Tuesday, December 11, 2018

2018 SFA Senior Tributes

For each of the last three seasons, I have ended the year with a post summarizing my recollections about some of the conferences' most memorable seniors.  This is the fourth year of jotting down these senior tributes, but in 2018 I am going to separate the SFA seniors from those from around the league.  This season was particularly special to SFA Volleyball and so there will be two "senior tribute" posts this December; this first one dedicated to our four seniors that led our club so well during the year.  Later in the week, we will go around the league for stories and memories associated with various players that I crossed paths with during their Southland seasons.

For now, enjoy these four SFA senior tributes.  Before beginning, I should also give a huge shout out to each of these four ladies' families.  Behind every one of these athletes are parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and extended family that have been so supportive to both myself and the team.  Your dedication to your special athlete on this list and your friendship to me is not overlooked.  Thanks to each of you for all of the conversations and encouragement.

Haley Coleman

There were years when in my boldness I would ask head coach Debbie Humphreys when the next big scoring left-side attacker was going to show up on campus.  Many a good volleyball club of years gone by had dominating middles ,right-side attackers and nimble liberos, but when 2015 rolled around, Haley Coleman was suggested as being the silencer of my concerns.  I read her high school bio.  'Decorated and surely skilled', I thought, but 5'9"?  This is our left-side go-to hitter?  Then, I saw her in practice as a freshman.  Specifically, I saw her jump.  What an athlete.  I have known fewer disciplined players than Haley Coleman during my years of association with Ladyjack Volleyball.  You can read the outgoing bio like I read the high school one.  Sure, sure, you'll find all the accolades: conference honors, player of the week, academic awards, etc.  They piled up like laundry on a freshman's dorm room floor.  Her last two years at SFA, she was consistently seen as one of the top two or three outside hitters in the Southland Conference.  But, what you won't see in the box scores and online articles like this one is character.  Class.  Dare I even suggest, elegance.  Haley Coleman plays an elegant style of volleyball and her character also reflects this rather unique refined and subtle trait.  She holds herself to a high standard and the results have followed.

Haley Coleman is one of the best outside hitters our program has seen over the last decade.  She finishes with over 1000 career points, 2.16 kills per set, 919 kills, 1147 digs (2.70 digs/set) and 96 aces.  I had the personal good fortune of having Coleman in a summer class.  She was one of the very best students I taught that entire academic year.  One story I'll never forget about Haley took place on the road at UIW during her sophomore year.  I went back and looked it up.  Abby McIntyre went bananas that day and had 17 kills, but Coleman chipped in 15 digs, so I thought I'd go interview Haley for post-match comments.  My six questions elicited about a dozen total words with three or four answers being of the "Yep" or "Sure" variety.  The interview was over and she ran to the bus and I was left staring at my recorder telling me that I had a 1 minute 14 second interview to go post.  I realized later on that it wasn't that she was aloof, but rather that she genuinely didn't focus on how good she was.  She didn't get excited to talk about herself like almost all of the rest of the human race does.  Somewhere along the way, Coleman mastered this steady, anchored personality that served her so well on the court for four years.

Coleman recently applied for physical therapy school and I graciously accepted the request to write her a recommendation.  At her senior day, she skirted up beside me at one point and with the smile of someone much younger than her age announced that she had been accepted.  It was a short communication of an accomplishment that wasn't coupled with a long conversation following.  It was simple and filled with a genuine spirit.  That's Haley Coleman.  Gosh, am I glad I got to watch her play. She leaves SFA having made quite the impression on me and most everyone else she came in contact with.

2018 Coleman & Redmond Senior Interview
Coleman After a Win versus Northwestern State in 2017

Peyton Redmond

Near the end of the 2018 season more and more people would ask me (including Karch Kiraly!) what I thought was different about this team versus those of recent years.  Why was it that this team was able to have such success?  My standard answer in November became "Peyton Redmond".  I'm just going to lay it out there:  SFA doesn't win the Southland Conference Tournament and doesn't play in the NCAA's unless Redmond has the 2018 season that she did.  I told her this several times down the stretch and it wasn't just a "rah-rah speech".  I honestly believe this.  Look, I think everyone understood that our highlight reel players were Daron, Coleman and Hollas.  Makenzee Hanna and Anyia Williams also had matches that made your head spin.  But, take Peyton Redmond out of the equation and I just don't see this team as 32-3.

Across the board, Redmond's numbers spiked in her senior season.  Her 280 kills were a career high, as were her 782 attacks, 26 aces and 43 blocks.  One of the best passers in serve receive the team has had over the last few years, I always felt as though if the libero position ever went in the tank (thankfully, it hasn't for some time now), Redmond could handle playing there.  Shoot, I wasn't even convinced Redmond would hold down her starting spot when 2018 began.  Her junior year numbers took a step back from 2016 when she arrived on campus and dug up over 300 balls.  You can go back and read my early articles mentioning  how nice it will be to have someone this good coming off the bench if needed.  Yeah, so that's NOT what happened.  Redmond was really impressive and due to the nomination process for all-conference honors, she got lost in the shuffle of all of our other great contributors.  To me, Redmond deserves an honorable mention for her "glue piece "role on this 2018 squad.

Redmond was anything but overconfident.  Many times she'd play down the praise I'd give her.  A few times she'd even go so far as to say that she "needed to hear" the positive comments I, or others, would throw her after a match.  There was always a tinge of hesitance in her voice about her contributions, and I would always walk away thinking she didn't realize how important she was.  Peyton Redmond was VERY important.  Her steadiness blew me away at times.  You may not have noticed, but Redmond lingered on the edge of the Southland Top 20 in both kills per set and digs per set the entire season.  You could literally count on one hand the number of outside hitters for which that was true in our conference.  In three years, she amassed 738 digs (which is equivalent to just shy of 1000 for a four year extrapolation) and 517 kills.  Her final dig per set number checks in at 2.49 d/s.

I'm a huge fan of all of our players, but I have to admit:  Peyton Redmond was probably my favorite Ladyjack of 2018.

2018 Redmond & Coleman Senior Interview
Redmond at End of 2017 Regular Season

Makenzee Hanna

Over her final two seasons in Ladyjack purple, Hanna averaged right at 300 points per year, hit .308 and put up .99 blocks per set (230 blocks in 232 sets). Wow.  During 2018, she led all right-sides in the Southland Conference in blocks per set and when coupled with our middle blockers, I have no idea why anyone would try and hit through, around or against that double-team.  Makenzee is one of those players that just had a moment in her career where things just clicked.  To me, that was half way through her tenure at SFA.  She got to play more her junior season and she was ready, putting up a career high 116 blocks.  Going in to 2018, there was little question Hanna was going to be an instrumental centerpiece to the club.  I can't tell you how many times this season I would be conversing with opposing coaches about defending our offense and they would begin to talk about our middles, or Coleman and then say "Oh, and then you have worry about Hanna on the right, too".  Their face would always sulk as if it was too much to worry with.  It was like planning to defend her was a wrench in whatever plan the opposition would come up with. 

Makenzee made this offense complete - as in completely dominant.   A lot of good offenses have a primary left-side scorer and a threat in the middle, but Hanna gave us an option all the way across the net.  A highly efficient option.  Go back and look at those cumulative stats over the last two years.  In 232 upperclassman sets, Hanna committed only 110 errors.  That's not even a rate of an error every TWO SETS!  Incredible.  No, that's just flat out ridiculous. How would you like to be preparing to defend first-team all conference studs Haley Coleman and Danae Daron and then get struck with the problem of having to contain an attacker that you can force into an error roughly once every two sets?

Of course, it's not just the Mak Attack on offense.  Her defense was consistently steady across all four years on the court.  She finishes her career with 345 blocks (.92 blocks/set) while splitting time in the middle and on the right.  That final tally falls just shy of cracking the Top 10 all-time at SFA (Kristy Rhodes, 387). The same is true with her blocks per set numbers as well.

One of the things that really got me thinking about how dedicated Makenzee Hanna was to both athletics and academics is the story of her commute to Grace Preparatory Academy from DeSoto during her later high school years. Grace Prep is in south Arlington, a good 25 miles away from where Hanna lived.  The high school used the college scheduling model for courses and so some days Hanna would shuttle back and forth from DeSoto to Arlington and other days, Hanna would be at home studying.  The overall family commitment to make such a structure work was always impressive to me.  I've mentioned it before in other articles, but another thing I will always remember about Mak is her awareness of others around her.  Many days the first 'hello' I would hear when walking into the gym - at home or on the road - was from Mak. Some people are self-absorbed.  Other people - like Makenzee Hanna - have a sense that teamwork extends beyond the jersey.  Sure, players and coaches earn the wins and trophies, but I always felt appreciated by Makenzee and I'll treasure that and use it to spur me on when feeling marginalized.  Makenzee has the gift of making others feel important.

