier this season at the Texas Tech Tournament, I thought they were awful.  We were invited to Lubbock alongside them, but didn't play one another.  I watched two of their matches and for one full set I sat next to head coach Debbie Humphreys discussing our game plan and the day's events.  When she sat down she asked me what I saw in ACU and my response was "Little.  They are so un-athletic .  They appear almost feeble."  They were getting smashed - I mean DESTROYED - by Texas Tech.  Now, clearly the Red Raiders had more talent and so I knew it wasn't the best match to judge them by, but I'll admit I was pretty rejective.

But then came Thursday (what seemed like Friday) the 13th of October.  #MoodyMagic they called it.  SFA got sent home on a looooooooooong bus ride after our only five-set loss of the year.  The next time Debbie Humphreys and I were in the gym together I asked her if she felt like ACU had improved since we had seen them in Lubbock and she was very complimentary.  Let me make it clear that Humphreys was never dismissive of the Wildcats.  That was all me.  I felt confident enough in the trip to Abilene that I was willing to engage in (and lose) gif wars with ACU fans on Twitter.  ACU went on to beat Sam Houston two days later.  Then they beat Northwestern State and HBU and finished their home slate a perfect 9-0.

Now, compliments in place, both schools have plenty of work to do and areas to improve upon heading into the off season.  UIW has  to solidify their setting and libero positions - two important pieces if they are going to contend in 2017.  ACU has to replace a blocker and learn how to sprinkle some of that Moody Magic to other venues.  You can't play 30 games at home and ACU was 3-9 on the road and completely winless on neutral courts - which is exactly what they'd be facing if they were headed to Conway this weekend.

But, when the Cardinals and Wildcats step out on the floor for the first time in 2017 they will be rightful heirs to full membership in the Southland Volleyball club.  They've earned their due respect and have bided their time honorably.

If they each bus to Corpus Christi this time next year, then let's remember the road that will have been paved. 

If Autumn Lockley is thundering down kills and Bryaunea Hall turning away attacks, it will be players like Shaina Garza, Angelique Vidaurri, Brittany Dear and others that will deserve credit.  If I'm blessed enough to be calling their games like I will be doing for others next weekend, I'll make sure people remember. 

If Jacey Smith and Kendall Bosse connect on offense and Amanda Chapa is digging balls while ACU faithful have on 2017 SLC Tournament t-shirts in the stands, then let's not forget the names Lexi Mercier, Jennifer Loerch, Sarah Siemens, Madison Hoover, Dorothy Swanson, and others that have made it possible.  I know their names.  It's my JOB to know their names.  Their story will be told in these spaces and on the airwaves.

UIW and ACU:  Welcome in FULL.  You've earned it.

Monday, October 31, 2016

After Time in the Desert, Hanna Provided To Us Again

A famous Biblical story from Exodus tells of the Israelites wandering around in the desert with little to eat while they hoped to the find the Promised Land.  At one point, God provides them manna to eat and Moses has them gather it for days to provide them nourishment.

The ‘Jacks most definitely are searching for the volleyball Promised Land of a berth in the NCAA tournament and after a brief wandering in the desert, Makenzee Manna.. I mean, Makenzee Hanna… has been provided to us once again. Opponents hoping to feast on SFA’s defense have been sent wandering by a showering of blocks from the 6-foot sophomore from DeSoto.

During the early tournament phase of the 2016 schedule, Hanna was a regular presence.  At that time, SFA was running a 6-2 offense and Mak was stationed primarily on the right side along with Abby McIntyre.  There were bright spots:  8 kills and four blocks in a win over Kennesaw State, the opening match of the year against Eastern Illinois (six blocks), but overall it was clear that the offense wasn’t quite running at high octane.  After the team hit .039 against Texas Tech and .073 against UTRGV, you could feel the changes coming. I thought about them driving All. The. Long. Way. Home. From. Lubbock.

The team came home to begin its conference slate against Incarnate Word and host its own tournament in Shelton Gym.  This last set of concentrated games huddled together on consecutive days gave the club one last chance to see if changes would be profitable before the regularity of Southland play.  Setters were changed.  Offensive schemes were changed.  Ann Hollas made the first start of her career in her first Southland Conference match and we’ve been in a 5-1 ever since.

