Thursday, September 9, 2021

Three Things to Look For in Week 3


With five matches and two weeks of the Fall 2021 season completed, what can we look for in Week 3 as the ‘Jacks travel to Tulsa?  Below, I’ll share three things that have stuck out to me during the early part of the season as places where I’d love to see consistency and improvement.  As I watch and call the matches this weekend against Tulsa, Oral Roberts and Arkansas, these are three specific areas to evaluate.  Of course, we are still very early in the schedule and the matches of highest importance still await us.  But every week the objective is to improve so that the very best SFA Volleyball is being played in November. 

Pin Blocking Especially on Right Side Attacks

At times against all of North Carolina, SMU and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, SFA looked vulnerable to right side attacks.  Six rotation outside hitters Ariana Pagan and Leah Powell team up with their respective middle to block on this side of the floor.  Consistently setting blocks well when they are front as well as funneling balls to the desired part of the floor look like areas ripe for improvement as we progress through September.  Too many right side attacks have gone untouched at the net and found the right back corner.  This weekend in Tulsa, look to see if right side attackers are held in check. Positioning among the back row players also plays a role in this, making sure that the center back defender is not too back and the right back defender is not too forward so as to take away an angle.

 Among the 18 sets played, SFA has allowed an opponent attack percentage of .270 overall.  That’s too high.  The ‘Jacks opponents have hit over .250 in 72% of sets played, while being held to less than .200 in just three sets – two against Pacific and the last set against the Islanders last Saturday.  Both of these numbers need to change.  In years past, we’ve become accustomed to SFA defenses allowing attack percentages consistently around .160-.170.  Now to be fair, quality of opposition plays a significant role here, but the fact still remains:  We can’t continue to allow such a large percentage of sets where our opponents hit .300+.  Stabilizing the pin block – especially on opponent right side attacks – will go a long way towards seeing those opponent numbers sink.

 Consistent Setter-Attacker Connections

There is little question that the Ladyjacks employ three quality setters.  That’s not what’s up for discussion in this section.  Instead, the early part of the season is that time to solidify the setter-attacker combinations within a 6-2 offense and become more efficient, crisp and consistent in the connections between setter and scorer.  The key here is consistently having the ball delivered into the hitting zone throughout the match.  Kodi Garcia garnered all-tournament honors for her performance in the SFA Invitational last week and she should certainly improve as the experience grows in game action.  Don’t forget that Garcia didn’t travel to Dallas.  Regarding Maddy Bourque:  we know what she is capable of, and the time will come where the offense under her direction will feature more strong connections between her and her attackers.  During each of the first two weekends, there have been times where those connections have been strong and others where consistency is needed.  So, this is an area to watch.  Bourque is literally one of the most technically proficient young setters I have ever seen in years of watching SFA Volleyball.  Her hands are just incredible.  Watching her in practice and warm-ups is like watching a clinic on technical setting technique.  But just how many good first touch balls turn into sets that lead to strong attacks?  That’s the match day number that needs an uptick and in time I expect it will.  Speaking of strong attacks, this leads me to the third and final inspection area for Week 3…

 A Higher Percentage of Strong Attacks in Transition

This point and the previous one are related.  But I want to focus on transition offense here.  At times, well into rallies, we’ve lost points due to either the setter-attacker connection issue mentioned above or a dig not to target that should have been made.  To be clear, we’ve had matches where we have passed exceptional and others where the passing efficiency is in the “needs improvement” range of the scale.  But, after the rally has begun in particular, I feel we’ve suffered from having in-transition offensive opportunities that we should be capitalizing on and are not.

 When a rally is extended and the opposition sends us a ball that we should turn into a strong shot and don’t, then almost always the point is lost on the next opponent attack.  This has happened at too high a clip and so I’ll be specifically watching to see if SFA takes advantage of opportunities such as free balls, down balls and other general weak attacks by the opposition.  We have given the opposition too many “second and third” chances in transition instead of ending the rally with a strong attack when it shouldn’t be difficult to produce one.

 Let’s end by saying that the overwhelming number of positives and the three game match winning streak point toward a confident club strolling into Oklahoma.  Follow along on SFAVolleyBlog Radio this weekend and cheer your Ladyjacks on to more “W’s” !!

