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.