Hanna got lost in the shuffle.  Going from 6 hitters to 5 on offense meant a diminished role and during the better part of September, Hanna found herself on the bench while SFA began its first few phases of looking for the second left-side hitter.  At this point, fellow sophomore Haley Coleman had been re-assigned to the back row, KK Payne started a handful of matches and played in a handful more and Peyton Redmond became the six-rotation outside hitter.  It worked.  Other than a home loss to Baylor, the team won a ton of September games and it appeared as though the offense was set to roll.

Except, the story of Makenzee Hanna’s role doesn’t end there. The calendar turned to October and the offense took a while to get going the second time we played Incarnate Word.  Then, it really looked anemic at Abilene, the low point being a third set in which SFA got only seven kills and hit .022.  While watching the match from home, I tweeted the following in dismay:

Ever the one to fix it when it breaks, Debbie Humphreys called on Hanna during all five sets vs. ACU having seen the sophomore be productive against Nicholls the week prior.  During the end of September, Hanna had sat for six straight matches.  A brief time in the desert.  But after the Nicholls match and playing all five sets in the team wake-up call match against ACU, Hanna had been provided to us again. 

But how?  Sitting on the couch at home (Ok, pacing the living room floor watching the stupid StatTracker), I was frantically trying to answer one big question with no video to provide me the answer:

How are we using Makenzee Hanna?

You see, to this point, Hanna had worked basically exclusively on the right side.  So, while the thought crossed my mind that she might be on the left - and the substitution patterns popping up on the screen suggested it - I couldn’t let my mind accept it without seeing it.  Like the Israelites, I didn’t have the necessary faith to recognize all the signs that were before me.

Oh, I had thought about what else we might do on the left-side.  Geez, I’ve been pining for left-side quality for years in this blog space.  “Redmond is doing great on defense and passing, but hitting at .100”, my mind would say.  What are we going to do about that? “Coleman struggled on offense at the beginning of the year, is she essentially back row only now?” “ Would Debbie start Xariah Williams there?  She’s been telling me she’s doing great things in practice”.  “Can KK hold down the load for a full year as a freshman?  She’s done some good things”.

All these questions and not one time did I think our answer would be to rotate Makenzee Hanna to the left-side.  And this is why I’m the blogger, the commentator, still learning, and not a coach (not that I want to be, trust me).  It seems like such a great idea to me NOW. 

Sure enough, when my eyes could finally take over for the coldness that is StatTracker, Makenzee Hanna was playing on the left against Central Arkansas.  You know the rest.  In the last two weeks, SFA hasn’t lost a set and that includes some ridiculous net defense in the last week against Lamar and HBU.

That’s why Hanna’s resurgence in the lineup makes such sense.  She makes what is already a great blocking team even better.  In fact, in her last five matches she has blocked at least four balls.  Her 50 blocks in 57 sets equates to a 0.88 block per set number that is better than over half of the starting middle blockers in the conference.  Take our next opponent, Sam Houston as an example.  No Bearkat has the block per set numbers that Hanna has.

With an offense that is led by McIntyre and senior Justice Walker, Hanna is a perfect complementary piece.  In Southland Conference matches, she’s killed over two balls per set which equals the production of our second middle, Danae Daron.  Have you noticed in most of SFA’s recent wins that we have tons of players around 6 to 10 kills?   Check out the distributions of the top four kill-getters in the last six conference wins, which roughly parallels when Hanna became a fixture again:

Nicholls:               15, 9, 8, 8
UIW:                      17, 8, 7 , 6
UCA:                      8, 7, 5, 5
NSU:                      8, 7, 6, 6
Lamar:                  12, 8, 7, 6
HBU:                      9, 8, 8, 5

Keep in mind each of the above wins was in three or four sets.  So, consistently we are getting four players that AVERAGE at or over multiple kills per set.  Again, this is a far cry from some of our competitors that get most of their offense from just one or two players:  Lamar (Chelsea Grant), Sam Houston (Jordyn Vaughn and Brooke White), Incarnate Word (Autumn Lockley), even leaders Corpus Christi (Brittany Gilpin, Morgan Carlson and sometimes Madison Fitzsimmons).  This balance is, in part, why you’ll find us in second place, but with nobody in the Top 10 in kills per set in the Southland.

But let’s shift back to defense.  This is where the Hanna sent from volleyball Heaven has really nourished the ‘Jacks.  Earlier I told you Makenzee is averaging 0.88 blocks per set for the year. I think I’ll just leave this snippet right here.  This is a list of the Top 10 block per set leaders in Southland Conference play only:

Spare yourself the research of how many of those players on that list are NOT middle blockers.  You know where I am going with this.  What Hanna has been able to do on defense from her position is unrivaled right now in the conference. 