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Positives From Week 1 in Dallas

The first weekend of Fall 2021 action saw the 'Jacks take on some formidable opponents and come away with just one lone win amongst their efforts.  While two out of three would have been nice and a weekend sweep even better, there were still plenty of positive takeaways from the first three official matches of the season.  Let's recap the weekend and prep for Week 2 by accenting some of the noteworthy accomplishments of the trip to Dallas:

Ielan Bradley on Offense & Taya Mitchell on Defense:  Not Skipping a Beat

Bradley was the offensive star at the SMU Tournament with a team leading 31 kills across 10 sets while hitting .222.  Coming off a freshman season that saw her finish fifth on the club in total kills and hit .266, Bradley looks ready to take significant steps forward in Year 2.  Multiple times during the weekend she showed a variety of shots both sharp and soft as it is clear her court vision has progressed.  She's got an intelligent approach on the right side and her versatility in moving to the middle when SFA shifted to the 5-1 against Pacific is just another plus.  Last year, Ielan drifted through phases of starting and then not, playing in roughly 3/4 of the teams sets.  For now, it looks like she's cemented as an everyday starter and one of the 'Jacks biggest threats.  Taya Mitchell came into the Fall of 2021 with 243 total blocks to her credit during her two years in purple.  Over the weekend, she added 13 more to that tally including six total against North Carolina and three solo in the win over Pacific.  Despite not being as efficient on offense as we've become accustomed to, Mitchell is too talented to be completely denied making her impact.  Her defense was on point and she appears poised to have another monster year at the net.  The 'Jacks only listed graduate student with experience at SFA, her leadership this year will be key.  With Mitchell and the younger Bradley anchoring down two of the front row spots, SFA has a strong core to count on going forward.

Offensive Combinations Galore

Expect these next three weekends to continue to feature a lot of "plug and play" combinations on offense for the 'Jacks.  We've already mentioned Bradley shifting from RS to MB depending upon the offensive scheme.  We also saw sophomore Leah Powell shift from pin to pin during the weekend.  With Ariana Pagan in a six-rotation role, SFA can stack Powell opposite her in the other left-side hole and then pair her up with a DS like Bryli Contreras when her spot goes to serve.  On the other hand, Powell can hit from the right with one of the setters and Bradley paired with the other.  Averaging almost two and a half kills per set last year and playing in virtually all of the team's sets, Powell is another offensive threat to be counted on all Fall.  She's only going to get better with the main question coming in how best to use her talents.  Don't be surprised if she continues to float from pin to pin as the offense searches for the right combinations prior to WAC-play.  Then, there's freshman Valeria Rosado, whom the club is REALLY high on.  So much so that she drew the start against North Carolina right out of the gate in Match #1 of her freshman season.   It's clear head coach Debbie Humphreys is keen on her offensive potential because we even saw Rosado play on the right-side a little down the stretch against Pacific.  As she gets more floor time, she'll get more aggressive and the results will eventually come.  SFA can afford to be patient with her over the next month due to all other weapons.  Let's also remember that Kennedy Wright has the skill set to score on the outside, so I look for the second outside hitter spot to remain very fluid opposite Pagan during the next three week.  Keep an eye on Wright - something tells me the numbers for her will be there once it's all said and done.  The few times I've checked in on practice, she's been dominant.  

Concerning the middle, the 'Jacks await the healing of sophomore Ashley Procious and in the meantime can explore with now healthy Kelsey Harrington. Also expect freshmen Kayla Grant and Temi Areola to get looks on the front row from time to time.  Peyton Cerny, the club's leading scorer from last year, is clearly another offensive strength.  With Bradley and Powell playing on the right, her playing time was reduced - as it is when SFA shifted to the 5-1.  But, if the offense functions best with Powell opposite Pagan, then Cerny and Bradley become the two primary right sides - this was a formula we saw work a lot in the spring and it may be where we are eventually headed.  But for now, Powell and Bradley can play two positions and that's why you see them out there in one form or another.  Cerny's role ultimately is dictated by others and where the best fit is - that is, unless the sophomore just begins to take over on offense, which isn't out of the question.

The tournament part of the season here in the early going is a fantastic time to experiment with offensive combinations and don't be surprised if there are a ton of mixes and matches over the next three weeks.  This is a positive overall for the club because it's clear that multiple players are training in multiple roles for maximum versatility.  By the end of the WAC slate, we are going to need it.