Oh, and that foot kill... who could ever forget that SportsCenter Top 10 foot kill?  Epic.

2018 Hanna Senior Interview
Hanna After 'Jacks Win 2018 SLC Tournament

McKenzie Brewer

Alright, I'm not going to write this one the way you think I might.  Here's what I believe:  I think a lot of people in her shoes would have walked away.  People that are not close to collegiate athletes have no idea - I mean, NO IDEA, how much time, effort and dedication it takes to play sports at this level.  They don't think about the endless workouts, the off-season training, the bus rides, the nights returning to campus at 3 AM, the weight room sessions before dawn and the list goes on and on.  So, when a backup setter doesn't get in to even half of her teams' sets during the first two years of all that, what would be the natural thing to think? It is worth it?  Should I keep doing this?  Why am I even here?  Do I still love this game enough to subject myself to this?  Now, I don't know - maybe, McKenzie Brewer never ask herself even one of those questions during her time at SFA, but I wouldn't fault her one moment if she did.  Being a setter is tough.  Being a setter at SFA is particularly tough.

But, how about this story, huh?  Setter relegated to backup duty finishes career with 1225 assists and co-directs an offense that goes 32-3 and plays in the NCAA tournament?  Talk about a senior memory!  Of all the senior profiles, Brew's is the one I hope all the incoming freshman familiarize themselves with.  THIS is why you stick things out and persevere.  So you can have half the chance to tell all the stories that Brewer gets to tell for the rest of her life.  Sure, Ann Hollas won Setter of the Year, and she deserved it.  But in reality, isn't that award also a trickle down accolade for Brewer?  Part of what made Hollas so unique in 2018 was her total contribution:  assists, kills, digs.  But, who is making some of that possible?  Brewer.

Why are 5-1 offenses more prevalent than 6-2's?  Because you need more people to be effective to run a two setter offense.  There is more to go wrong - more moving parts, more to juggle.  You know how many times I  heard anyone discuss shifting our scheme back to a 5-1 during this season?  How about zero. Oh,  there were occasional days where one of the setters was off and it crossed coaches, fans and my own minds', but in terms of seriously contemplating a definitive structural switch?  It didn't happen.  Brewer gets a TON of credit for the 2018 team success and her leadership was instrumental in our run to the postseason.

Sure, everyone will remember Brew for her humor and laugh.  Teams NEED players like McKenzie Brewer.  Not just as leaders, but as the person who can take the edge off the stress at appropriate moments.  Oh, and how about that serve?  Didn't it seem like every one of Brewer's career 58 aces came at just the right time?  Those two aces against Texas early in Sets 1 and 2 still play over and over in my mind.  So will the career high five-ace match against HBU in the second round of the SLC Tournament.  Check out this stat:  Brewer put up an ace in each of her last 6 career matches and had at least one in nine of her last ten contests.  In the postseason this year, she averaged .85 aces per set.  By way of comparison, half of that rate would easily lead the Southland Conference for the year.
It's one thing to push through the difficulties of being a NCAA D1 athlete when your face is on the schedule card or name is on the leaderboard.  It's another thing to bide your time waiting for your moment to shine - especially when that takes years.  Wear that ring proudly, Brew.  You got the last laugh.

2018 Brewer Senior Interview
Brewer After 1000th Career Assist at SLU

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Links to Interviews: 2018 Southland Conference Tournament

This page will house all the links to all of the audio and video interviews done during the 2018 Southland Conference Tournament.  Each day there will be conversations with coaches and players as they prepare for and react to the matches of the day.  Keep up by following @SFAVolleyBlog.net on Twitter as announcements are regularly made there about upcoming interviews and features.

Click the names below to go to our YouTube Channel for VIDEO interviews or SoundCloud site for AUDIO recordings.

Sunday, November 18

AUDIO: Anyia Williams [All-Tournament], SFA
AUDIO: Makenzee Hanna [All-Tournament], SFA
AUDIO: Danae Daron [MVP], SFA
AUDIO: Debbie Humphreys, SFA

Saturday, November 17

VIDEO:  Samantha Anderson, UCA 
VIDEO:  Makenzee Hanna, SFA 
AUDIO:  Haley Tippett, UCA 
AUDIO:  Debbie Humphreys, SFA 

Friday, November 16

VIDEO:  Danae Daron, SFA 
VIDEO:  Kellen Dunn, UCA 
AUDIO:  Ashley Lewis, SHSU 
AUDIO:  Megan Patillo, HBU
AUDIO: Angela Mooney, ACU
AUDIO:  Debbie Humphreys, SFA

Thursday, November 15

VIDEO:  Taylor Cunningham, Sam Houston 
AUDIO:  Mikayla Vivens & Trent Herman, HBU 
AUDIO:  Hannah Brister & Sean Kiracofe, NSU
AUDIO:  Keegan Nelms & Ashleigh Fitzgerald, McNeese

Monday, November 12, 2018

10th Annual SFAVolleyBlog.net All-Conference Teams


I finally got the "preface" to this post exactly as I wanted it in 2017, so I am repeating it now in 2018:

If you scroll to the picks, argue with me and don't read the following paragraphs and bullets then don't expect me to listen to you for very long.

·        This list was published before the official All-Southland Conference teams.  This was published on Monday, November 12.  The conference released the official lists on Wednesday, November 14.

·        I don't do this the way the conference does.  I have claimed for years - staunchly - that coaches have WAY too much control over the official lists.  Get a coach or SID to explain to you how they vote, then go read the tiebreaker rules for conference tournament seeding, then ask me for a syllabus to an advanced calculus class and you decide for yourself which procedures are most unduly complex.

·        I view these as individual awards, not team awards.  I outright reject the reasoning that the order of the standings should dictate how many picks should show up on these lists or that the Player of the Year, Setter of the Year, Coach of the Year, etc. HAVE TO or SHOULD come from the best teams.  If you want to see what a team award looks like, click here or here.  We are honoring INDIVIDUALS here.

·        I am a numbers person.  I teach statistics for a living.  I take notes, talk to coaches, SID's, use my impressions when SFA plays opponents, but in the end we here at the blog live my one mantra:  In God We Trust.  All Others Bring Data.  Numbers matter.. a lot. If you don't like statistical analysis in sports, then your picks won't look anything like mine. I'm happy to defend my reasoning.  Just know you are going to get numbers, if you ask.

And now for the stuff that  I have written for 9 straight years but still need you to know if you are reading this:

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 and reasons.  I will indicate updates at the bottom of the post with boldface time stamps.  

Recall,  I actually pick "teams". The conference does not do this. Typically, the conference puts 12 athletes on the first team, six on the 2nd team and has 6 to 9 ladies listed as honorable mention for a total of 24 to 27 folks 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 nine years: There are seven starters each night for any particular team, so we will pick seven athletes per team. Each team below is required to have a setter, libero, two middle blockers, two hitters and the seventh player can be a 'wild card' that can either be an MB, OH or RS.

2018 SFA VolleyBlog.net All-Southland Conference Teams and Awards:

First Team:

OH Haley Coleman, SFA
RS Samantha Anderson, UCA
MB Taylor Cunningham, SHSU
MB Danae Daron, SFA
MB Kaitlyn Grice, UNO
S Ann Hollas, SFA
L Channing Burleson, NSU

Second Team:

OH Mikayla Vivens, HBU
RS Makenzee Hanna, SFA
OH Haley Tippett, UCA
MB Savannah Allen, UCA
MB Anyia Williams, SFA
S Kendall Bosse, ACU
L Madison Wallace, SHSU

Third Team:

OH Bethany Clapp, UIW
RS Hannah Brister, NSU
MB Paige Havel, McNeese
MB Kennedy Shelstead, ACU
MB Kayla Davenport, HBU
S Madison O'Brien, HBU
L Lillian Drever, ACU

Just Missed (in order of position played):  OH Katelyn Mueller (ACU), Peyton Redmond (SFA), Keegan Nelms (McNeese), Tomar Thomas (Lamar),  RS Breanne Chausse (SHSU), RS Marybeth Sandercox (ACU), S Madison Greene (AMCC), L Madelynn Miller (UIW)

Player of the Year:  Taylor Cunningham, SHSU
Setter of the Year: Ann Hollas, SFA
Libero of the Year:  Channing Burleson, NSU
Newcomer of the Year: Kennedy Shelstead, ACU
Freshman of the Year:  Bethany Clapp, UIW
Coach of the Year:  Debbie Humphreys, SFA


Reaction to Official SLC All-Tournament Lists and Other Comments:
6:30 PM, Tuesday, November 14

What a great thing today to see all of the lists released from the conference office and then see each club get a chance to send out announcements about their honorees!  Then, of course, all the announcements about signings for 2019 were exciting as well.  But, there is a LOT more of 2018 left and a good fraction of it happens in just a few days.

