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!

Friday, August 12, 2016

The 8th Season of Arrives Next Week

Later today, I'll get a chance to observe the 2016 Ladyjack Volleyball team practice for the first time this year.

As always, the 2016 edition of the blog will be packed with inside information, video and audio interviews and analysis of SFA Volleyball.  For those that are new to this space, since 2009, this blog has been providing a one-of-a-kind look at Ladyjack Volleyball.  Written from a fan and insider prospective, the focus here is on getting you - the fan - as close to the athletes and coaches as possible.   As an ESPN3 commentator, radio personality, writer and long-time enthusiast of 'Jacks Volleyball I have access that most don't.  I spend a lot of time around the team on the road, on game days home and away and routinely converse with players and coaches at times and places where most fans don't have access.  All of that translates to better stories, more focused and detailed articles and lots of video interviews with your favorite players.

What I enjoy is bringing the inside access to you.  We'll get started with senior interviews, insider chats with Head Coach Debbie Humphreys and previews of the 2016 Southland race all in the next few weeks leading up to the start of the season.

Make sure and follow the blog on twitter at @SFAVolleyBlog and get ready for the 8th - and BEST - season of!!