"Debuts" for Harrington and Funderburk

Sophomore Kelsey Harrington has had a long road back to the floor and while this past weekend wasn't technically her Ladyjack debut, it had been almost two calendar years since she had seen match action.  I have to admit, I was particularly glad to see Kelsey play.  She's such as easy player to root for and her three aces against North Carolina provided a spark as did the four blocks posted across her six sets of action during the tournament.  When Procious gets healthy, we'll have to see what role she settles into, but it was a great, great sign to see Harrington out there contributing.  Many other players just wouldn't have the fight and determination she's shown over the last two years and all Ladyjack fans should be incredibly proud of Kelsey and her dedication and perseverance.  We need her and she came through.  Despite SFA winning sets while in a one setter offense, I came away from the weekend impressed with freshman setter Trinity Funderburk.  With graduate transfer Kodi Garcia out ill, Funderburk drew starts on short notice and performed admirably.  One of the things I was struck with is her court demeanor - I LOVED Funderburk's presence and demeanor after she settled into her opening sets.  She just "looks" like a floor leader and while Bourque and Garcia may be penciled in to get the majority of the quarterback reps, you just HAVE to have a third setter that you can trust.  For Funderburk to gain valuable experience in the first tournament of the year was a plus.  For her to experience some success connecting with hitters was even better.  The pedigree is there... and it's better for her to have the feel for court time early because as the season evolves you never know when she might be pressed into action at a very key moment.  Better for her to have had some experience in true match settings than just practice reps.  This past weekend may pay dividends for Funderburk and the club as a whole at some point down the line in the Fall.

Big Numbers for Alyssa Ortega

Freshman libero Alyssa Ortega posted 53 digs in 10 sets.  No one is ever going to complain about more than five digs per set and Ortega certainly held her own in the jersey during last week's visit to Dallas.  With Maddie Miller gone, the one spot that had the biggest question mark over it going into the WAC inaugural season was the libero.  Ortega, so far, has done plenty to justify her wearing of the jersey.  Do I think there will be times where she struggles?  Yes.  That spot - like a setter - is a huge responsibility for a true freshman.  It's unrealistic to think that Ortega can libero for 25-30 matches without hitting some bumps in the road.  But, do I think I've seen enough already to lead me to believe that she could be something special?  Yes, again.  The question will be can she respond to the things that will require improvement and can she make adjustments on little things at the collegiate level that will be required to be great?  The quickness is there.  The instincts are there.  I've probably studied back row play more than any other facet to the game and I see things that tell me that she's got all the variables that need to be in the equation.  She's off to a great start.  We haven't seen her face adversity at a high level yet and how she responds and adjusts the first time it hits will go a long way to showing us how fast she can learn at the D1 level.  But, for now, what's not to like?  She's got the talent, moxie and aggressiveness that the position needs.   I love her "take charge" mentality on the back row.  You can tell she wants the ball and that's the attitude you need in your libero.  I like what I see.

The 'Jacks are set for three matches in three days this week as we host the first of two tournaments in Nacogdoches this fall.  We get started on Thursday at 6:30 PM as we get to see Lumberjacks vs. Lumberjacks with Northern Arizona in town.  Brittany Castledine and I will have the call for you on ESPN+.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

2021 Southland Conference Tournament Preview

 Corpus Christi --  An automatic bid to the 2021 NCAA Volleyball Championship Tournament is on the line this weekend in Corpus Christi as the Southland Conference showcases the "double-bye" tournament structure for the first time.  Eight teams have earned the right to compete for the Southland Conference Tournament title and Stephen F. Austin enters as the #1 seed and will enjoy one of the double bye spots along with #2 team Sam Houston State.  Here, we'll preview each of the eight clubs battling it out in Corpus Christi and along the way I'll highlight what each of these teams might need to do in order to be hoisting the trophy overhead on Saturday evening.

[8 Seed] Incarnate Word -- (Note:  Despite not being able to play their first round match against HBU due to COVID protocols, the Cardinals are still highlighted here)  After not playing in the Fall, UIW finished 6-6 in regular season Southland Conference play and 6-8 overall.  Led by first team outside hitter Bethany Clapp, the Cardinals always have a a "go-to" and as a consequence always have the potential to cause the higher seeds trouble.  Clapp averaged over four kills per set and hit an amazing .266, a very high mark for an OH in this conference.  She was one of the "no-brainer" first team all-SLC choices as she is easily one of the more dynamic scorers in the league.  Newcomer of the Year Chase Jackson was the only other Cardinal among regular starters to clock in at over two kills per set.  The only issue with Clapp's dominance is that she also led the club in total digs as the team struggled at times during the season to settle in the libero spot.  When we played UIW in San Antonio, I was most impressed with Audrey Patton among the back row defenders and down the stretch she got the bulk of the playing time in the jersey.  The team has a lot of youth all across the board, but probably doesn't have enough firepower to have made much noise in the 2021 Southland Tourney.  The team should be congratulated for earning the last spot as its been a long time coming for UIW in trying to earn the honor.  Many years in the past, they had fallen a match or two shy of making it and during their probationary period had a team that would have qualified had they been eligible.  Overall, with a young squad, the direction arrow is starting to look up.  But overall, the teams higher seeded than them just have more overall talent and depth.  This was a long shot as is, and the likelihood of them getting past both HBU and then Corpus on their home floor wasn't a flat zero, but you could set the odds at 50:1 and I wouldn't blink.  All that said, it is unfortunate that they didn't get a chance to take the floor.

