Sunday, November 19, 2017

2017 Senior Tributes: A List of Memories

During the last several weeks of the regular season, I began to notice something around the gym and on campus.  I was having far more truly meaningful interchanges with coaches, players, parents and other fans in general.  A season was winding down and that meant that athletes that who had poured years of themselves into this wonderful sport were winding down the year and winding down entire careers.  It's a strange combination of human emotion to feel celebration, transition, finality and yes, even a sense of loss, all wrapped up together.

Some of the blurbs below were written before the 2017 Southland Conference Tournament began.  Some were written in my head a while back and actually typed out during the tournament and a few of them were created in early mornings or on late nights during the weekend in Corpus Christi.  The meaningful interchanges this weekend have continued.  I've had some great professional conversations with the folks I work with from the Southland Conference.  Following practice on Thursday, I got to walk to the bus with Debbie Humphreys while having such a spirit of camaraderie in the discussion.  Of course, the many interactions with coaches and players are always so energizing and uplifting to me.

But what blows me away - I mean just totally blows me away - is when a parent or relative of a player just walks up to me and introduces themselves.  Or, in the case of a few instances this weekend, they reintroduce themselves and share a moment of thanks and reflection on my coverage or attention shown their team or athlete.  The sincerity and kindness that I so much don't deserve is so humbling and meaningful and this weekend it has been non-stop.  I've met so many new people and had so many positive interchanges about volleyball. I am grateful for each of these conversations and the willingness of others to encourage.  Someone asked me yesterday the age old question:  "Why do you do this?"  I couldn't field an easier question to reply to.  Passion manifests itself in commitment.  Life is better when it's not about you.  Your accomplishments are NEVER, and I mean NEVER, diminished when you cast attention on the accomplishments of others.  The game is big enough and there is enough joy to go around.  With all these stories to tell, how could I NOT do this?  This sport, this league, these schools and these athletes need stories told for them.  Life's better with stories!

So, for the third year now, I give you ten (plus one) vignettes in honor of our 2017 Seniors around the Southland Conference.  In most cases, I've included a link to a conversation that I've been fortunate to have with them.   These athletes are listed in alphabetical order by their last names.

Bailey Banks (HBU)
The athleticism just flows from Banks and she plays as though it is effortless.  Arguably, when you look over her 2017 numbers she had a good a season as any outside hitter in the league. Considering all games played this season, she was tied for 3rd in kills per set, 6th in attack percentage, tied for 2nd in digs per set and tied for 6th in blocks per set among all outside hitters.  No other player at her position ranked in the top 6 in all four of those categories.  Banks was part of a formidable front line at HBU for many years and was one of those players that could single handedly control a match. She won Newcomer of the Year in her sophomore season and continued to pile up honors during her final two years on the court including finishing runner-up to Player of the Year Samantha Anderson this year in the league voting.  I'll always remember that during her junior season I got to do an interview with her outside Sharp Gym on the day that the Huskies were having a team pumpkin carving contest.  The league loses a few heavy arms this year and Banks is right there at the top of the list.  HBU had a TON of players that I have long admired graduate this year (keep reading) and so I'll truly miss getting to witness Banks skills.

Lexus Cain (SFA)
The Ladyjacks lone senior.  But oh, what an impact Lexus made on the league and on SFA.  If not for Kate Klepetka at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Cain would have some Libero of the Year plaques hanging on her walls for years to come.  But you know, the ever humble Cain never openly seemed bothered by that. Lexus is so articulate and soft spoken.  She always deflected praise to her teammates and coaches and it would be absolutely impossible to come away from a set of conversations with her without being impressed.   Because her personality wasn't flashy, I took it upon myself a few times on social media to really start lobbying for more attention to be thrown her way.  She so deserves it.  She finishes 5th all time at SFA in total digs and that is saying something given we are basically Libero University.  You don't play Libero at SFA for three years unless you are a ridiculously good defender.  I'm just going to say it because it's true:  Our standards for that position are higher than most other teams.  Stephanie Figgers, Maddie Hanlan, OJ Olson. Go look them up.  Without any question, SFA has had the most consistently dominant set of back row players in the Southland over the last 10-15 years.  Cain fits in with that group perfectly.  One of the things that I'll always be so proud of Lexus for is really stepping up in her final few matches for SFA.  Down the stretch in 2017, Cain was absolutely clutch.  She's just 5'5", but whoever straps on the off-colored jersey for us in 2018 and beyond has big history to look up to.  The legacy of the libero at Stephen F. Austin was continued with Lexus on our side.

