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