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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Half Way Home and No Clear Favorite

Going into the second weekend in October, we are roughly half way through the 2017 Southland Conference Volleyball slate. While some clubs have sifted down to the cellar, there appears to be no single favorite as we move to the second half.  Lord knows I am never to diss the Demons of Northwestern State again, but will all due respect to both the Natchitoches bunch and an improved squad from Lake Charles, we appear to have a five team fight on our hands for the next month.  So, our focus in this post is to take a look at the top clubs in the standings, recap their success to this point, and illuminate their remaining schedule and point out a possible difference maker down the stretch.  Let's go in order of the current standings as we trek through the front runners.

Sam Houston State (7-0 on 10/13)
Strong Conference Wins: at HBU
So Far:  It's arguable that among the teams at the top, the Kats have had the easiest schedule to this point.  They've played Nicholls twice along with Southeastern Louisiana and the up-and-down squad from New Orleans.  The win against HBU on the road was huge as it legitimized the strong start and the undefeated status of Sam Houston.  Around the league, few folks I talk to really "like" this club and to me that's just code speak for "we don't want to play them".  They're different - they've always been different and I'm not sure I'm 100% bought in yet.  However, one or two more wins against top tier teams and I'll be on board.  Two things I wasn't sure about at the start of the year with this crew were how Jacyln Ward was going to do at running Sam's hit-it-from-everywhere offense and the Bearkat back line.  Ward's been solid so that answers at least one concern.  One thing to note is how much more efficient Brooke White has been this season.  She is currently hitting .220, which is up from .193 a year ago and .151 during her sophomore campaign.

Difference Maker: Floor defense.  I'm not convinced it's that good.  The emphasis here is clearly on the guns of Jordyn Vaughn, Brooke White and Taylor Cunningham.  They'll live and die by how those three go.

Remaining Schedule:
Prediction: They'll lose two of the matches against the top teams and one more to someone they'd be favored against and finish 13-3.

Central Arkansas (6-1 on 10/13)
Strong Conference Wins:  Home against HBU and AMCC
So Far:  Better than people thought.  I think SFA caught them early before they figured a few more things out.  Plus, frankly, we played pretty well against them and they really didn't play all that well in Nacogdoches.  The steady hands of Elizabeth Armstrong (who gets a lot of praise in conversations around the league) and the front line that includes senior Megan Nash and the SLC's best right-side in Samantha Anderson can be lethal.  The talent is there, but probably the best thing going for this club is an incredibly weak schedule going forward.  Like Sam Houston, I still see some issues regarding back row defense.  UCA has played a freshman in the libero spot (Emily Doss), and she's held her own, but down the stretch this could be an area where they get tested as well.  In a recent match against UIW, no Sugar Bear had more than 6 digs.

Difference Makers:  Can I pick floor defense and defensive consistency, in general, again?  That and Haley Tippett continuing to be a bit more efficient are key.  She's at .174, up over 20 points from last year, but that mark is still below conference average for a left-side attacker.

Remaining Schedule:
Prediction:  They lose only to HBU down the stretch, finish 14-2, win the regular season title, but don't make it to the conference tournament championship as not having to play AMCC, SFA or SHSU twice comes back to bite them.

Stephen F. Austin (5-1 on 10/13)
Strong Conference Wins: Central Arkansas
So Far:  The balanced offense has given opponents fits as SFA has consistently been in the Top 50 in the nation in attack percentage.  The emergence of Corin Evans as a complete player and Haley Coleman drastically cutting down on errors has made the 'Jacks offense one of the best in the conference.  Lexus Cain is an easy pick for the top libero talent among the five contenders here.  SFA has had a lot of "good" teams in recent years without being able to elevate to "greatness".  The question is:  Can the team that everyone knows is always going to be in the hunt finish strong and get over the tournament drought?  Two matches against AMCC and a late season road date with Sam Houston well tell a lot.

Difference Maker:  Anyia Williams.  SFA got a huge spark in 2016 once they settled on Ann Hollas running the offense.  Inserting Freshman Middle Blocker Anyia Williams into the lineup could potentially strengthen the net defense even more and make the offense just flat out too potent for anyone to stop.

Remaining Schedule:
Prediction:  13-3.  Other than AMCC, the home slate isn't particularly tough.  I worry a little bit about the road match at ACU being a "trap" game despite the Wildcats underperforming to this point.  That's right before the match with Sam Houston and a letdown in Abilene would have seeding implications and possibly take some late season air out of the SFA sails.