[7 Seed] Abilene Christian -- In one of the true feel good stories around the conference, outside hitter Katelyn Mueller returned from injury and earned a first-team nod on the All-SLC team.  The overall 7-7 mark and 6-6 posting in conference play has to rank as a slight disappointment overall, though.  This was a club that I honestly felt had the chance to finish a slot or two higher than where they actually slot in. Ending the regular season with three straight losses, including against their first round opponent Central Arkansas wasn't the greatest way to enter the postseason.  Similar to UIW's Clapp in responsibility, Mueller carries the lion's share of the offense for ACU as right-side Lindsey Toney is the only other Wildcat to score at a two kill per set rate.  Kate Blasingame didn't contribute as much as she probably is truly capable and while the middles are young and exciting, there just doesn't appear to be a consistent cast of offense to complement Mueller.  Box and Bossier warrant keeping and eye on as ACU moves with SFA into the WAC as each had plenty of flashes of strength throughout the season.  In fact, freshman Bossier comes into the tourney averaging a flush 1.00 block per set.  Both setters the Wildcats use are young as well and so the team appears positioned to be a solid addition to the WAC for years to come.  Overall, my impression of this club was that several players just cumulatively fell short of expectations as they season unfolded.  It's a solid, but not spectacular bunch that lacks the senior experience that the Wildcat team had when knocking off SFA several years ago in Corpus at the tournament.  Could ACU surprise and win several matches this weekend?  Sure, they could get some things together when it matters most.  I still favor UCA in their first round matchup, but since #3 seed Southeastern Louisiana has little to no experience in the postseason, this side of the bracket is ripe for a low seed to squeeze through.  After all, the last time they were in Corpus for the SLC Tourney they definitely brought the Moody Magic to the island.

[6 Seed] Central Arkansas --  This is your dark horse.  Honestly, it won't surprise me one bit if UCA winds up playing Sam Houston on Day 3.  There is plenty of motivation for this senior populated team.  All across the floor they have players facing down the end of careers:  Waddington at setter, Mitchell in the middle, Beaton on the outside and Doss in the jersey.  That's a lot of experience and a lot of prior SLC Tourney "feels" that John Newberry can roll out there this weekend.  They can mix and match to score, using Lexi Miller on the pins along with Beaton and Alexis Stumbaugh.  If they need Stumbaugh to stabilize the back, they can slide her there as they did when they played us in Nacogdoches.  Both middles (Mitchell and Ravin Rhodes) are athletic and while I feel like Mitchell had a down year based on her pedigree, she's more than capable of putting up big numbers on each side of the net.  Doss anchors the back row floor and each time I saw her play this year she was absolutely brilliant. Bowles on the right-side is solid and has to be checked on when trying to defend the UCA offense.  My ESPN sidekick, Brittany Castledine, really liked freshman Charlie Tidwell when UCA came to Nacogdoches.  There is a lot of positive here and a lot of experience.  Can they lay and egg?  For sure (UIW match, anyone?)  But, overall, this is a team that beat Sam Houston early in the conference season and took sets off of HBU and SFA in their losses.  To me, this team is very capable of playing deep in the tourney.  I'll take them over ACU in the first round and post them at even money against SLU on Day 2.  Watch out.

[5 Seed]  HBU --  Let's get right to it:  Is there enough left in the tank and can the back row hold up?  To me, that's it for the Huskies.  The team has been forced to play with a short roster and so you pretty much know what your gonna get when they roll their personnel out there.  The front row offers a ton:  Mikayla Vivens can post gaudy numbers at any point, Ebonie Ballesteros is a blocking machine, Jada Allen just had a much improved season and redshirt freshman Reagan Leinen is a great complementary piece to her more experienced teammates around her.  Don't sleep on right-side Anna Gadway's arm on offense either - I liked her swing in our last match against HBU.  But for me, does this team have enough left?  They haven't been able to sub out players.  In talking to head coach Trent Herman he's taken a smart and relaxed approach to the last few weeks knowing that the team has to dance with who brought them.  They get a blessing in not having to play in Round 1 due to the UIW COVID situation and honestly - I can't think of a team that would benefit more from having one less game to play than HBU.  My concern with them against Corpus is the floor defense and overall back row play.  Let's be honest - that's a place where over the last several years this club has tended to be a little weak.  Can the freshmen McKinney and Farris hold up back there against Chloe Simon, Rachel Young and crew?  Well, if Ballesteros, Allen and Gadway slow things down at the net, then the answer could be yes.  If Faith Panhans has a great match, and mixes things up, causing confusion for the HBU front line, then I don't know if the young back row can keep enough balls off the floor.  This is a good team, one in which if the front line dominates could find itself in a position to play for the championship.  If I was betting, I'd say that if HBU plays two games in this tournament they'll have one strong and one not so strong showing.  Playing three top-level matches in three straight days may be too tall an order.  After all, Corpus on their home floor and then facing the top seed the next day isn't exactly a cake walk.  This is an interesting club, but I'm not sure they would be favored in any match they have left to play in this tournament.