I thought the official "1st Team All Conference" list as voted on by the coaches and SID's was really good.  There are just one or two picks on that list of 12 athletes that I see differently and it is obvious which ones they are by reading my original post above.

I've learned through the years that it's best not to specifically say who I believe should be "lower" (people can infer) on official lists, but instead try and champion the players that I think should be "higher".  Toward that end, the name that stands out to me is Kaitlyn Grice.  I thought this was a strong year for middle blockers and a down year for six-rotation outsides in the Southland.  It just amazes me that someone can be 8th in the nation in total blocks and not make 1st Team All-Conference.  This sort of thing has happened before and I think it's embarrassing.  Nicholls had a libero several years ago named Kaylnn Egea that finished top five in the nation in digs and didn't even make honorable mention.  Things like that should not happen in my opinion.  Kaitlyn Grice is a first team talent without question.  You missed that one, folks.

I don't like playing the "home team" card at every turn, but the other selection that is too low is SFA's Makenzee Hanna.  Condering Hannah Brister as primarily a RS this season, Hanna was tops among all right sides in blocks per set and Samantha Anderson was 6th and Brister was 7th.  Hanna was second only to Anderson in attack percentage among all right sides.  Hanna's block rate would have been 8th among middle blockers which is amazing when you think of it.

This is a case of the process denying strong teams multiple high picks.  When coaches rank nominated players (nominations = dumb and ranking them = dumber), then voters are more inclined to choose a first or second ranked player from a second or third place team rather than a third or fourth ranked player from the top team.  I think Hanna easily makes second team if the system were different, but I've spent 10 years lamenting a system that forces coaches to think "What's my best chance at getting award X or honor Y" rather than just making the pool of possible players to vote for the entire rosters.

Hanna barely missed 2nd team, but it didn't deserve to be close.  By the way, if you think carefully about what I just wrote in the above paragraph, then I believe you'll be able to figure out why the libero voting fell the way it did.  I mean, who else does Sam Houston have to nominate other than Cunningham and Wallace?  Chausse is a fine honorable mention, but I think voters are thinking "SHSU finished third in the standings, we've GOT to rank more than one of their players really high".  That sentiment coupled with NSU fighting to make the tournament easily explains why Wallace was 8th in the voting and Burleson was 11th.  I could be wrong, but I'm betting the folks at SHSU listed Wallace second in their nominations. So, Wallace is the go-to for voters looking to recognize the teams' third-place standing with more than voting Cunningham first and then letting their other players sift down to 2nd team.

There are LOTS of official second team and honorable mention selections that are total head-scratchers to me, but I'll just leave all that alone because any time we get down to the 20th to 30th picks there are going to be reasonable differences of opinion.

Let's talk about outside hitters for a moment.  I think if you consider both the players' statistics and team impact, there are only four six-rotation outside hitters that truly merit high consideration.  In order of my preference these four are Haley Coleman (SFA), Haley Tippett (UCA), Mikayla Vivens (HBU) and Bethany Clapp (UIW).  After those four, I see a pretty steep drop off at the OH position.  So, I was really, really pleased that all four of these ladies were first team.  I would have been perfectly happy if these were the only four on the ENTIRE lists to separate them from the second pack. Again, whomever you would place in that second tier is substantively down the ladder in terms of their 2018 performances in my book.  That isn't to say they aren't good players - they are.  But my second tier of OH's included Mueller, Nelms, Thomas, Redmond, Smith and Rogers - all really nice players.  I mean, you can read what I think about Mueller in my "sophomores" post below.  But, none of those players seems to have had the impact that the first four have had, so I would have preferred a wider gap in the official lists to separate the top tier.

By the way, 3-rotation outsides don't tend to merit much consideration for all-conference lists and I agree with that.  All of the aforementioned OH's were primarily used in six-rotations during the year.  But if you were picking a "best" three-rotation OH, then the numbers support only Katelyn Elliott of McNeese.  I'll bet you didn't know that among ALL outside hitters, Elliot was top-10 in kills per set, hitting percentage and blocks per set.  Her .218 attack percentage was second only to Clapp among outsides.  I came VERY close to putting her on a list. She had an under-the-radar good year.

The official Newcomer of the Year pick, Ehize Omoghbo of UNO is a good choice.  I went back-and-forth between her and Shelstead for a couple days. As far as the other individual awards, it is clear that I would have preferred Burleson for Libero, but no one can deny the impact that moving Wallace to libero and playing Cunningham six-rotations had for Sam Houston.  I pin that honor more on the decision making of Brenda Gray, however.  That was a fantastic utilization of their talent.  Without those two individuals in those two roles, the Bearkats aren't a top seed in the tournament.

Finally, I am thrilled that the voters see Hollas and Bosse as the top two setters this year.  To me, that was obvious. I already had half an article written if one of the two of those didn't win setter of the year. Good thing I could just hit "delete" and spare you the massive rant and statistical onslaught that you would have been dealt!

This now marks many years in a row that I have had an overall positive thought about the official lists.  I know that I personally am doing more digging, reading and talking about players than ever before.  It is encouraging to know that the official voters take seriously their role of making these selections.  Generally, the league is doing a great job with honoring these athletes.  Good work, voters!!

1st Annual SFAVolleyBlog.net All-Sophomore Team

Five years ago when I began doing Internet radio for SFA, I realized that I was going to need to really jump up my study of the opposing teams.  I had always known the league personnel "pretty well", but I needed to make sure that I was familiar with ALL of the 13 clubs in a deeper way so that calling a fast sport on radio could be more fluid.

When I call games on radio, I have notes in front of me but they are not to remind me of who is who.  They are notes about statistics and stories that I'd like to tell.  I have to be able to call the athletes' names based entirely on recognition and familiarity with no delay.  Even the slightest delay on calling names and the radio play-by-play loses personality in my opinion.

One byproduct of this study is that each year I could focus on sophomore players that were stepping up into larger roles.  These athletes are the potential team leaders in their junior/senior years and are often the "diamonds in the rough" among the conference.

In past seasons, I've found myself seeking out a handful of sophomores to really keep tabs on for subsequent years. In doing this, by the time these ladies were seniors I had a really good grip on their careers, what they had accomplished and felt like I had a good sense of their trajectory in terms of team leadership and growth.

All I am doing in this post - which will now become an annual thing - is to formalize the process to recognize these outstanding athletes that have finished the "first half" of their careers. This will allow us to anticipate the "second half".  My objective is always to showcase the sport and so I see no issue with recognizing and highlighting more and more names and teams in different way.  So, I hope you enjoy this new "blog feature".

The 2018 1st Annual SFAVolleyBlog.net All-Sophomore Team:

OH   Mikayla Vivens, HBU
OH   Katelyn Mueller, ACU
RS    Hannah Brister, NSU
MB   Anyia Williams, SFA
MB   Megan Patillo, HBU
S       Bailey Waddington, UCA
L      Madelynn Miller, UIW

Brief thoughts on each:

Vivens didn't get a chance to play much as a freshman because she was blocked by Bailey Banks and Jessica Wooten - two athletes appearing all over the record books for HBU.  Little did we know that the Huskies had a six rotation all-star waiting in the wings.  Vivens looks primed to be a Top 5 OH in the SLC for the next two years.

Mueller ranked 8th among all OH's in kills/set this year and third in digs/set. She was literally the "22nd player" on my All-Conference Teams.  By virtue of being the "first one off the lists" I was glad to get a chance to highlight her here. The word on the street is that she has a first rate personality and disposition and with the Wildcats being senior heavy, Mueller is a prime go-to for leadership in 2019 and 2020.  Prediction:  1st or 2nd team official All-Conference each of her last two years.

Brister we know about.  The reigning Freshman of the Year has not disappointed in Year Two.  She has been especially good down the stretch in 2018 and with both Anderson (UCA) and Hanna (SFA) done after this year, Brister immediately bears the title of best returning right-side.  Once she gets five kills on Friday, she and Anderson will be the only right-sides in the conference with 300+ kills and over 3.00 k/s.  Now, read that last sentence before this one again. See, this is why you need to know stats.  To be able to rattle off good stuff like that. (Edit:  I should mention that for the last six to seven matches of the regular season, Brister hit from the left.  Not knowing how permanent, if at all, the NSU lineup changes were/are, I opted to keep Brister grouped with the right-sides in my compilation of stats, etc.)