She’s a right, uhhh.. make that left-side attacker that blocks like a MB.  Yes, after a brief six game wandering in the desert, Makenzee Hanna has been provided to us once again.  All that’s left is to finish the journey and wind up in the Promised Land.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Complete List & Links to 2016 Interviews

The following is a list of links to all 2016 Southland Conference Volleyball Interviews.   This list will be updated weekly or with each new posting at our official channel on YouTube.  All audio interviews appear at SoundCloud.  Make sure and follow @SFAVolleyBlog on Twitter for updates:

2016 Interviews:


2016 Southland Interviews (Oct 28) Bailey Banks (HBU)
2016 Southland Interviews (Oct 20) Jeni Jones Chatman, Head Coach (UCA)
2016 SFA Interviews (Oct 4) Peyton Redmond (SFA)
2016 Southland Interviews (Sep 24): Brooke White & Jordyn Vaughn (SHSU)
2016 Southland Interviews (Sep 15): Autumn Lockley (UIW)
2016 SFA Interviews (Aug 31): Abby McIntyre (SFA)
2016 Senior Interviews (Aug 19):  Shannon Connell (SFA)
2016 Senior Interviews (Aug 18):  Justice Walker (SFA)


(Oct 29) Justice Walker After the Road Sweep at HBU
(Oct 29)  Debbie Humphreys After SFA's Block Party Overtakes HBU
(Oct 20) Justice Walker After Her 1000th kill in Sweep vs. UCA
(Oct 8)  Evans and Coleman On Their Stellar Back Row Play at UIW
(Oct 8)  Abby McIntyre After Her Huge Performace at UIW
(Oct 1)  Head Coach Debbie Humphries After SFA Defeats Nicholls
(Oct 1) Corin Evans on Her 17-Dig Performance Vs. Nicholls
(Oct 1)  Mackenzie Hanna on Spark Provided to Down Nicholls 3-1
(Sep 29) Xariah Williams & Peyton Redmond on Sweep of McNeese (100th audio interview!!)
(Sep 16) Debbie Humphreys Chat After Strong Performance vs. UNT
(Sep 15) Ann Hollas Comments on the Win vs. Incarnate Word
(Sep 15) Debbie Humphreys on Changes to the Offense vs UIW
(Sep 9) Debbie Humphreys Breaks Down the Win Over Oral Roberts
(Sep 9) Lexus Cain and KK Payne Discuss a Thrilling Win Over ORU
(Sep 3) Abby McIntyre's Comments After SFA Downs Kennesaw State
(Sep 3) KK Payne on First Collegiate Start
(Sep 2) Debbie Humphreys After Two Four-Set Losses at Texas State Tourney
(Aug 17) Debbie Humphreys on 'Jacks Pre-Season Progress
(Aug 17) Lexus Cain on Upcoming 2016 Season 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Subtle Part of the 5-1 Return: The Value of Coleman & Evans

If you follow SFA Volleyball even a little then you know the last week around here has seen some bold, new changes.  The first thing that Debbie Humphreys said to me after the 'Jacks swept UIW last Thursday evening was "How's that for a gutsy move?"  What she meant was her decision to let freshman Ann Hollas start her first collegiate match by running a 5-1 in an conference opener.

Two days later and the payoff was obvious.  SFA swept all nine sets they played against the Cardinals from San Antonio, UNT and Little Rock.  Ann Hollas was awarded the MVP of the Holiday Inn Express Tournament.  Abby McIntyre won Southland Conference Player of the Week.   Danae Daron re-wrote SFA record books by hitting .800 in a match. KK Payne cracked the Top 10 in attack percentage for all Southland players - by hitting from the left pin of all places.  Pinch me and tell me that the last sentence I wrote is actually true.  SFA... yes S-F-A has an outsider hitter hitting .228.

Then, of course, there is Lexus Cain doing her thing in the libero jersey no matter what offense is being run.  Charlie Hurley, our Volleyball Sports Information Director, pulled out a gem of a stat for the Baylor game notes:  Cain has more digs than an ENTIRE TEAM.  North Carolina Central  University has 258 digs.  The University of Lexus Cain at Nacogdoches has 271 digs.  Unreal.  Cain is second in the nation in digs per set with an otherworldly average of 5.77 digs per set.