[4 Seed] Texas A&M Corpus Christi --  Dangerous.  Pure and simple.  Dangerous.  Their only losses at home this season were in five sets to SFA and SLU.  Both of those matches most definitely could have been won.  If they had, they would have a double bye on their home floor for all the marbles.  I think they have to be treated as such.  There is little doubt that Stephen F. Austin will have their hands full on Friday if the Islanders were to get past HBU.  In fact, what tips the scales a little bit here is the double bye.  If SFA is to face Corpus, it will be with the Islanders having played the day before.  It could very well be that having to play three days in a row to win it all is what dooms the host club.  That said, there is plenty to like here.  The back row is solid with Libero of the Year Carissa Barnes.  The offense is diverse with the efficient Rachel Young and the much, much improved Chloe Simon. Right Side Kylie Filipiak throws in two kills per set and setter Faith Panhans is the biggest attack threat at the position that the conference has.  To me there are two questions marks:  1) Panhans' running of the offense.  I saw this club live in Huntsville and the offense looked completely out of whack.  2) Will they ever block?  The teams they have to face early (HBU and then if victorious, SFA) have a ton of offense to throw at you.  The Islanders traditionally don't block all that well.  But, on their home floor, this is a tough, tough draw.  Like UCA, I won't be surprised one bit if this team is playing on the final day.  Don't look at this club as 9-3 in conference play.. rather easily, they could have been the #1 seed on their home court had they squeezed past SLU and SFA.  They've won four in a row and present HBU and SFA with serious trouble.

[3 Seed] Southeastern Louisiana --  Without a doubt, the most interesting team in the Southland Conference this year.  The innocent bystanders and fans of clubs not leaving the conference this year have to be rooting for the green and gold.  Hey, this team deserves serious props.  All year long, people kept asking me:  Is it for real?  Are they really good?  Yes, and more yes.  They are.  What a fantastic job Jeremy White has done this season with SLU.  Now, having Freshman of the Year and big-time scorer Kailen Newsome doesn't hurt, huh?  So, how do they do it?  Well, get yourself a dynamic scorer (Newsome) and then put above average, but not stellar, pieces at all places all around her and what have you got?  A recipe for a team that on any given night could go out there and beat anyone in the tournament from 1 to 8.  Of course, they did beat the #1 seed handing SFA their only conference loss of the year when the Ladyjacks travelled to Hammond.  When I look at SLU, I see Newsome and then just slightly above average pieces in all other spots.  That's enough. Wilkerson on the right?  Gotta watch her - she's had some big matches lately.  Setter Hebert?  Solid, if not spectacular.  Middles?  Gomez has the experience and again, is probably a tick above par at the position for the conference.  Adams can get it done on both sides of the ball.  I like Lizzy Low as much or more than freshman libero Ansley Tullis, but I mean no disrespect - even if her earning the league's defensive player of the week during the days that our Maddie Miller posted 8 digs was goofy.  (You know I had to get that in!)  So, all in all, this is just a solid, well above average club and that's something that Southeastern Louisiana hasn't had in quite a while.  The last few times that SLU has made the tournament it has been as a very low seed.  Not now.  You really need to go out there and look at the the last 10 years worth of season records for the Lions and go research just how long its been since SLU has even been over .500, much less be in a position like they are now.  How they will do in this tournament is anyone's guess.  Will they just be happy to be here or will they do damage?  Like I said, without a doubt, this is the most interesting team in the Southland right now.