It is scary to think how good Anyia Williams can be.  She's probably the best overall athlete on this list and along with Vivens is the most dynamic.  The conference is shuddering realizing that BOTH of SFA's middles return for 2019. The Daron/Williams show in 2019 is going to be other-worldly.  You can't stop it.  You just can't.  You can just hope to contain it.

It's just my destiny:  I always love HBU middle blockers.  What is up with THAT??  The Huskies always find these MB's that are so legit.  Patillo plays with a fiery disposition and I think that's cool.  She led all sophomore middle blockers in kills per set, total kills and total blocks.  Like teammate Vivens, she was blocked by the "dominant-force-that-will-always-be-my-fave" Blair Gillard last year.  I'm calling it here first.... when people ask you where Patillo came from during her senior year.. tell 'em I made the call on her when she was a sophomore.  I like this player and am really looking forward to more progress and hopefully continued health (she's already used a redshirt) for 2019.

Waddingon split setting duties during the season at UCA with Elizabeth Armstrong, so we still haven't seen a full season of what she can do.  Several coaches I talked to this year really liked what they saw out of Waddington when they had to tangle with the Sugar Bears.  The Waddington/Armstrong usage patterns next year should be interesting to watch.  Waddington is one of the players I am most excited to see live for the first time when I call UCA's match on Friday.  She wasn't playing when UCA came to Nacogdoches for the first SLC match of the year.

Miller was one of my three finalists last year for my pick for Freshman of the Year.  I picked Lorin McNeil of ACU - who got hurt this year - just in front of Brister, who actually won the award.  Miller is another one of those players that gets high praise from multiple coaches in multiple conversations.  The liberos that I think deserve mention for highest honors this year are Burleson, Wallace, Drever and Miller.  The first three are all seniors, so Miller is your odds-on favorite for 2019 Libero of the Year.  See what I mean by finding diamonds in the rough?

Others to keep an eye on:  Julia Monday (RS, UIW), Allison Lippert (MB, McNeese), Brooke Wood (MB, NSU), Emily Doss (L, UCA).  Monday came on like wildfire at the end of the season, Lippert and Wood had a couple of seriously head turning matches with high block totals and Doss is smooth like silk.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Coming Soon: 10th Annual SFAVolleyBlog.net All-Conference Teams

By 11:59 PM on Monday, November 12, the 10th Annual SFAVolleyBlog.net All-Conference Teams will appear in this space

To review the selection process and take a look at my 2017 teams, you can click here.  This is always one of the most - if not the most viewed post of the year.

Keep checking back in this space Monday night and keep an eye on twitter for the announcement that the lists have been posted here.

I'll see everyone at the tournament this weekend.  As always, I'll have audio and video interviews going all weekend long with players and coaches.

My Southland Confererence Digital Network assignment for 2018 is to handle the non-SFA side of the bracket for the first two rounds.  So, I'll call Sam Houston State vs. McNeese at 4:00 on Friday and Central Arkansas vs. Northwestern State at 6:30 as well.  The winners of those two matches will play at 2:30 on Saturday and I'll have that assignment as well.

Tony Taglavore of Sweet Lou Media and broadcaster for Northwestern State University will have the side of the bracket that SFA is in.  Tony will call SFA vs. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at 11:00 and then ACU vs. HBU at 1:30.  Tony will also have the call for the semifinal match featuring the winners of those two matches which is Saturday at Noon.

Catch all the action in the first two rounds on the Southland Digital Network and the final on ESPN+.  You can also check out the Southland Conference Apps for your digital device.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

2018 SLC Interviews: Kaitlyn Grice of UNO

I filmed this interview with UNO middle blocker Kaitlyn Grice back when the Privateers came to Nacogdoches, but this was right at the time when SFA was really starting to stretch its winning streak out and other stories were beginning to develop for our club.  So, knowing that we were going to play UNO again, I've saved the interview for this week.  Here is the link where you can watch my 15-minute conversation with Kaitlyn Grice.

Grice is amazing to me.  She has consistently been among the attack percentage leaders and the block per set leaders in the conference over the past few years.  As of the filming of this interview she was 4th in the NCAA in total blocks.  Coming into action as of this writing, she is 7th with an astounding 147 total blocks.  There is little doubt in my mind that Grice is one of the most underrated players in the Southland.

Here is the question list for the interview, but make sure and hit the link above to watch the interview with one of the best blockers our conference has to offer.

1.  This is your senior year.  Have you embraced that it is the last year for college volleyball or tired to put that out of your mind?

2. Your mother played college volleyball.  What was it like to grow up in a house with such athletic talent?  When it became clear you were headed for college volleyball yourself, what advice did your Mom give you?

3. Describe the process of being recruited from Florida, where  you grew up, to play at the University of New Orleans?

4. What is the biggest difference being at UNO as compared to home?

5.  In 2015, your freshman year at UNO, the team had its best overall season in a long time and then suffered through a five win season a year later.  What changed and how did you deal with that mentally having such a team drop off?

6. Do you feel as though the last two years have rebuild to the point where UNO may be getting close to recovering the level of success during 2015?  Explain.

7. Many of your recent matches have been lost late in sets or in five sets.  UNO has had several leads it has not been able to hold.  Has this been focused on in practice and what has to improve in order to close out these tight sets and matches?

8. You have a difficult schedule at the end of conference play.  Has this been discussed in practices and how has the team reacted knowing that the schedule is back loaded?

9. What have you improved on the most as a blocker during your time at UNO?

10. What are the first skills that a young middle blocker needs to develop - say a young junior high girl first learning the position - in order to be successful?

11. Where in a middle blockers' development does the concept of being able to read setters and hitters begin to take hold?

12. What can you attribute your consistency to - especially in attack percentages, which have been particularly high.  What allows you to maintain such a high level of efficiency in attack?

13. What is your favorite shot/play to run?  Which shot/play have you had to work on the most during your time at UNO in order to improve?

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Southland Leaderboards You've Never Seen Before

Ok, Southland Conference volleyball fans - this is going to be a little different.  When you look over the traditional statistics in volleyball there are always a few obvious things you notice.  For instance, the middle blockers populate the attack percentage leaders.  Middles, of course, are the group that makes up the block per set leaders.  Liberos dominate the digs per set leaders, and so on and so on.  But have you ever wondered what the leaderboards would look like if you took the the MAIN group that the statistics focuses on out of the equation?  This would give us an idea of which players excel at categories beyond their primary duties.

That's what you get here. Without further introduction, here are four statistics that you might have occasionally wondered about, but have never seen in lists.  These will be updated at the end of the season.  All stats in this post accurate as of October 26, 2018.

Leaderboard 1:  Non-Libero Digs Per Set
As you might imagine, we get a host of six-rotation outside hitters that play good floor defense and defensive specialists that substitute for the three-rotation hitters that can't. Plus, we get Taylor Cunningham because well... she's Taylor Cunningham. Jenna Krenek of AMCC has been in the libero jersey a little at the beginning of the year, but has primarily been a DS during conference play so I included her here. Notice that SFA is the only school with three in the Top 15 and several clubs are not represented at all.

1. Cunningham, (MB, SHSU) 3.35
2. Vivens, (OH, HBU) 3.20
3. Dunn, (OH, UNO) 3.10
4. Tippett, (OH, UCA) 2.98
5. Rogers, (OH, NSU) 2.92
6. Krenek, (DS, AMCC) 2.82
7. Mueller, (OH, ACU) 2.78
8. Redmond (OH, SFA) 2.68
9. Miller, (DS, SHSU) 2.67
10. O'Brien (S, HBU) 2.62
11. Coleman, (OH, SFA) 2.57
12. Warren (OH, NSU) 2.51
13. Brown (DS, ACU) 2.49
14. Torres, (DS, SFA) 2.47
15. Green (S, AMCC) 2.46

Leaderboard 2:  Non-Middle Blocker Blocks Per Set
This will draw attention to pin hitters and front-row setters that do a consistently good job of defending at the net.  I made this list because I have been impressed with the blocking of Ann Hollas this year.  Plus, I had been keeping up with this awhile because I knew Mackenzee Hanna was going to lead this when I first put it together.  As a side note, you'll see two RS hitters listed for New Orleans.  At times, due to injury to another player this year, their front row has been fluid.  I considered the primary middles for UNO to be Grice and Rand for the purpose of making this list.  Again, I think it noteworthy to isolate the blocking of the setters in this list - especially Hollas and Bosse.  Pretty cool leaderboard, huh?