Houston Baptist (6-2 on 10/13)
Strong Conference Wins:  Home vs. SFA
So Far:  Everyone knows I bleed purple, but I've always been real direct and out front about being as objective as I can.  As much as I love our front line and as strong as the triple threat at Sam is, and as good as the UCA attackers are.. here is my pick of a front row.  I'll take Wooten, Banks and Gillard over anybody.  What if SFA and HBU joined forces?  Could you imagine a lineup of Wooten and Banks at OH, Gillard and Hanna in the middle, Hollas setting, Daron on the RS and Cain at libero?  That team would go 16-0.  HBU has some awesome players and will prove to be dangerous all season long.  They are first or second in every team statistic that matters except being third in attack percentage among SLC clubs.  They are legit - and the five-set loss to the Bearkats does nothing to change my opinion about them.

Difference Makers:  Again, we have a strong team that has in recent years never been known for outstanding back row play.  But, what about setting down the stretch?  Abby Gargus?  Madison O'Brien?  Let's see what happens there.  I need to investigate what's up with the switching back and forth.  There's a story in there I don't know about.  I didn't travel to HBU this year, so I didn't get a face-to-face chat in with any of the HBU brass when we played there.

Remaining Schedule:
Prediction:  13-3 as they lose one of the matches against AMCC or UCA and steam roll everyone else.  I will have my eye on the upcoming road match at Northwestern State, however.  That could be their "trap" match.  A loss there would lose them a seed or two in the tournament.

Texas A&M Corpus-Christi (6-2 on 10/13)
Strong Conference Wins: None
So Far:  Searching for a 2017 identity.  They still wear the title of champs until someone else finishes at the top, but the scare at UNO, dropping a set to Nicholls and then the sweep at the hands of Northwestern State have certainly created doubt.  A win against SFA would help their cause, but coming up they have a really rough three game stretch at SHSU, home against HBU and a road date at SFA.  The three seniors -  Brittany Gilpin, Kristyn Nicholson, and Madeleine Doud have been their usual stellar selves and Madison Woods has played admirably in the off-colored jersey.  Let's be honest though:  Kate Klepetka leaving for Texas Tech and Madi Fitzsimmons getting hurt make this a different club.  No one else around the league is crying for them, though.

Difference Maker:  Net Defense.  This team can't block.  For a point of reference, HBU has right at twice as many team blocks at Texas A&M - Corpus Christi in roughly the same number of sets. Only Southeastern Louisiana and Nicholls have fewer blocks per set overall.  In conference play, the numbers are even worse.

Remaining Schedule:
Prediction:  12-4 at best with that schedule.  11-5 might be a better choice.  Five games against SFA, SHSU and HBU in the last eight will really test their mettle. If they win four or all of those five, then watch out... there still may be enough magic in the bottle that washed up on the Island shore.

I started this post and I'll end with a short discussion of Northwestern State.  They deserve a ton of credit for their win against the Islanders.  Regan Rogers was fantastic in that match.  They have HBU, Sam Houston, and Central Arkansas all at HOME down the stretch.  They have to go to HBU as well.  So, they have some tough tests ahead, but if they split those four, then they very much could earn a top-seed in the tournament.  The jury is still out, but there is still plenty of time for the Demons to keep improving and cause a whole lot of trouble.  I'll still pick them as the #6 seed at this point, but a few slots higher isn't out of the question if they play well and the teams highlighted above stumble in weeks to come.

McNeese is another team worth monitoring.  They've taken sets from some good clubs.  They look like a tournament team for sure to me.  Angela McGownd is leading the conference in digs per set and I'll try and make her the next interview target when the Cowgirls come to Nacogdoches next week.

Abilene Christian has to be a little better than what we've seen so far, right?  I think most everyone thought they would be better than an 8th seed.