All of the above is fairly well chronicled and has been observed by many a Ladyjack Volleyball fan over the last three matches.  However, this article isn't about Cain or McIntyre or Hollas or Payne or even middle blocker extraordinaire Justice Walker.  All of those players have overtly excelled in our return to the 5-1.  No, the love in this article goes to Haley Coleman and Corin Evans.

On the surface, Coleman and Evans don't appear to be racking up numbers worthy of high praise.  I mean, Coleman is still hitting negative for the season and Evans only has 44 attacks.  But, hear me out:  They provide what I think is a rather unusual additional advantage to our one setter offense.  As you might have come to expect, I have the numbers to back up this claim.

See, essentially, Coleman and Evans are playing DS.  Now, both are listed as outside hitters and have plenty of experience there in high school and club ball.  Don't forget Coleman played six-rotation outside for us during part of 2015 and a little earlier this year.  But right now, they are both essentially defensive specialists despite what your roster card says.  Evans is playing the back row slots in Payne's spot and Coleman is in there when McIntyre's spot goes to the back.  Since Payne and McIntyre are separated in the rotations by a few clicks, one of Coleman and Evans has been virtually always on the back row.

Check out the numbers that Coleman and Evans have put up in the three matches since we've returned to the 5-1:

  •          Both had 9 digs vs. UNT which tied for 2nd best on the team that night.
  •          Coleman had 4 aces over the weekend
  •          Evans was 2nd on the team in digs vs. UIW
  •          Combined the two have hit .235 from the back row and collectively put up just shy of 5 digs per set (2.33 for Coleman and 2.44 for Evans over the three matches)
It's the last bullet that I want to focus on.  That's the subtle part of our new back row that spreads the offense in a small, but meaningful way.  See, a DS can't do that.  A defensive specialist isn't going to attack at all, much less get you over a kill per set while hitting .235.  They just aren't going to get set (on purpose, that is).  True defensive specialists only attack when something went horribly wrong on offense.  Even at that, they are virtually 100% "just get the ball over" attacks.

When Coleman and/or Evans are on the back row the team has an extra potential hitter that is really in the match for either serving, serve receive and/or defense.  That's a really subtle use of those spots.  So often, when a hitter goes back row, she is subbed out for a "true DS".  You know, the 5-5 gal that can dig everything up and pass.  Well, we have a few of those on our team and they are good players.  We haven't seen the last of contributors like Sam Rodriguez.  I mean, EVERY TEAM, has the little DS types that just buzz around and dig/pass. If they weren't valuable, then why would so many 5-2 girls be playing college volleyball?  Go to any NCAA roster you want and you'll find them.

But, for now... having Coleman and Evans be a sort of hybrid hitter/DS type has paid subtle dividends on offense as well as defense.

Ok, I know what you are thinking:  "Whoa, Greg, you are way ahead of yourself.  Coleman and Evans only put up 10 kills combined in three matches.  That's not a huge deal."  Well, I don't mind saying this:  If that's what you think, then you'd be wrong. 

Those kills plus aces ARE a big deal and let me tell you why:   Since going back to the 5-1, SFA has averaged 13.89 kills per set.  That number extrapolated out to the entire season would be good enough for 45th in the nation.  Now, if you take away Coleman and Evans offensive contributions from playing on the back row, we would have 12.78 kills per set over that same time.  So, there we see the difference is 1.11 kill per set.  Not a big deal, right?


The 12.78 k/s figure over the whole season would be good for only 137th in the nation.  So, put another way, with Coleman and Evans scoring a little from the back row, SFA hit last weekend like a Top 50 club.  Without them, we regress to a middle-of-the-pack 137th.  That one kill per set is the difference between 45th ranked production and 137th ranked production.  If a "true DS" was playing in both those spots, we probably would have 0 kills from the back row.  Combine that with the unlikely chance that the true DS's could amass more than 5 digs per set and you come to the conclusion that is subtly advantageous to use two outside hitters as surrogate defensive specialists!!

The only reason that this works is because Coleman and Evans are both capable of six-rotation duties.  It's just that we don't need them to do that right now thanks to Peyton Redmond.  Now, Redmond was hitting under .100, which made me think that if the trend continued we might see Coleman or Evans in her spot.  But, Redmond passes so well and has had a couple of good offensive performances of late to push her up to .114.  She needs to get things up above .150, but still.. the trend is in the right direction and her passing is so good that her role is safe for the near future.

