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