Finally, with at least a five team race for the top, this looks like a year where the #2 or #3 seed has just as much chance at a tournament title as the top team.  If the five teams highlighted here do make out the top five then remember that the winner of the #1/#8 seed game plays the winner of the #4/#5 seed in the second round.  That could pave the way for the #2 or #3 to having a slightly easier road to the final. Also, break out your tiebreaker rules (they aren't what you think they are) because it wouldn't surprise me one bit if five or six teams are separated by two games in the final regular season standings.  The tiebreaker rules are on a tab on the Southland Conference Volleyball website.  They are worth reviewing because they are NOT straight head-to-head tie breaks and as tight as this race looks even losing sets to non-tournament bound teams could have implications.  Don't believe me?  Go read them VERY carefully.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Links to Interviews Done At the SFA Holiday Inn Invitational

This past weekend, SFA won four straight matches to up their nation leading 2017 win streak to 11 contests.  Over the weekend, SFA VolleyBlog was able to get comments from Anyia Williams, Corin Evans, Debbie Humphreys and Most Valuable Player Lexus Cain.  Click on the link below to go to the list of all interviews done by the blog.  The aforementioned four chats are at the top of the list.

SFA is back in action on Tuesday, September 12 and I'll have the call on ESPN3.  Also, next weekend sends the 'Jacks to Houston to participate in the Rice University Invitational and all three of our matches will be carried on radio exclusively here at the blog.  See the sidebar on the right for times.

Click Here For Audio Interviews Done at the 2017 SFA Holiday Inn Invitational

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Stepping Forward: Corin Evans

Haley Coleman has won a tournament MVP and Player of the Week Award.

Makenzee Hanna and Danae Daron have switched spots and each made an all-tournament team.

Shayla Eagleton has thrived as the second MB and has a Defensive Player of the Week award and an all-tournament award under her belt.

Ann Hollas, McKenzie Brewer and Freshman Margaret Dean have all been instrumental in running a 6-2 offense that finds SFA riding a seven game winning streak.

Lexus Cain is, well… doing Lexus Cain stuff, as always.

But, quick.. no cheating:  Who leads Stephen F. Austin Volleyball after eight matches in points per set?

Surely you read the title above and could see that I was driving towards the answer of Sophomore outside hitter Corin Evans.

To me, Evans has been the key cog in what looks like a mid-season form Ladyjack Volleyball machine.  Lest you forget Evans’ contributions since being inserted in the lineup after our year opening loss to Florida Atlantic:

Vs. Central Connecticut State: 10 Kills
Vs. Stetson: 14 Kills, 9 digs, hit .282
Vs. ULM: 11 digs
Vs. USF: 13 Kills, hit .379
Vs. Mississippi State: 13 digs
Vs. Grambling: 9 digs, 4 aces, 3 blocks
Vs. Tulane: 9 Kills, 12 Digs, 4 aces

All of it adds up to a total of 3.39 points per set which lead all wearers of the beloved purple.  Now, to be fair, Haley Coleman is right there with her at 3.37 points per set.  But again, Coleman has numerous accolades already – each of which has been well deserved.  Definitively, Coleman cleaning up her attack errors from 2016 and contributing with more steady passing have been instrumental to our success.  Coleman has three double-doubles already.  From above, you can see Evans has just missed getting that press.

Yep, Evans has flown under the radar concerning media attention and stat accolades and this is my chance to remedy that.  Despite being of few words during interviews, the numbers above do all the talking.  If not offense, it’s defense.  If not defense, it’s offense.  In all seven of SFA wins’ Evans has been central to the cause. I’ve been super impressed with the steps forward Corin has made from her freshman year.  At this point, Evans is the “glue” player on the entire team because everything connects to her.  Playing all six rotations and not viewed as the go-to on offense, Evans has still managed to score at the level of her six rotation mate and contribute on defense in a big way.

When asked last week which side of the ball she preferred to champion in her play, she didn’t hesitate to say defense.  So much focus is made on the offense when running a 6-2.  Obviously, you have the extra hitter and that’s part of the point.  But, our offense depends on those hitters also blocking well to set up the scoring and we’ve done a good job of that.  Then, there’s the requirement in the scheme that two OH’s play all the way around.  Humphreys choice to tag Coleman and Evans for that duty has paid huge dividends.

Think about how rather suddenly, SFA has become particularly deep with hitters.  Everyone knows that Peyton Redmond is about a steady as they come and stands ready to contribute on both sides of the ball when needed.  Then, there’s a potential offensive weapon in sophomore KK Payne who is hopefully just about healthy.  That’s a ton of talent waiting their turn currently on the bench.