[2 Seed] Sam Houston --  Let me say right off the top that I think Ashley Lewis as Player of the Year is a great, great choice.  She is such a good scorer and the thing that impresses me about the Bearkat offense is how their setters - Janda and Miles - can get their back row attackers involved fluidly in the offense.  So many balls will be set to Lewis or Samantha Rodgers or Catherine Krieger in non-traditional spots on the floor.  You mix all that in with Breanne Chausse on the right and that's a good offensive equation.  I finally got sold on freshman middle blocker Mackenzie Morvant as the season went on and Hannah Baker got a defensive player of the week nod down the stretch as well.  You know Sam Houston wants redemption for the loss against SFA on their home floor as the regular season entered its final week.  But, they still have to get past a tough first match on Friday.  Still, there is something right about the clubs led by Brenda Gray and Debbie Humphreys holding the top two seeds in their final years as members of the Southland Conference.  The Sam/SFA rivalry will continue, of course, but these two clubs have been identified with Southland volleyball success for so long that I think it would be kind of cool to see a Bearkat/Ladyjack final.  There is a lot of talent here - and a lot of brains running this club so the respect level here is high.  I think this is a different looking club than when now Assistant Coach Taylor Cunningham was dominating the conference.  But still, it's a strong club very capable of winning the entire tournament.  They play with passion and aggression - something that Bearkat volleyball has patented.

[1 Seed] Stephen F. Austin --  The thing that is most impressive about SFA to me this year is the brilliant mixing and matching on offense over the seasons' final three weeks.  What it has communicated is just how deep this team really is.  The ability for freshman Leah Powell to move from the left to the right and the reemergence of freshman Coco Gillett have been two huge developments for the Ladyjacks in March.  Taya Mitchell has hovered just shy of hitting .400 all season long and freshman Ashley Procious has proven that she can be a defensive force.  The ability for the club to slide Ariana Pagan back and forth between six rotations and assignments that see her just play defense is another moving piece to the overall puzzle - and those changes and alterations have paid huge dividends.  Then, there is Maddie Miller.  As steady as we have in the Southland Conference, Miller is an anchor that always keeps opposing offenses frustrated.  So, what's the issue?  Well, maybe there isn't one, but it's worth mentioning that the club is young.  Very young.  How will all that youth handle the importance of a conference tournament?  That's the key question.  This team has Mitchell and Miller to provide experience - and of course, Humphreys' experience, but still.. the team is young.  Young teams occasionally go into funks.  Their draws are tough being on the Corpus side of the bracket.  The team has made its youthful adjustments all season long without hitting much of a lull.  They'll need to avoid falling victim to youthful swings on two consecutive days if they want to appear in a third straight NCAA Tournament.  There are yet a lot of obstacles to clear if that's going to be reality.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

From the Sideline: SFA 3, UCA 1 & SFA 3, Northwestern St. 0 [Weekly Recap]

 Nacogdoches --  After suffering their first conference loss of the season last week to Southeastern Louisiana, the SFA Ladyjack volleyball club bounced back with two strong showings to garner two wins going into the final week of the conference slate.  The week featured one of the more cerebral matches in recent memory as the 'Jacks took down Central Arkansas 3-1 (25-15, 13-25, 25-22, 25-19) and swept a short-handed Demons squad (25-13, 25-12, 25-14).   SFA now stands at 21-5 overall for the '20-'21 season and is 9-1 in Southland play.

The week at home was a total team effort as it showcased each of Coco Gillett, Kennedy Wright and Malgorzata Andersohn seeing a significant uptick in playing time.  Each responded in a major way as both wins were engineered by different offensive looks.  Coming into Thursday's match with the Sugar Bears it was all but certain that head coach Debbie Humphreys would orchestrate personnel changes to begin the match after watching the SFA offense sputter in the early sets in Hammond.  Humphreys tabbed freshman Gillett to start the match after falling just three kills shy of a double-double in limited action in the loss at Southeastern Louisiana.  Gillett's insertion into the starting lineup paid immediate dividends as her first seven shots found the floor and she continued her offensive onslaught all-match long to post 20 total kills in 38 swings hitting a lofty .438.  The kill tally shattered her previous season and career high kill mark of 10.  SFA steam rolled UCA in the first set behind Gillett's swings, but then the tables were turned as Lexi Miller of UCA caught fire and the Sugar Bears got out to a quick 11-2 lead on the Ladyjacks and never looked back in Set 2. 

The first two sets were as opposite as one could imagine as in Set 1 SFA hit .444 but then dropped all the way down to .061 in the second set loss.  Conversely, UCA hit .400 in the dominant second set, but then their offense stalled from that point forward.  Amanda Beaton, who came into the match as UCA's leading scorer had sat down for a set and outside hitter Alexis Stumbough shifted to a back row role sharing a spot with Lexi Miller all while UCA turned the dial on their offensive alignment.  Humphreys also made changes sending OH Ariana Pagan to a back-row only assignment while sharing a spot with Wright and moving freshman Leah Powell over to the right in place of fellow first-year player Ielan Bradley.

