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 – 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

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 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!