So, while Hollas, McIntyre, Walker and Cain keep winning awards, let's not forget about the advantage of having back row players that could just as well be front row players in Coleman and Evans.  Amidst all this newfound optimism among the 'Jacks offense, the subtle contributions at the service line and efficient back-row attacks of Haley Coleman and Corin Evans are demonstrably valuable as well.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Win, Place or Show?

This is the first of several times this year – as always – that you’ll get a good old fashioned dose of straight up honesty from me.  SFA purple bleeds in my veins when it comes to volleyball, but today we break down the preseason polls and ask the rather honest question: Does SFA deserve to be picked first in the Southland Conference?  Let’s not bury the lede.  I think the choice of SFA first is a fine one, and can be defended, but if I had a preseason vote I would have picked the lslanders.

With due respect to Sam Houston State, who managed one first place vote in both the coaches and SID polls, and Central Arkansas, who was picked third by the SID’s, I can’t see the argument for either of these teams being in this top-of-the-heap discussion.  These are solid tournament bound teams, but let me quickly dispatch my argument for their exclusion from this post.

UCA is coming off a 12-4 SLC record in 2015 and loses one of the top players this conference has ever seen in Heather Schnars.  Setter Amy South and Fulani Petties are also gone.  So, you’ve got Anderson and Nash and a bunch of youth.  I judge it not enough.  I can’t see the argument for improving upon last year’s conference record.  The voters agree as they didn’t get any first place votes in either poll.  It’s just going to be really hard to replace all that Schnars can give.  This is a good team, but I’d pick them 4th.

Sam Houston State beat UCA in the first round of the 2015 SLC Tournament (gotta wonder if UCA is where they got their first place vote in this years’ poll), but was under .500 in SLC play last year.  They return everyone so they should improve, but I can’t see the leap to 13-3 or 14-2, etc.  Again, this is a solid team that will upset a few people and could make for a dangerous mid-seed again, but to pin conference champions on them as a prediction at this point doesn’t seem legit.

I think the three best teams in the Southland Conference this year are Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, Stephen F. Austin and Houston Baptist.  Again, to shoot it to you straight, that’s the order I would pick them if I had a vote.  In my typical style, I’ll play both sides of the coin for all three.  So what will it be?  Win, Place or Show for these three top horses?  Or, will a dark horse arise as the year progresses?


Why They Finish First:  Succinctly, they have the depth to overcome the loss of do-it-all Ivy Baresh and I don’t think the coaching change will matter that much.  They also lose Kelsee Felux, who was third on the team in kills last year, but I think the remaining core can soak it up.  They bring back two huge anchors in Setter Kristen Nicholson and Libero Kate Klepetka.  To, me that’s the leadership core.  You have the quarterback from a 16-0 squad back and the conference’s best back-row defender.  That’s the breaker with SFA in preseason polls for me, right there.  Then, you have to realize they have Carson, Gilpin and Doud returning as offensive options for Nicholson.  They clearly need another hitter to step up on the left, but that’s a lot of talent coming back and until somebody takes the “0” out of 16-0, this is the team to beat.

Why They Won’t:  Baresh was the go-to.  When you need a big kill, who do you go to now?  SFA knows all about not getting enough from one pin and running a lot to the middles and right side.  It’s tough to be “great” that way.  You can good, but not great.  Plus, Graystone is gone.  How much continuity and energy will really spill over?  New coaches bring new demeanors, new relationships, new ways of doing things.  Maybe the loss of a six rotation stud and the coach that guided them to a perfect record is enough to make the pedal to the metal Islanders stall out just enough to drop out of the top slot.

Overall Analysis:  The pros outweigh the cons.  They have the best setter and libero in the conference and again, I just don’t think the coaching change is going to derail them that much.  If they find adequate left pin help, I think the growth and the experience of the other hitters is enough to compensate.  Even with the loss of Baresh, I think this team has the least overall question marks going into 2016.


Why They Finish First:  The experience of Haley Coleman and a healthy Abby McIntyre will provide enough support for the beast that is Justice Walker in the middle.  Lexus Cain slides over and takes over for OJ Olson and the two setter offense takes the pressure off Shannon Connell just enough to make things work smooth.  With plenty of options for the second left side hitter down the bench, the ‘Jacks will have offensive options all across the net for the first time in many years.  With so many potential offensive weapons, SFA can at times overwhelm opponents all across the front line making it very difficult for blockers to key on one person or place.  This has the potential to a very, very strong offense.