No, SFA doesn’t have that 18 kill a night, chart topping, left side hitter that draws all the attention in scouting reports.  But that’s perfectly fine.  Opponents are still dead if they are bled slowly to their demise.  You can’t key on one girl in this offense.  Focus on Coleman?  Hanna and Daron will burn you in the middle and right.  Of course, the opposite is now true with Coleman already having two errorless double figure kill matches and hitting a very impressive .285 overall.  Then, there is Eagleton, who leads the team in attack percentage.  The balance shown on offense this early in the season is as impressive as I remember it in recent seasons.  Of course, the setters and passers get a ton of credit for that as well.

No doubt the ‘Jacks fast start has been due to a combination of stellar performances, most of which have garnered a fair amount of well-deserved attention.  But, when asked recently what my thoughts are on why SFA has been able to be so successful,  I haven’t hesitated to give what I think is really the right answer to our early success…

Monday, September 4, 2017

Links to Interviews Done in Starkville, MS

Last weekend SFA Volleyball ran their road winning streak to seven matches as they won the 2017 Mississippi State Bulldog Invitational in Starkville, MS.  While there, I was able to get comments from Sophomore OH Corin Evans and Head Coach Debbie Humphreys.  Links to their audio interviews are below.

With only one senior on the team this year, Lexus Cain was the only chat forming our traditional early season "Senior Interviews".  Originally, Lexus and I were to have our chat in Nacogdoches, but changes in my schedule and Hurricane Harvey prevented that from happening.  So, I was able to catch up with a gracious Cain after a long day of volleyball in Starkville.  Be sure to check out her insightful comments at the YouTube link below.

Finally, I got a chance to talk with Mississippi State Head Coach David McFatrich in the MSU coaches lounge on the first day of the Bulldog Invitational.  Fatch coached in the Southland for eight years at the University of Central Arkansas.  During that time, he built UCA into a powerhouse and did a lot to up the visibility of the Southland as a whole.  More than that, he was a supporter of this blog in its early days.  I've had many candid volleyball conversations with Fatch through the years and he is one of many coaches or former coaches in this league that has aided in the blog's visibility and credibility as we begin our 9th season of coverage.  So, it was treat to catch up with coach McFatrich.  The link to our conversation is also below:

Chat with Corin Evans After SFA Defeats USF and Grambling

Debbie Humphreys Comments After SFA Sweeps Mississippi State

2017 Senior Interview: Lexus Cain

Conversation with Mississippi State Head Coach David McFatrich

Up next at the blog... later this week we'll take a look at the huge steps forward taken by Corin Evans as she'll be in focus for our next post...

Axe 'Em !

Monday, August 28, 2017

Pray for Texas

I had intended the first post of 2017 to be about volleyball -  to be about our upcoming radio schedule from Louisiana and Mississippi.  Indeed, I will be in Monroe on Wednesday night to do our first broadcast of the year for the match against ULM.  All of the SFA games at the Mississippi State tournament will also be broadcast.  If any parents, other relatives or fans cannot travel, then rest assured we will have the broadcasts for you right here in this space for this weeks' matches. SFAVolleyBlog Radio is always free and all you need is an internet connection.. nothing to buy.  Ever.

We have players on our club from the greater Houston area.  Their neighborhoods and familiar surroundings where they grew up are greatly affected by Hurricane Harvey.  At at time of such intensity, volleyball will go on, but it is far from the most important thing.

My hope is that through this trying time people will see what Texas is about.  I grew up in Spring, just north of Texas.  My old stomping grounds are under water and I've seen photos of places I've visited many times submerged.  I've had friends rescued off the tops of their houses.  In fact, I got a call today from a friend who said a rescue team from Nacogdoches were the ones that brought a boat and got them off their roof.  So, I pray for Texas. So far, I am very PROUD of Texas and how Texans have begun to bond together for others.

I hope people see through this what Texans are all about - helping their neighbors.  Houston is a great place.  I am proud to be from the Houston area.  Possibly, through this difficult time, Houston will be an example to the rest of the nation about how to handle adversity and how to aid your fellow man, woman and child.

For now, the Ladyjacks are scheduled to play on and we'll be there with the coverage.  But now is a time for the Ladyjack Volleyball Family to come together and focus on the fact that our team, coaches and its support staff are safe.

Please, if you read this... say a prayer for the gals on our team that have family, homes and surroundings affected by wind and water.  We have lots of SFA Volleyball alums in the Houston area as well.  Pray for them.

I'm proud to be a part of this group and if you would like some diversion from the storm and water, please tune in Wednesday night at 6:00 right here in this space for an internet radio broadcast live from Monroe, LA.