1. Hanna, (RS, SFA) .90
2. Omoghibo (RS, UNO) .81
3. Sandercox (RS, ACU) .78
4. Lewis (RS, McN) .73
5. Hollas, (S, SFA) .71
6. Bosse (S, ACU) .65
7. Brister (RS, NSU) .63
8. Hunter (RS, UNO) .59
T9. Richey (HBU, RS) .53
T9. Chausse (SHSU, RS) .53
T11. Vivens (OH, HBU) .51
T11. Clapp (OH, UIW) .51
T11. Anderson (RS, UCA) .51
T14. O'Brien, (S, HBU) .48
T14. Coleman (OH, SFA) .48
T14. Vega (OH, UNO). 48

Leaderboard 3:  Total Net Aces (Aces - Service Errors)
Minimum: 10 aces

Ever wondered if the ladies at the top of the ace per set lists also are high error?  This is also something I look at a lot.  Realize, it is very hard over the course of a year to consistently have serve responsibilities and keep your ace total above your error total.  In fact, if you can (12 players have), you'll make this leaderboard.  This list makes the serving of Madison Wallace at SHSU look even better.  She currently is the SLC leader in aces per set.  Notice the mixing of all types of positions and look at the representation from New Orleans and SFA on this list.

1. Wallace, (L, SHSU) +10  (36-26)
2. Waddington, (S, UCA) +9 (20-11)
3. Grice, (MB, UNO) +7 (27-20)
T4. Dunn, (OH, UNO) +5 (31-26)
T4. Mirarchi, (S, SLU) +5 (15-10)
6. Hollas, (S, SFA) +3 (18-15)
7. Vega, (OH, UNO) +2 (30-28)
T8. Green, (S, AMCC) +1 (26-25)
T8. Redmond, (OH, SFA) +1 (22-21)
T8. Daron, (MB, SFA) +1 (15-14)
T8. Walker, (MB, ACU) +1 (13-12)
T8. Krenek, (DS, AMCC) +1 (10-9)

Leaderboard 4: Attack Percentage Among Players With Over 1.5 Digs Per Set (Non-Setters)
Alright, this might sound like a crazy leaderboard, but think this out with me.  What we are trying to do here is isolate hitters that play the majority of their teams rotations so that they get some decent measure of digs and then look at those "6-rotation" players hitting percentages. So, we are culling out the setters, which also stay on the floor, but don't universally attack like these players do.  This is kind of like a "6-Rotation OH Attack Percentage" stat, but then again.. we have Taylor Cunningham.  That, in fact, is the point.  This particular stat I believe really tells you just how dominant Cunningham has been.  Look at how hard it is to make in onto this leaderboard.  The 10th place value in this list is just .145 and Cunningham is at .325.  WOW!!

1. Cunningham (MB, SHSU) .325
2. Clapp (OH, UIW) .229
3. Tippett (OH, UCA) .202
4. Coleman (OH, SFA) .199
5. Vega (OH, UNO) .191
6. Redmond (OH, SFA) .187
7. Nelms (OH, McN) .162
8. Dunn (OH, UNO) .160
9. Vivens (OH, HBU) .154
10. Smith (OH, ACU) .145

Finally, here are some things I calculate each year that people really should keep in mind when evaluating hitting percentages and blocking numbers in the Southland Conference:

  • The average starting MB in the SLC is hitting .240
  • The average starting six-rotation OH in the SLC is hitting .136 (surprised?)
  • The average starting three-rotation OH in the SLC is hitting .168 (it has to be higher, right?
  • The average starting RS in the SLC is hitting .222
  • The average MB in the SLC is blocking at a rate of 0.84 bl/s
  • The average RS in the SLC is blocking at a rate of 0.56 bl/s
Kills Per Set Averages (starters):
  • MB: 1.82
  • 6 rotation OH: 2.46
  • 3 rotation OH: 1.97 (it has to be lower, right?)
  • RS: 2.20 

Now you know!  Enjoy the last two weeks of the regular season volleyball fans!

Saturday, September 29, 2018

2018 SLC Interviews: Reagan Rogers & Madeline Drake of Northwestern State

Our 2018 opposing team interview series continues with a double Demon shot featuring a pair of seniors from Northwestern State.  Having interviewed the stellar Channing Burleson at the 2017 Southland Conference Tournament - and somehow making it last a full 8 minutes - and also having talked with '17 Freshman of the Year Hannah Brister, I knew I wanted to take this chance to talk with Demon personnel in a different direction.

Once the chat with Rogers and Drake was booked I found myself surprised I hadn't interviewed these two before.  Reviewing their stats and talking with others about them I realized that they have both sailed under the radar a bit during the years - especially Drake.  Both have been so instrumental to recent NSU successes and so I was pleased to be able to get this 15 minute talk filmed before NSU took the floor for serve-and-pass last Tuesday night.

Here's the list of questions used for the chat.  You can watch the video at our YouTube channel here.

Both:  This is your senior year.  Has it hit you yet?  Are you happy? Sad? Both?  Has the thought of senior night in Natchitoches crossed your mind?

Rogers:  You're from Blanco, TX (I mispronounced it).  Describe how you got from central Texas to Northwestern State.  Blanco is a small community. Were you looking for a small town feel when you were choosing to go to college?

Drake:  Describe the process of transitioning from Tulsa, OK to Natchitoches.  By the way, can you guess which of the two of you is farther from home?

Rogers:  In both your Freshman and Sophomore years, you were 6th on the club in total attacks.  But last year, you had 500 more attacks than anyone else on the team.  What changed about your game in order to garner than much of a workload?

Drake:  I think you are actually a little underrated among MB's in the Southland.  This may be because our leaderboards only publish block leaders over 1.00 blocks per set and you finished last year at 0.97.  Still, you blocked as many balls as our Makenzee Hanna (116) and she was 2nd Team All-SLC.  Do you keep up with stats like that?  What have you improved most on during your time as a player for NSU?

Both:  You are counted on for senior leadership. What styles do you tend to employ?  Quiet leader?  Vocal? With your respective younger players at your position, how do you lead?

Rogers:  Has the club discussed any similarities between the 2018 squad and the 2014 team that won the SLC Tourney when it was played in Natchitoches?

Drake:  You were able to play with a group from Athletes in Action in Brazil.  How did that opportunity come about and describe how that experience added to your skill set.

Drake:  You got to play in front of family at a recent tournament in Tulsa.  Was that scheduled specifically for you and were there friends and family there that don't ordinarily get to see you play?

Both:  Who on the Demon squad is:

  • the team comedian?
  • the bookworm?
  • the most spaced out and aloof?
  • the best dancer?
  • does the best imitation of Coach Kiracofe?

The loose plan as of now is to make the next two videos in the series focused on new Incarnate Word head coach Samantha Dabbs (SFA goes to UIW on October 11) and then I am really hoping to interview senior MB Kaitlyn Grice of New Orleans when they come to Nacogdoches on October 18.

Friday, September 21, 2018

2018 SLC Interviews Begin with Haley Tippett of Central Arkansas

As always, we will feature opponent interviews here at the blog all season long.  When visiting Southland Conference teams come to Nacogdoches or I go out on the road with the club, I'll occasionally schedule chats with opposing coaches and players.  We usually get between a half-dozen to 10 of these done every season.

This years' Southland Conference Volleyball interviews start with senior outside hitter Haley Tippett of Central Arkansas.  Click Here to watch the video

Here's the question list for the chat:

1. This is your senior year.  Has it hit you yet or are you trying not to think about this being the final season in college?

2. There are four additional seniors on the team.  What are your memories of playing with this cohort the last several years?

3. Describe the process of being recruited to originally play at Stetson.  What pulled you back to Central Arkansas after being there for a year?  You played with another athlete, Madi Fitzsimmons, who spent some time in the Southland with TAMUCC.  What was that like?  Did you know her before you each got to Florida?

4. You are known for playing with passion.  Your on court disposition is fiery.  Have you always been that way?  As you've grown as a player at UCA, have you been able to harness that emotion for the better as you've become older?

5.  You wore uniform #1 at Stetson as well as at UCA.  Does that jersey number have any special meaning to you?

6.  What was it like to travel to play #10 USC in the NCAA tournament last year? Describe walking out onto the court and the experiences of having that opportunity.

7.  Do you sense anything different about this 2018 club as opposed to the team in 2017?  What in your mind will it take to have a repeat performance of last years' successes?

Monday, September 3, 2018

Castledine Joins ESPN Broadcasts as Analyst

This has been in the works for well over a year now, but I am incredibly pleased to announce that Ladyjack legend and former Southland Conference Player of the Year Brittany Castledine will join me on the ESPN broadcasts of SFA Volleyball this year.