Why They Won’t:  The loss of Jacque Allen leaves the second middle to an inexperienced freshman.  The loss of Olson and Allen mean both net and floor defense could drop a notch and SFA will find itself trying to outscore its opponent rather than beating them on offense and defense.  Strong pin attacks by the opposition could leave us vulnerable, especially on the rotations where Walker is out.  While the offense looks like it has tons of options, it would be tough to see Cain replacing all of what Olson brought and the same is certainly true when talking about freshmen replacing Allen.  Just enough of a step down defensively to cost the ‘Jacks a conference title.

Overall Analysis: This team is improved from 2014 when they finished third and held an 11-5 mark in Southland Play.  I think improvement to 12-4 or 13-3 is reasonable, but any losses to the lower half of the league may ruin the ‘Jacks chance at the top seed.  Then again, 13-3 could win the conference this year, so a first place pick is more than defendable.  SFA is going to have to be extremely consistent to win the league title and with this much youth on the squad, I expect just one or two stumbles that get easily fixed but slide the ‘Jacks into spot #2 come November.


Why They Finish First:  The combination of Jessica Wooten and Kayla Armer has been deadly for years and now that they are seniors, both are ready to take their final leap forward.  This team gained momentum all during 2015 and it showed when they ousted SFA in the first round of last year’s tournament.  I think this momentum builds and they get even better seasons out of Bailey Banks and my new non-SFA #1 player fave:  Blair Gillard.  In fact, readers just better go ahead and prepare of a season of gushing over Gillard – I absolutely love her game and the passion with which she plays.  Extremely well coached, this team is poised to make another leap forward – especially with all the front row talent and Armer, who is second only to Nicholson (and even then by a smaller amount that you may realize) in terms of setters in the Southland.

Why They Won’t:  The back row.  Plus, they lose big Allison Doerpinghaus, who was the tallest player in the Southland last year.  That’s 144 blocks that just went out the door. In recent years, HBU has not been a team that gets a lot of mention for back row play and I value that facet of the game probably more than most people when judging team strength.  When you combine just average play from the Husky back row and the loss of that much size in the middle, HBU may struggle containing the league’s best offenses.

Overall Analysis:  There are a lot of good pieces here, but remember this team was 7-9 in league play last year.  I can see all of Banks, Gillard, Armer and Wooten taking steps forward, but it still isn’t quite enough.  With other strong teams like the two aforementioned and subtle challengers just below them like UCA, Sam Houston and McNeese, this team is going to rack up enough losses to knock them out of the top spot.  This is a solid #3 and if they improve as much during the 2016 season as they did during 2015, HBU could be a serious contender in the postseason.  On a personal note, this is my favorite non-SFA team in the conference going into the year.  I love to watch this team play and I respect Trent Herman a ton.

The next post after the weekend continues today’s theme and is the second version of last years’ popular series titled “Replacing That Which Is Lost” where we look at all 13 teams in terms of replacing exiting players from 2015.  Which teams can survive their losses the best?  Which clubs might struggle to find replacements?  That’s next week in this space.

Finally, SFA fans – don’t forget that next weekend in San Marcos is the 2016 debut of SFA VolleyBlog Radio.   I’ll call all three matches live on internet radio right here at the blog.  If you can’t be at Texas State in person, make sure you tune in to follow the ‘Jacks!!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Finding Places For Fresh Faces

If you’ve checked into SFA Volleyball at all this summer you know there are a ton of fresh faces on the roster.  Suddenly, this club is very young and while it’s tempting to dream about what that means for 2018 or 2019, the current season is now upon us.  With two scrimmages and two weeks of practice in the books and only a few more days until a Wisconsin plane trip to kick things off, let’s go around the court and see how these newcomers could fit in.

With the ‘Jacks plans of running a 6-2 offense, a quick inventory of spots tells you there is one outside hitter (on the left) and one middle blocker spot open.  For the six hitters, we can pencil in Haley Coleman occupying one left side spot, Abby McIntyre and Makenzee Hanna sharing the right and Justice Walker anchoring the middle.  That leaves the spots opposite of Coleman and Walker up for grabs.

