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.