The next step in our ESPN evolution was clearly to bring in a second voice to serve as color analyst and our team of decision makers has truly hit a home run with being able to secure Castledine's viewpoints and experience.  Personally, I don't know that there is a single thing we could have done heading into the 2018 season more important than bring in someone of Brittany's talent and knowledge.  This is a huge, huge addition to our "team" and one that instantly increases the legitimacy of the broadcast and will aid the listener in a plethora of ways.

SFA Athletics' Director of Video Productions Korbin Pate along with head coach Debbie Humphreys had each conversed with me in the past about Castledine's credentials.  In those meetings, all three of us have discussed the possibility of forming a two-headed broadcast team going into this season.  From the minute this was proposed, I've been all in.  Brittany and I actually talked about it last year before the opportunity became a reality in 2018.

First things first: If you are not familiar with Castledine all you have to do is take a look at the SFA Volleyball record books.  Playing under her maiden name of Burton, Brittany ranks in the Top 10 in SFA history in no less than seven statistical categories.  She wore #12 for four years, 2001-2004, and in her senior season was named the SLC Player of the Year.  She ranks third all-time in program history with 463 total blocks and 400 block assists.  She is regarded as one of the best middle blockers in program and SLC history and if you've ever looked carefully, you'll find her picture is painted on the wall in Shelton Gym.  Who better to bring on board as an analyst than someone who is so revered in program lore that their image adorns the walls of the gym?

Castledine ranks 7th all time at SFA in total kills and 7th in program history in blocks per set.  Brittany once blocked 12 balls in a single match (the SFA all-time record is 14).  She was honored as first-team All-Southland Conference as a junior and a senior and in both of those years she was also named to the SLC All-Tournament Team at the end of the season.

Currently, Brittany serves as an administrator and assistant principal in Central Heights ISD.  Prior to that, she held the post as head volleyball coach at Central Heights High School where she coached former Ladyjack Regan Humphreys, daughter of Head Coach Debbie Humphreys.  Castledine was known as an intelligent and technically proficient player during her college days and clearly these skills have continued to develop over the last decade as she's been actively engaged in the volleyball culture here in East Texas.

What makes this addition particularly positive is that Brittany and I have loosely known each other since her playing days.  The familiarity side of having a broadcast partner is already there as we are each comfortable talking to each other about the game and a mutual respect has been in place for a long, long time.  So often, when you listen to a play-by-play commentator together with an analyst, the conversations seemed forced.  I doubt this will be how we portray ourselves on the air, because Brittany has always been someone easy for me to engage in conversation.

I began attending SFA Volleyball matches in 1999.  By the time Brittany came to SFA as a freshman in 2001, I was already beginning to associate with the club.  My first year to work for the club doing public address announcing was in 2006, so I experienced all of Brittany's playing years as a fan and not as an employee.  It's really cool to flashback to those days where I was learning the game from the stands and computer screens and she was playing on the court.  Now, roughly 15 years later, a fan turned blogger, broadcaster and even bigger fan gets to share the airwaves with one of the players that meant so much to our program.  Honestly, this process has been a bit surreal for me.

Castledine's addition instantly allows a player perspective to take over on the analysis that you will hear.  This is a great thing.  Despite studying the game for years, head knowledge is absolutely no substitute for the experience of playing at a high level.  Players see and pick up things that stat-heads like me miss.  Having had coaching experience, Brittany will be able to apply her skills of developing in-game strategy to what she sees unfold in the matches we call.  This will relegate me to what I am best at:  calling plays, telling stories about players, coaches and programs and communicating statistical information.

While I've developed more as an analyst over the ESPN years (after all, I'll still be solo on road radio broadcasts), Brittany immediately steps in to add a whole different level to the unfolding strategy of the game.  We've already talked about our desire to talk to the audience in a mature manner.  Folks who tune in for volleyball broadcasts on ESPN don't want to be told mundane things like "the 5th set is played to 15", "you have to win a set by two points" and "the player in the off-colored jersey is called the libero".

I think what you will get from us is a mature and respectful look at the game night in and night out.  We intend to talk in a strategic, informative manner to our audience instead of talking down to them.  Again, if someone is going to spend time watching volleyball on television, then chances are they are already engaged in an intelligent way with the game.  Analysis should be insightful and provoke thought and that's what Brittany can do.  I pride myself on knowing the Southland Conference personnel as well as anyone and I make an intense effort to learn from and talk to the coaches and players around the league.  I don't think I would have been invited to call SLC Tournament games if the stories and connections that I've built hadn't translated into good in-match information.

Combining Brittany's intellect and volleyball IQ with my preparation and statistical slant is going to create a much better experience for our viewers than ever before.  Selfishly, having Brittany on the broadcasts will continue to grow my understanding of the game at a faster rate than if I continued to work alone.  I think you can tell that I am completely stoked at this addition! So, join me in welcoming a former Ladyjack back home.

Welcome to ESPN, Brittany Castledine!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

2018 Senior Interviews: Haley Coleman and Peyton Redmond

We've now had a chance to chat with each of our four seniors this year.  Here's a link to each of the interviews:

Haley Coleman and Peyton Redmond

McKenzie Brewer

Makenzee Hanna

Haley Coleman has become a star in this league.  She goes into her senior season with as much a chance to earn Player of the Year honors as anyone in the Southland Conference.  In terms of media types like me, Coleman's not a big talker.  I'll forever remember a "painful" interview after a match at Incarnate Word in which I had about six questions for her and she echoed with about six words for me.  But, don't let that fool you.  Haley is quite conversational one-on-one outside the camera eye or microphone's range.  Plus, she's super smart.  As in, highly intelligent smart.  I've always found this interesting : When you watch the team walk off the bus, you wouldn't guess she's the star outside hitter.  She loves to have fun on the court but carries herself with virtually no swagger and just isn't the type to call attention to herself.  That doesn't matter. After the match is done and it's time to get back on the bus everyone who was in the gym that night knows who's boss. Coleman is outstandingly fit.  All of these athletes tend to keep themselves in prime shape, but Haley has been disciplined in this area for her entire time in Ladyjack purple.  She's an example of how to care for one's self as a NCAA Division 1 athlete.  She gets the absolute most out of her 5'9" frame and when it is all said and done, I think she'll be remembered as one of the best and most unique outside hitters we've had at SFA over the last 10-20 years.

In the Coleman/Redmond interview, Peyton straightforwardly states she doesn't "want to come out" of matches.  I asked at one point about her strong suit (ball control) and then follow it up with whether or not she ever feels slighted as a hitter since the focus tends to be on her back row skills.  I didn't expect such a strong response.  I mean, I know every athlete wants to play every point, but I think Redmond has really asserted herself of late.  She's definitely locked in on trying to play a consistent all-rotation game and stay on the floor.  In the Memphis tournament, Redmond played six rotations against the two toughest opponents.  At least in the early going, she seems to be the favorite for playing time in the second outside hitter slot.  I can get the logic.  The more Redmond stays on the floor - the more stable first touch can be for the SFA offense.  This may weigh in coaches' minds as we are still settling into libero/DS usage with the freshmen. Watch the attack percentages.  Sure, she'll have to hit a lot of junk balls and back row shots.  But if she can hit a more typical .180-.190 for this role, then there may be no reason to relegate her to just back row duties.  At least for one weekend, the formula seemed fine.  Peyton has been a solid contributor all three years she's played for us. She's had a good volleyball career to this point. It will be interesting to see if there are substantial steps she can take forward in her swan song season.

Monday, August 20, 2018

2018 Senior Interview: McKenzie Brewer

I always love interviewing setters because I usually try to think of some technical questions to ask them about.  You know: reading blockers, when to dump, foot work, differences between how attackers like to be set, etc.  The list can go on and on.  In this chat, I asked Brew about the differences in difficulty between setting a shoot to the pin versus a traditional high (4) ball. We also talk about "strength" required in setting since you occasionally see setters (not ours) that struggle to consistently push a ball far across the net.

McKenzie has long been listed by teammates as the most humorous member of the team or the one most likely to lighten the moment when appropriate.  Every team needs someone that can get others to crack a smile and help them remember that playing this game is supposed to be fun.

It will be interesting to see if we settle into a two setter offense like we often did last year.  If I had to guess now, I would say that we probably will.  If so, that means more court time for Brew.  This would appear well deserved after three years of providing stability more often than not by coming off the bench.