The early options for the other left side spot lead us to three fresh faces:  Sophomore transfer Peyton Redmond, coming over from East Tennessee State and freshmen KK Payne and Corin Evans.  What’s been interesting to me is that in the limited time I’ve seen each practice and play that they have each shined in mutually exclusive times. 

Checking in on practices, Evans made the fastest impression on me of the bunch.  Feisty and confident in drills it was clear that Evans felt comfortable on the court.  One of the things I like about Corin is that she’s aggressive while on the back row.  She doesn’t shy away from passing in the least.  At times, young outsides look a little reserved playing alongside the libero, but Evans doesn’t play with a wink of shyness.  I like the slight swagger and she seems to fit what I’ve personally talked to the coaching staff at length about concerning our needs for left-side hitters.  I thought she played better in scrimmage #1 than #2 when she scooped 29 digs in five sets.  I wouldn’t hesitate throwing her in there at all and I’m anxious to see how much playing time she can accrue during the tournament part of the schedule.

Redmond is the one of the bunch that has vaulted the most in impressions for me through the five or six times I’ve checked in.  The first few times I saw practice, I could tell she was a contributor, but during the two scrimmages my impression of her really shot up.  I like the calm disposition on the court.  Because she dominated the first scrimmage – and especially the deciding last set – I decided to exclusively study her positioning and demeanor during an entire six rotations last Saturday during the second scrimmage.  At no point did she appear rattled, discouraged, or unsure.  I think her experience at ETSU will pay immediate dividends.  Of the three, I think she’s the “safest” choice to put out there to avoid the roller coaster up and downs.

Payne can hit surprisingly hard for carrying such a light frame.  Like a lot of big scorers I’ve seen in the conference through the years, the first thing you notice in her approach to attack is the big back arch.  When she gets the hitting elbow up this really allows for her to whip at the ball with quite a force.  It will catch you off guard the first few times you see her hit.  Another positive to KK’s game is that she is comfortable letting it fly from the back row.  She’ll have to learn to add a little more finesse to counter all the big blockers, but of the bunch, she appears to be the most natural  pure left side scorer.  I’d especially use her if the right sides aren’t finding the floor as much as normal, because I think KK can score at this level right off the bat.  Defense and passing could be issues at times, but she passed well in the second scrimmage so that was a good sign.  Of the three, she’s the one I became aware of first and have heard the most about over the past six months or so.

What’s great about all the tournament games is that all three of these girls should see plenty of playing time.  Frankly, they all three NEED to be out there a lot early on.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see a different one of them start different matches on the days we have to play twice.  Debbie is quick to make in game adjustments due to performance anyway, so we could easily see different girls start different sets at multiple times early on.

Honestly, I think these three have the potential to make decisions very tough  on the coaching staff.  Of course, it’s a good problem to have when you need 6 hitters and 8 or 9 of them and playing at a level worthy of court time.  They are all young, and I’m naturally very, very cautious about first year players, but in a purposefully restrained way this may be the most optimistic I’ve been about a recruiting class of left-sides in quite a while.  Since some people have asked, I’ll state that if I had to play a conference match RIGHT NOW, I’d slide the experienced Redmond ahead of the freshmen.  But since we have four weekends of tournaments ahead, I would definitely play all three a ton for a month and reevaluate in late September as to whether one deserves to be labelled the “starter”. 

Running a 6-2 means you have to manage substitutions since the right sides and setters eat up four subs per time all the way around.  So, if this spot isn’t going to be DS’d for, then it may come down to serve receive and floor defense.  It’s still early… too early, but if the other five hitters are generating enough offense, I’d be tempted to use Redmond or Evans.  Otherwise, if trying to getting a scoring jumpstart, use Payne.  I say that with little to no initial reservation about Peyton or Corin on offense nor Payne on defense.  After all, Redmond and Evans but up big offensive numbers in scrimmage #1 and we’ve already discussed Payne’s passing in scrimmage #2.

Now, there are still FIVE other newcomers to discuss!  Wow!  At the open middle spot, we know a freshman will be on the floor all season.  Danae Daron, the sister of former SFA middle Ari, is obviously very athletic.  Go read her bio on the SFA roster page.  Excelling in track and volleyball, Danae looks like someone who has loads of potential.  SFA does such a good job integrating and training middle blockers that it is relatively easy to imagine that a year of playing with Walker could do Daron wonders.  The second middle just needs to be steady.  Enough offense should come from Walker and the pin hitters to where if the second middle can just hit .200-.250 a with a half dozen kills and block a few balls per match, then we’ll be good.