All match long, both coaches continued to mix and match lineups in a chess match of player usage.  The third set saw both offenses more tamed as the teams combined for 13 attack errors.  Pagan posted two straight aces to give the 'Jacks an 11-6 lead and SFA held it all through the middle portion of the set.  It appeared as though SFA might run away after a Gillett kill and a Maddie Miller ace pushed SFA's lead to 22-16.  But then, Stumbough went on a long service run for UCA which included three Ladyjack errors and kills by the Sugar Bears' Anna Williams and Beaton.  The Beaton winner cut the score to 22-21, but kills by Gillett and a final strike by Pagan sealed the third set win for SFA.

The early part of set 4 was tight, but then SFA pushed out to a 14-9 lead after a 4-1 mini-run was started by a Taya Mitchell kill and then three errors were posted by the Sugar Bears.  The five point margin held up as SFA went on another 5-1 run in the back part of the set led by kills from all of Gillett, Payton Cerny and Powell.  At that point, SFA had their biggest lead of the set at 19-12.  The match ended with SFA going on its third run of the match scoring four straight points behind a Cerny kill, Allie Hamsher ace and two errors by UCA to finish it out.

The dizzying array of lineup changes and rotation shifts during the match truly showcased both the depth of SFA's offense and the masterful players usage arranged by the SFA braintrust of Humphreys and assistant coaches Evan Amstutz and Alisa Blair.  Amazingly, libero Maddie Miller fell just one dig shy of a libero double-double (but, keep reading!) with 9 assists and 14 digs.  Gillett and Wright combined for 27 kills on the outside, and Taya Mitchell had a match-high six blocks.

Returning to the court on Saturday, the 'Jacks made quick work of an injured Northwestern State club that only had nine players in uniform.  However, OH Addie McDermott and MB Reagan Lee didn't play as they were each still nursing injuries and so the Demons played the entire match without making a single substitution.  They did this on Thursday night against Abilene Christian as well.  

At no point could NSU ever get their offense truly in gear as the Demons could muster only a .146 attack percentage in the match that officially only took 66 minutes to complete.  Meanwhile, Humphreys chose Andersohn to pair with Hamsher to run SFA's 6-2 offense.  Andersohn was brilliant all match long dishing gorgeous assist after assist to both both pins.  Hamsher finished with 16 assists and Andersohn 14 as the SFA offense only committed four errors on the afternoon and hit a season high .517.  The numbers posted by SFA's offense were otherworldly as Kennedy Wright had her best match as a Ladyjack hitting 11-0-17 (.647) to go along with Gillett's 11 kills on .435 hitting.  Taya Mitchell hit .625, Ashley Procious hit .750 and Payton Cerny hit .857 as the 'Jacks piled up video-game numbers on the Demons all match long.

SFA hit over .450 in all three sets, only committed one error in the last two sets combined, and in the second set posted a ridiculous 92% side out percentage on the Demons.  Maddie Miller, who had fallen just one assist shy of the rare libero double-double completed the task against NSU by posting 11 assists and 13 digs in three sets.  Pagan had 8 digs as she again was assigned back-row only duties and SFA continued their strong serving with five aces.  The 'Jacks still lead the nation in total aces as their season total now stands at 154. Taya Mitchell, as she did against UCA, led SFA with three blocks.

Northwestern State was led by Breanna Burrell who scored on nine kills.  Sophomore transfer MB Jaylibeth Garcia-Rosa was a bright spot on offense as she posted eight errorless kills and hit an impressive .667.  Freshman setter Ragan Ward had 22 assists.

SFA now faces an all-important week as the 'Jacks travel to Huntsville for a Thursday date with Sam Houston.  The match will have major seeding implications in the upcoming Southland Conference Tournament in Corpus Christi.  Both squads will enter the match 9-1 in league play.  SFA finishes the regular season next Saturday against a tough HBU squad who is also looking to make noise in postseason play.  The 'Jacks will honor senior Maddie Miller immediately following the match with the Huskies.

The match against Sam Houston begins at 6:30 Thursday evening and will be carried on SFA VolleyBlog Radio right here in this space.  The final regular season match against HBU next Saturday is a 3:00 PM start and will be carried on ESPN+.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

From The Sideline: Southeastern Louisiana 3, SFA 1 [Match Summary]

 Hammond, La --  SFA saw its nine game winning streak come to an end as the Lions of Southeastern Louisiana were able to get by the Ladyjacks in four sets (23-25, 19-25, 25-19, 23-25) in a match that saw SFA's offense sputter.  The 'Jacks only managed to hit .155 for the match and had two sets of tallies under .100 in the attack percentage column.  Southeastern Louisiana hit .173.  SFA out blocked the Lions 10-5 including five rejections from Taya Mitchell and four each from freshmen Ielan Bradley and Ashley Procious.  Procious upped her Southland leading total to 68 total blocks for the season. 