I hope you enjoy our interview which you can check out at this link.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

2018 Senior Interview: Makenzee Hanna

Last week I was able to shoot about 15 minutes of video with each of Makenzee Hanna and McKenzie Brewer.  The first video posted at our YouTube Channel focuses on Mak. We get a lot of discussion in on what it took for her to accomplish her breakout season in 2017.  Next week, senior outside hitters Peyton Redmond and Haley Coleman will chat with me and put a bow on the 2018 Senior Interviews.  Look for Brew's video to be posted on Sunday evening.

I get into this briefly in the interview with Mak, but I want to repeat it here.  I've always been impressed with how intentional Makenzee is with acknowledging the work that those of us on the sidelines are involved in.  There have been days when I've slinked into the gym before a match after having a bad day in the classroom.  In those times, I'm trying to find my groove for a broadcast and put something tough aside. When you've having those type days just the simple gesture of a hello or greeting by someone else can pick you up.

Mak is often the first person to say 'hi' in the gym or come up and start a conversation when we are all standing around on the road.  Little things that show she values the inclusion of media personnel, trainers, managers, athletics office staff, etc.. really give you a window to the quality individual that she is.  I've always appreciated her making me feel valued because well....really that's what I'm trying to do... make players and coaches feel valued.

It doesn't cost anything to just "be nice" and "say hello to people".  I'm not always good at it.  Makenzee Hanna is. 

Check out our conversation at this link.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Returning and Emerging

This post is the second of three that introduces you to the 2018 SFA Volleyball cast and also sheds some light on how the pieces might come together on the floor.  The first part of this series “Four on the Floor” took a look at four of the core Ladyjack players that will defend their 2018 regular season Southland Conference championship.

Today we’ll focus on the returning athletes that complement the core and then in the final installment of this series we will introduce you to the newcomers.  As a reminder of where we stand, we should expect Haley Coleman to occupy one six rotation spot, Makenzee Hanna and Danae Daron to regularly take trips across the front row and Ann Hollas to be the primary setter when running a one-setter offense.

With those four discussed, that still leaves space for at least two additional hitters and floor defensive pieces that complement them.  Without a doubt, junior Corin Evans contributions were essential in pacing the 2017 squad.  Evans got off to a blazing start last year putting up either double digit kills or digs in her first six matches.  Later, in the back half of the tournament phase of the schedule, Evans completed her coming out party with a dominant 19 kill, 14 dig performance against Tulsa that signaled the beginning of four straight double-doubles.  Once conference play began we got treated to 16 kills against Northwestern State, a .455 hitting night against Southeastern Louisiana, a double-double against McNeese, .419 attack percentage vs. Lamar and double digit kills against rival Sam Houston.  All told, her sophomore campaign resulted in a 200k/200d season, finishing third on the team in total kills and fourth in total digs.

The likelihood Evans is going to contribute on one side of the ball in any given match is high.  She killed 8 or more balls in sixteen matches last year and scooped up at least 8 digs a dozen times.  Other than Coleman, she’s the most likely hitter to consistently be used for six rotations and on some nights she’s the only offense we’d need to complement Daron, Coleman and Hanna.

But that’s not to say that there isn’t more on the pins for Debbie Humphreys to work with.  Not by a long shot.  Senior Peyton Redmond was often used in 2017 to stabilize the back row with serve receive duties while getting the occasional chance to swing.  She’s the natural choice to spell Coleman or Evans if either’s passing isn’t up to snuff in a particular match.  Peyton will occasionally light a spark on offense as well.  Redmond tripped the double figures mark in kills five times last year including two very strong matches near the end of the conference slate that saw her tally a double-double at ACU and hit .429 in the last regular season match of the year against Lamar.

When listing left side hitters, the first name is Coleman and that can be followed up by Evans and Redmond.  Hanna and Daron push the tally of hitters up to a strong five, but that’s before you even begin to discuss 2018 potential breakout candidate Xariah Williams.  The talent is definitely there and it won’t surprise me in the least if “X” shatters her mark of 53 sets played from last year.  I think there is 150-200 kills in this arm and her versatility could work to her advantage as the season progresses in terms of earning court time.

Williams was used on the right pin frequently last year, but that doesn’t rule out a possible contribution from the left.  The outside hitter list this year is extremely long.  It has one star – Coleman – and tons of depth.  Head Coach Debbie Humphreys said it well in the OH positional preview up at sfajacks.com – paraphrasing:  Each opponent and each match scenario can dictate which pieces are best to use and how.  

I’m dreaming a bit, and really getting ahead of myself, but allow me this thought:  Suppose Xariah Williams emerges and becomes at least a semi-fixture for three rotations on the right pin.  Imagine Coleman, Hollas and Evans playing all-the-way-around, Hanna and Anyia Williams holding down the middle and Daron and X on the right side.  That’s my 2018 “dream offense”.  You’ve still got the versatile Redmond (and/or newcomer?) to go in there to balance out the offense/defense combination if needed.

But there is still one other very real possibility for this offense and we saw it work well last year.  The modified two setter structure where Ann Hollas sets for three rotations and occupies the right side for the other three while senior setter McKenzie Brewer runs the offense.  This setup is very much in the mix for 2018 as Hollas has continued to take reps in practices on the right and Brewer doing a fine job in her stint as quarterback.

Moving the discussion to the middle, recall that Anyia Williams got in exactly 53 sets last year.  In just that limited time, she killed 100 balls, hit .342 and had 44 blocks.  Let me show you how awesome Williams can be with just some simple math.  (I know it’s NOT this simple, but you’ll get my point).  Suppose we scale Williams’ numbers up to 113 sets to match the number played by Makenzee Hanna last season.  113/53 is right at 2.13, so multiply everything by that factor.  That’d give you this extrapolation:

Hanna (actual):                 .335, 505 attacks, 214 kills, 116 blocks
Williams, A (scaled):       .342, 467 attacks, 213 kills,  94 blocks

So, some crude math leads me to this:  If Anyia Williams can do in her sophomore season what she did in her freshman season – just over the course of an entire year – then we are looking at a 2nd Team All-SLC selection.  Remember, that’s not even factoring in any growth from Year 1 to Year 2.  All I’ve done above is just scale raw numbers.  That doesn’t even account for the fact that Anyia Williams talent has increased with one year of experience!

One other athlete available to us in 2018 is redshirt freshman Lauren Wright.  The imposing 6’2” middle blocker adds one more dimension to the Ladyjack front row.  It’s good to know that there is still time for Wright to develop and gain experience.  Practicing against Hanna, Daron and A. Williams each day is plenty good competition to supply Wright with the reps to succeed when she does get floor time.  The first time Lauren gets in this year, she’ll be making her official Ladyjack debut.

OK, that covers the returners on the front row:  Coleman, Hanna and Daron are locks for big roles.  Evans is in line for significant court time as well, possibly as much as holding down six rotations for a big chunk of the year.  Redmond is a fantastic veteran to mix-and-match with and Xariah Williams might be ready to take steps forward.  Anyia Williams already possesses All-SLC talent and Lauren Walker is ready to contribute when needed.

As deep as that crew is, the setter position is also one where the Ladyjacks have plenty of options.  Every year in purple and white there has been a period during the season where now senior McKenzie Brewer has come up big.  Her freshman year, she had 346 assists starting six matches and backing up Shannon Connell.  Last year, she assisted on 272 balls and garnered an all-tournament nod here in Nacogdoches at the Holiday Inn Express Invitational.  She had two double-doubles including a monster match in what was probably the most thrilling win of the year for SFA down in Corpus Christi – a five set barn-burner in which Brewer dished out 19 assists and dug up 11. 

Personally, I love the fact that we have three setters on the roster.  Brewer is strong enough to always give Humphreys a confident go-to in the aforementioned modified 6-2 or just sub straight in if Hollas struggles. Sophomore setter Margaret Dean is advancing at a rate that keeps the senior Brewer on her toes in her role as well.  It all equates to healthy competition in the gym each day.  Like Brewer, Dean is becoming more and more of an option on nights when Hollas needs a breather or the best offensive set is the 6-2.    Don’t forget, it was Dean that got her number called in the postseason NIVC matchup against Ole Miss.  She finished only three digs shy of a double-double in that season ending effort.

The lone back row returner is redshirt sophomore and spark plug Julia Whitehead.  The 5’2” fire cracker not only lends steady hands to support the passing and floor defense, but also supplies a healthy dose of what every bench needs:  positive energy.  One of the “highlights” of the 2017 season was when Julia’s sideline cheering and celebrating became so effervescent that she drew a yellow card from a stuffy chair referee.  EVERY team needs an athlete like Whitehead and SFA has the benefit of three more seasons of her unique brand of leadership.

