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!!