Adison Giambrone (McNeese)
For years, the Cowgirls have had athletes that haven't garnered the limelight of the conference's attention but that have some intangible quantity that makes them such a pleasure to follow. During the years, I've found a few from McNeese to follow: Nicole Bowden, Sarah Cartie, Malina Sanchez, Priscilla Massengale, and Kelly Graham, just to name a few.  Add another unsung hero to the list.  Giambrone always got the absolute best out the vessel that God gave her.  Setter, DS, Libero.  McNeese was able to shift and slide her around to fit whatever need they had for a particular stretch of games.  This year, they decided she should tag team with Alexandra Aguilera at setter and she adjusted back once again.  Hustle.  Aggressiveness.  All with an infectious smile.  I love it when athletes "play happy" and Giambrone radiated this sense of postiveness and encouragement to teammates every time I saw her play.  I am happy to highlight her contributions here.  Many of the names on this list won multiple honors, but teams are what count.  I am sure that Ashleigh Fitzgerald would take a team full of Adison Giambrone's in the future.  It's not always what's on the stat sheet that counts.  Another thing you need to know: She graduated cum laude from McNeese before her senior season and has been working on her MBA since.  Stop and think about that for a while.  Division 1 athlete.  Master's program.  You know what you are looking at here?  Someone primed for lifelong success.  When McNeese has the tournament run that ACU has had in 2017 - and its coming - don't forget about the example provided and road paved by players like Adison Giambrone.

Blair Gillard (HBU)
What am I supposed to do now?  Some players have a defining set of moments that just immediately draw you into following their careers.  Pretty much EVERYONE that reads even casually here or that has had league-focused discussions with me over the last few years knows that Gillard was essentially my favorite non-SFA player in the conference. Here is the defining moment:  October 11, 2014. In route to going undefeated in league play, SFA sweeps HBU in Houston.  This was the first radio broadcast I had done from Sharp Gym.  HBU trots out this energetic  6'1" athletic freshman middle blocker.  I had studied up.  I knew her name, but hadn't seen her play live.  At one point, Gillard teams up with a pin blocker to stuff SFA's right side attack straight down to the floor.  I am sitting just a few feet off the sideline calling the match and Gillard turns to celebrate the block and lets out this fierce yell like five feet from my face.  That was it.  I was hooked.  "I'll have what she's having" I remember thinking.  No one could celebrate a big point like Gillard and I totally loved it.  It wasn't all show, though.  93 blocks as a freshman, 128 as a sophomore, 168 (you read that right) as a junior and 147 as a senior?  Are you FREAKING kidding me? Read those numbers again.  That 168 tally in 2016 is the Southland Conference single season rally-scoring era highest total in history.  Dude.  Bummer.  No more Blair Gillard?  I'm heartbroken.  What am I supposed to do without this pure dominance and fierce disposition no longer on the court?  It isn't fair.  Gillard should be cloned, kept young and allowed to play every year.

Brittany Gilpin (AMCC)
Map maker.  That's what Gilpin is.  Do realize how bad Texas A&M Corpus Christi volleyball used to suck?  When they first came into the Southland they were awful.  I could tell you some stories (not in this space) of things I witnessed when the Islanders played SFA in the early days that would make your ears burn.  Undisciplined, disorganized, chaotic.  But, Brittany Gilpin is 180 degrees opposite of all that.  Disciplined.  Gifted. Organized. Intelligent. Humble.  DOMINANT.  In terms of players, Gilpin put Islander Volleyball on the map.  The program on the island is now established and well respected as opposed to trampled on like cigarette butt thrown out on the highway from a speeding 18-wheeler.  No doubt that coaches have played a role in their transformation, but in terms of players, Brittany Gilpin deserves the lion's share of credit.  Watch the video at the link below after Gilpin's Islanders won the 2016 SLC Tournament.  Notice her disposition, maturity and countenance.  Such a pro.  Then, take a look at when 600+ win coach Brenda Gray can't wait to pay her respects and interjects her praise while we are taping. It was an awesome moment. Gilpin could do it all.. score with efficiency, block, dig, lead her teammates... everything. While discussing All-Conference possibilities with coaches and others around the league this year I had several people tell me that even though Gilpin might not repeat at Player of the Year in 2017 that if they were drafting players from Southland schools to start a team that she and teammate Kristyn Nicholson would be their first two picks. That says a lot.  There was not a single time - not one time - that I wasn't impressed with how Brittany Gilpin carried herself around the court - win or lose.