Where does that leave us?

In the final installment of this series we’ll look at the five new freshman that will grace Shelton Gym and opposing floors this year.  Among them is a left side, middle, right side and two back row players.  The back row freshman in particular are scheduled to get a very long look early the in season.  The biggest loss SFA faces in 2018 is at the libero position now that Lexus Cain has graduated.  This is the one obvious spot that needs a new anchor and the back row freshmen may be primed to make an immediate impact.  Look for the first year rundown later this week in this space.

For now, a recap:
·         There are going to be many ways to work the puzzle offensively – potentially changing from night to night based on opponent and who starts off strong/weak in any match.
·         The offense could feature one or two setter structures.  Again, this could change from match-to-match, set-to-set or within set.  This is one place where the clear message is that “its fluid”
·         Daron, Hanna, Coleman and Hollas will be central to what we accomplish in 2018.
·         Anyia Williams firmly claiming the second middle spot will free up Daron to play right side and possibly set up a modified 6-2 structure where Hollas hits from the right while Daron is out.  We saw this last year and is as good a guess as any concerning how we'll start out in August.
·         If not in two setter structure, the combinations in the 5-1 are numerous.  The OH position is extremely deep.
·         The offense and net defense is projected to be one of the tops in the Southland, if not among all mid-major programs.

One final note for today:  The pre-season all Southland Conference teams are scheduled to be released from the league office Thursday of this week.  Watch for an announcement at the conference website and at sfajacks.com.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Four on the Floor

The official beginning to the 2018 Fall practice season got underway in Shelton Gym  on Wednesday with the 18 members of the squad all decked out in fresh #weready T- shirts.  By the feel of the first day intensity the hashtag lived up to its name for now as the afternoon session gave more a sense of a midseason workout than a welcome back to campus walk-through.   Early morning group time preceded the two hour and 15 minute afternoon workout in what amounted to the first of seven two-a-day practices leading up to an August 18 scrimmage against UTA in Arlington.

As usual, I was present for most of the afternoon session on Day 1.  Early in the year, I am primarily watching freshmen to get acquainted with the newbie's' game and getting a feel for player positional usage in drills.  However, today we'll take a look at four core returning athletes at the nucleus of the 2018 squad.  Before launching off, let me encourage you to read the position by position previews that Volleyball Sports Information Director Charlie Hurley will be putting up over at sfajacks.com during the coming weeks.  Those previews are always well done and informative.

One of the main things to remember during the tournament part of our schedule in 2018 is the theme of versatility.  One of the things we saw a lot in 2017 was Head Coach Debbie Humphreys utilizing the same players in a variety of spots and roles as situations and opponents dictated.  Based on pre-season chats and the current roster configuration, I'd expect that to increase, if anything, in 2018. Some teams have a firm six to eight players in the same spots on the floor in the same rotations night in and night out.  The 2017 version of our rival, Sam Houston State, comes to mind here.  SFA's roster has more depth and flexibility, so different ladies tend to find their way into different usage patterns as we go through the year.  This necessitates the #weready philosophy from any non-starter each match because the puzzle isn't pieced together the same way every time.

Going into 2018, there are four players that would appear to have major court time locked down.  That's the focus of today and then we'll come back next week and look at two other components to the club:  those that complement this nucleus and the newcomers.  Of course, those two sets aren't predestined to be mutually exclusive, but I will separate them for the point of journalism.  After all, you realize you are reading fine journalism, don't you?

More seriously, 2017 Southland Conference MVP candidates Haley Coleman (SR) and Danae Daron (JR) are unquestionably at the front of opponents' minds when preparing for matches against the Ladyjacks. Coleman is coming off a 300k/300d season which saw her garner 1st team All-Southland Conference honors and improve her hitting percentage to a robust .255 after swinging just .120 as a sophomore.  Coleman's efficiency advances were clearly one of the highlights of the 2017 offense for SFA.  The average attack percentage among all left-side attackers in the Southland Conference usually settles in around .170-.190.  Last year, it was in the high .170's.  I found it interesting that Debbie Humphreys set the statistical goal per match for left-sides at .230 in a manual provided to players when they reported (of which, I also obtained a copy primarily for travel planning purposes, but you know - insider perks and all).  Only a handful of primary side attackers in the conference will hit anywhere close to that high for a full season, but Coleman shattered it in a season which saw her become one of the most recognized and talked about players in the league.

Quite simply, Daron is the one player on the roster that is most likely to make your jaw drop with her athleticism.  Already in Day 1 of practice she put down some thundering kills eliciting roars from her teammates.  She also denied ball after ball at the net on defense invoking multiple shakes of the head by those lumbering to get back in line to try again. Honestly,  she looked in mid-season form right off the bat and that should terrify opponents.  Daron was an easy pick for 1st Team All Southland Conference last year hitting .327. Humphreys' listed goal for MB's is.370 per match, which across a full season is almost unattainable as the league leader last year checked in at .349.  Daron was third.  Danae also rejected over 100 balls for the second straight season and fell just six kills shy of 300 for the year.  With two years left to don the purple and white, Daron has at least even odds to walk away with a Player of Year honor during her upperclassmen days at SFA.

Alongside Coleman and Daron is senior Makenzee Hanna.  Mak took huge steps forward in 2017 finishing second in the conference in attack percentage at .335 and leading the team with 116 total blocks.  Hanna was honored as 2nd Team All-Southland Conference and would be a good bet to at least repeat obtaining that recognition for 2018.  Among these three, we can already see the versatility theme emerging.  Both Daron and Hanna have experience in the middle and on the right side.  At times last year, Daron slid to the right and Hanna held down the middle.  How these two are deployed some nights may be tied to Sophomore Anyia Williams.  If Williams establishes that she consistently belongs on the floor, then SFA will have a massive three-headed blocking monster than can allow MB/RS mixes and matches and force all sorts of trouble for opponent  primary left side attacks.

I'm digressing a bit, but I see Anyia Williams progress in Year 2 as one of biggest issues coming into 2018.  At times during her freshman year, she showed flashes of dominance.  If she plays consistent net defense and anchors a role early in the season, then the Ladyjack front row defense should wind up the best in the league.  That would only serve to buoy up a restocked back row corps that sees Lexus Cain and 554 digs go out the door.  But more on that in future posts...

So, Coleman, Daron, Hanna.. mark them down.  They are in there.  Throw in JR setter Ann Hollas who appeared in every set the Ladyjacks played last year and you've got four players that you know will see consistent court time.  Hollas' overall numbers from 2017 don't really tell the whole story.  Again, with such diversity on offense, SFA would occasionally switch back and forth - sometimes in-match - between one and two setter configurations. Case in point, Ladyjack second setter and now senior McKenzie Brewer had 272 assists last year.  Hollas had 955.  Had SFA not utilized any twin setter approaches, Hollas' total assists would have landed in the top three in the league.  Of course, all this only points to the strength of having Brewer on the roster.  It should be mentioned here that when pressed about off season improvements, Humphreys immediately cited Brewer and sophomore setter Margaret Dean as taking the biggest steps in the spring practice season.  All of that adds up to even more flexibility because if Brewer is destined to back up Hollas again in 2018, I've got to think she'd rank as one of the top off-the-bench setters in the Southland.  Then again, SFA could easily run Brewer or Dean out there in the 6-2 if the situation calls for it.  That happened in 2017 with fair frequency, so there is plenty of evidence that Humphreys would  shift to it again if the situation seems right.

With substitutions and  rotation spot sharing in mind, these four still don't form even half of the crew that will finish with significant court time.  Aside from the aforementioned Anyia Williams, Brewer and Dean, there are six other returners and five freshmen.  Next week we'll get into all those complimentary  pieces that form the electrons circling our core nucleus on the floor.  That swirling group is headed by Corin Evans who put up a 200k/200d season in 2017.  Now a junior, Evans is flanked by the steady senior Peyton Redmond and breakout candidate junior Xariah Williams.  Redshirt freshman Lauren Wright gets her first taste on the active roster while the naturally caffeinated duo of sophomores Morgan Hinds and Julia Whitehead provide back row help.  All of that depth and how it might fit to create another championship squad will be our focus next time in this space. 

Senior interviews with Coleman, Redmond, Brewer and Hanna will begin popping up on our YouTube channel next week.  In the coming days, look for a short video to be posted explaining some of what to expect this year from the blog!  This is our 10th season covering Ladyjack and Southland Conference Volleyball.  The fact that we are SFA Volleyball's Strongest Presence on the 'Net has a decade of evidence behind it now. 

Get ready Ladyjack Volleyball fans!  The trek towards another Southland crown has begun!