Shayla Eagleton is the other new middle on the squad for 2016 and she’s shown enough in practice and scrimmages to deserve a look early on as well.  I like Eagleton’s swing a lot.  She flashed plus potential on offense at times during the scrimmages and looks like someone that has enough natural talent to work with that she should be expected to improve as years pass.  At times, her location awareness on the floor in rally has been off, but that’s to be expected.  She’ll need to contribute since SFA only has three middles on the roster.  Because of that, expect to see her on the court a lot early on, because even if Daron wins the second middle spot, Shayla knows she’s the go to in case of any little thing that could happen to the other two.  Then again, this is spot where a starter may not emerge until late September, if then.

Middle is the only spot on the floor where I wish we had just one more girl.  Not because the three we have can’t do the job – I certainly think they can – but in the case of injury, you then have no additional flexibility.  Others could slide over, but these are the only three we are training as regular middles in pre-season.

Xariah Williams, a freshman from Mansfield Summit, will always be the answer to a personal trivia question of mine:  Who’s’ the SFA player my mom knew about before me?  Yes, my mom of all people clued me in to her.  My mom is not exactly a volleyball aficionado, but when Williams won the Fort Worth Star Telegram Volleyball Player of the Year Award last year, my mom gave me a call.  Xariah’s picture was in the paper – and my mom doesn’t miss it if it’s in the paper – and a few days later the article shows up in my mailbox complete with comments about coming to SFA.  Xariah had a really nice second scrimmage playing for the challenge team on the right side and provides excellent insurance for McIntyre and Hanna.  I’d predict she’d get just enough playing time to prove valuable for when it’s time for her to scoot into a starting role later in her career.  I think she fits on this club great and on the occasion that Abby or Mak isn’t feeling it, I’ll bet we see a few outbursts from Williams during the season.  She’s a great get for this recruiting class.  She might help us a lot this year, who knows?  But, I’d expect several seasons in purple where she is one of the go-to’s.

Pedigree and smarts are two words that describe freshman setter Ann Hollas.  Coming from a family of athletes, she clearly has the mindset of an NCAA Division I athlete.  From nearby Longview, you heard coach Humphreys describe in my first interview last week that Ann is training as a setter exclusively for the first time in her life.  Many veterans have already remarked to me about how smart Ann plays.  Her high school resume takes up more ink that most four-year college players get on the roster page.  Decorated with a long list of honors, it won’t be long until Hollas makes her mark at SFA.  Of course, with Shannon Connell in her final year, Hollas could find herself in the mix sooner rather than later during her four years with us.  To be honest, with all the attention to the two “open” spots for newcomers, Hollas could be the dark horse of the entire recruiting class.  An obvious opening doesn’t exist for her right now, but by the time we get to 2019, she may very well have made as big an impact as any gal on this list.

We only leave freshman Julia Whitehead for last comments, because back row players don’t mind being at the back.  Anyone reading in this space knows that I looooooooveeeee back row defense.  Here is one thing that is great about Whitehead being here:  she played on a team that went to the Texas 6A high school FINALS.  If you win defensive MVP in a 6A district that puts a club in the finals, then you know the girl can scoop.  Every team needs the 5’2” defender buzzing all around destroying the egos of the flashy hitters by digging everything to target.  Clearly, Lexus Cain has the libero spot held down and if we need to use a defensive specialist for one of hitters, then the much improved Sam Rodriguez is ahead of Whitehead on the depth chart.  Still, just like when Cain came in from Amarillo, it’s great to know that we have a DS on the bench that has played under the bright lights with a big school background.

Predicted Opening Day Lineup:

Left Sides: Coleman and Freshman*
Right Sides:  McIntyre and Hanna
Middles:  Walker and Daron
Setters:  Connell and Brewer
Libero:  Cain
If DS used at times:  Rodriguez

*I’m gonna guess Payne gets the nod in the first match Friday just because of a vibe I get from the staff.  I think I’d start Evans if it were me.  But, let me be clear.. all of Payne, Redmond and Evans should see a lot of opportunities over the first month.  They need to see what these girls can do in real matches.  The same is true of Eagleton & Williams.

Later in my next post:  Should SFA have been picked first or second in the Southland?  I’ll break down each side of that coin later in the week!