Corrine Grandcolas (ACU)
I'm writing this player memory a few hours before the championship game of the 2017 SLC Tournament.  I had never met Corrine Grandcolas until yesterday.  Yep.  Yesterday.  She's the bonus "11th" player on this list that traditionally has had ten seniors on it. Rarely, very rarely, you talk to someone for the first time for 10 minutes and they just completely catch you off guard with how impressive they are.  I cannot recall in nine years of writing at this blog ever talking to a non-SFA player and hearing what I heard yesterday. Grandcolas was so poignant, so humble, so articulate, so mature, so full of gratitude, so impressive that she had to be a postscript on this list.  I've known her name since she was a freshman. I read all the player bios in the conference every year.  But yesterday, I got a glimpse of a person.  Not a bio. Not a stat sheet that I am so fond of.  An individual.  A quality one.  It didn't take years of playing volleyball to make me a Corrine Grandcolas fan.  It took ten minutes sitting at a table in a hotel lobby.  Her interview will be the moment I treasure the most in this tournament.  Without her knowing it, listening to her healed part of the hurt that has been in my brain and heart since SFA drove home and I once again was left at the tournament without my team to root for.

Megan Nash (UCA)
Doesn't it feel like Megan Nash has been at UCA forever?  Like Cain and Grandcolas above, Nash is the only senior on her club.  The Canadian who found her way to Conway, Arkansas of all places has been a fixture in the UCA lineup all four years in uniform.  Along with Gilpin, Nicholson and Wooten, she was one of only four three-time All-Southland Conference honorees that we had this year.  Nash's three honors were all first team selections. She won the prestigious 2015 Southland Conference Student Athlete of the Year Award.  She has averaged over 100 blocks a season during her four year tenure. Probably the most impressive thing about Nash is that everyone knows her.  Yes, Anderson won Player of the Year this year, but when I asked other coaches about how to strategize about UCA, the first person they talk about is Nash. That's because she's so consistent and so respected. Other players watch and emulate her.  Did you hear Madeleine Doud (Texas A&M Corpus Christi) in the interview we did during the 2017 tournament?  She referenced "watching Nash all the time".  I've heard that countless times while talking to players.  It's quite possible that she is the most respected senior on this entire list in terms of her longevity and ability to play at a high level so consistently.  When I sat down to make a list of seniors that I was going to write about for this post, Megan Nash's name was the first player I wrote down.  It's a big deal when an outside hitter tallies 1000 kills for a career.  Going into the championship match in the 2017 tournament, Nash - as a middle blocker - had 847 kills for her career.  That couples with 429 blocks, 112 aces and over 1200 total points to cement her as one of the greatest middle blockers in recent Southland history.

Kristyn Nicholson (AMCC)
Quite succinctly,  one of the best setters in the history of the Southland Conference.  I've been following SLC Volleyball since 1999, but more seriously since I began working for our club in 2006.  With my own two eyes, I am certain that Nicholson is one of the Top 4 setters I have ever seen represent the Southland Conference.  JJ Jones (SFA), Marissa Collins (UCA) and Adrienne Meengs (Lamar) are the other three that just jump into my mind. Since Meengs, no setter I have ever seen was a better attacker than Nicholson.  Nicholson was credited with 467 total attacks this season - that's 3rd on her club.  Her count of 179 kills for the year was more than twice the tally of the average starting setter in the conference.  Skilled at short, quick sets, accurate as a bullet with traditional pin sets, beautiful back sets to the right, laser accurate shoots, on the run, standing still, overhead, bump sets..... it didn't matter.  Nicholson literally had no deficiencies in terms of getting her attackers the ball.  I heard about her when she was senior in high school.  A former SFA player that was coaching club texted me about her coming to AMCC. Before watching her play for the first time, I went back to that former SFA player and ask:  Is she really that good?  I am going to cover the match and am studying the Freshmen".  All I heard on the other end of the phone was laughter.  "Just watch" I was told.  I did.  Some athletes just instantly strike you with their talent.  For four years, Kristyn Nicholson impressed and impressed and impressed.

Jordyn Vaughn (Sam Houston)
You know those big ice lockers that are out in front of every convenience store where you can just reach in and grab a bag of ice for your party and then go inside and pay at the counter?  Due to the massive number of attacks she rung up, I'll bet that's what Jordyn Vaughn asks for at Christmas.  "Vaughn's Convenience Store and Ice Shack".  It has a nice ring to it.. as in.. "we will conveniently carve you up with 20 kill nights and send you crying back home on the bus".  Vaughn needs the ice locker because she's AVERAGED just shy of 1000 attacks per year.  I knew she hit a ton, but when I figured out that she finishes her career with 3977 total attacks I was aghast.  That's an average of 994 attacks per season for four years.  The Bearkats have pretty much always had big arms in their lineup and Vaughn's 1000+ career kills permanently etch her name into SHSU legacy. Considering the entire 2017 season, Vaughn led all Southland players in kills per set and is one of only three hitters this year to amass over 400 kills. She upped her kill count every year while playing in orange.  During the year, I'd chuckle when talking about the Bearkat offense.  Most teams run a "5-1" or "6-2" offense and I'd always say that Sam Houston ran a "3-1" offense referring to Vaughn, Brooke White and Taylor Cunningham. as those three totaled exactly 3000 of the 4004 Bearkat attacks this season.  Then again, it's one thing to score.  It's another thing to score when the other team knows exactly where it is going. What a player.  Vaughn will henceforth order every drink at a restaurant in her life with extra ice.  Congratulations on an awesome career, Jordyn.  You carried the torch of great attackers at Sam Houston with dignity and grace.

