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!