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.