Brooke White (Sam Houston)
Of course, White and Vaughn are alphabetically next to each other on this list.  What else would you expect?  The "stat twins" are inseparable.  White and Vaughn put up numbers so similar that they even tallied their 1000th career kill in the same match. In 2016, White and Vaughn were so alike that both their kill and error totals were each separated by just 13.  Freaky!  They BOTH went over 400 kills in that year and White continued to add to her stellar resume in 2017.  White is really strong.  Her muscular frame allowed her to just absolutely rip balls from anywhere on the floor.  That's something that I'll always remember about her.  She was never afraid to let it fire at full force from well behind the 10-foot line. In addition, White was an excellent floor defender.  In her final match she reached 1000 digs for her career.  The duo of 1000 kills and 1000 digs had only been done 13 (there's that number again!) times previously in Bearkat history.   I'll never forget the first time I saw White play live.  Once or twice a year, if SFA doesn't have a home game that I need to work, I'll drive to another SLC school close to Nacogdoches to watch a match.  SHSU was playing Northwestern State during Brooke's freshman year.  I was there to watch Devaney Wells-Gibson and Stacey DiFrancesco go head-to-head.  That night, both those girls hit under .100 and this 5'8" freshman for Sam Houston was tearing it up hitting .375 and putting down double figure kills.  I turned to the couple sitting down the row from me and asked "Who is that #12?"  Wouldn't you know it - it was her parents!  White's Mom kindly replied with her name and that she belonged to them.  We got into a short conversation and I drove away that night thinking 'Thank You God' for keeping me from asking the question in the way that surfaced in my head - which was "How in Hades is this short girl freshman scoring so much against this big front line?"  Eventually, I answered my own question by watching White play through the years.  Some years ago, I used to tease Brenda Gray about her then two headed offensive monster duo Carli Kolbe and Anna Ferguson.  When writing, I called it the "Annacarli" as a play on the word "anaconda".  There is a story in the Bible in Joshua 3 about "Crossing the River Jordan".  In the most non-sacrilegious way possible, I say we amend the name a bit and remember this duo at Sam Houston as "Crossing the Brooke Jordyn" in honor of all the crossing shots that found the floor during the last four years.

Jessica Wooten (HBU)

I am so glad that Wooten came back for her Senior season after missing all of last year with an injury.  It gave all of us the chance to see her complete skill set one more time.  Wooten was truly the definition of "6-rotation player".   Here's a stat you didn't know from 2017.  Considering all games played, Wooten led all outside hitters in the conference in BOTH digs per set (3.54) and blocks per set (0.53).  On a team that saw Bailey Banks tally over 400 kills, Wooten was still able to finish 7th among all outside hitters in kills per set at right at three per frame.  I've made a big deal in this post about the 1000 kill plateau for outside hitters.  Wooten almost got to 1500!  Wooten's total of 1467 kills and 1373 digs is just flat out insane.  That combination of digs and kills is far and away the highest combined total of any senior leaving the conference this year.  Despite all the honors and awards during her years in Houston, I still tend to think she is underrated.  Let's just repeat this for emphasis:  In Wooten you have a six rotation player that amassed over 2800 combined kills and digs and in her senior year blocked at higher rate than any other outside hitter.  Yesterday, in the semifinal loss to Cinderella ACU, she posted 30 digs in four sets.  If the Southland Conference put out its own "Volleyball Dictionary" and you looked up "six rotation outside", there'd  be Wooten's bio photo in the margin.

In addition to those mentioned above, the following list rounds out the 27 seniors that played in the Southland Conference this year:

HBU: Hailey Erickson and Laura Fox
UIW: Hope Kelley, Sarea Alexander, Madison Williams and Bryaunea Hall
Lamar: Amy Hollowell and Haley Morton
McNeese: Rae Myers and Jenny D'Alessandro
UNO:  Rondolyn Bryant
Nicholls: Emily Weimer, Stephanie Tobison and Sydney Lerille
Northwestern State: Kylie Spencer
AMCC: Madeleine Doud

Congrats to all of the above for your dedication and perseverance.

...and special congrats to SFA's redshirt-junior that is an academic senior and finishes her career at SFA:  Sam Rodriguez.. so glad we got to honor Sam at "Senior Day".