Southeastern Louisiana improved to 8-3 overall and 6-2 in league play after the perfect week which saw them get three straight conference wins in a span of just five days.  The Lions were coming off an impressive win against ACU on Thursday night and were able to carry that momentum through the four-set victory over SFA.  The Ladyjacks record is now 19-5 on the season and 7-1 in Southland Conference play with four matches left on the regular season slate.  SFA will host Central Arkansas and Northwestern State next week at home.  Then, the final week of the regular season sees the 'Jacks travel to Sam Houston State before hosting HBU at home in the finale.  All three home matches will be on ESPN+ and the match in Huntsville will be covered here on SFA VolleyBlog Radio.

The first set in Hammond today was full of service errors, especially early on in the match by the Lions.  SFA was unable to capitalize as they played from behind for the vast majority of the set despite SLU leading scorer Kailin Newsome being held to just two kills.  Peyton Cerny started off hot for the Ladyjacks racking up three kills early, the last of which had the first set score tied at nine.  At that point the teams began trading points and at one point the Lions errored from the service line in three consecutive attempts allowing SFA to stay close without much effort from their offense.  All in all, SLU committed a whopping 16 service errors in the match.  SFA had eight service errors and only two aces to counter. Nearing the end of set 1, SLU was able to go on a pair of 3-0 mini-runs to gain an 18-15 advantage. SFA got within one after a block by Cerny and Mitchell on Newsome, but then down the stretch, SLU got kills from Crispin Adams, Jolie Hidalgo and a dump by setter Ariana Hebert to put themselves in position to win the set.   An attack error by the 'Jacks Ariana Pagan gave the Lions their first set point at 24-21.  SFA then tried to send it to extras by getting a big strike by Procious and then a kill by Pagan to bring it to within one at 24-23.  But then, Newsome got a back row kill out of an SLU timeout to seal the first set victory for Southeastern Louisiana.

SFA's offense was in low gear for the entire first set as they got only nine kills total while hitting .079.  To begin the second set, sophomore Kennedy Wright was inserted to try and add some spark to the struggling SFA attacks.  Wright got three kills, but SLU's Newsome caught fire and thundered down nine kills in the set to bring her total to 12 at the half.  The first portion of Set 2 had a similar script as that of set 1 with the teams trading points and neither able to create any separation.  Then, with the score 13-12 in favor of SLU, the Lions went on a 5-0 run begun with kills by Newsome and Adams and ended with three straight SFA errors.   From there, the closet SFA would get would be three points as Newsome continued her onslaught to give her club a 2-0 lead.  The two set deficit was the first time in Southland Conference play this year that SFA had been down two sets at the half,  In both sets 1 and 2, SFA was not able to maintain any long runs at the service line.  SLU posted side out percentages of 73% and 80%, consecutively to thwart any attempt at SFA going on its patented service line runs the club has become accustomed to while leading the nation in total aces for 2020-2021.

To begin the third set, 'Jacks head coach Debbie Humphreys tabbed Coco Gillett to play six rotations while also turning the dial starting off with setter Allie Hamsher and right-side Bradley on the floor first rather than Maddy Bourque and Cerny.  Gillett responded as down the stretch of the match she posted seven kills and 12 digs falling just three kills shy of a double-double despite only playing two sets.

It was the defense at the end of Set 3 that gave SFA a jolt of energy.  However, prior to that, Hamsher went on the 'Jacks first and only long service hold of the match.  With SLU leading 15-13, Hamsher served seven times to give SFA a nice cushion going into the final portion of the set.  Then, the block party got started for SFA as Procious and Bradley teamed up on an Addison Vedrine attack  for a tandem block and then Mitchell and Gillett stuffed Hidalgo on a right-side attack to give SFA set point.  SFA polished off set 3 with another block - this time by Powell and Bradley.  Cutting the SLU set lead to 2-1, SFA had a lot of momentum going into Set 4.

As with the first two frames, Set 4 was tightly played with the teams being tied a total of 14 times in the set.  The middle portion of the set was particularly see-saw with the clubs being tied at each of 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 points.  At 15-15, SLU got two straight on kills by Adams and a solo block by senior Ryan Maddera.  The teams traded points thereafter and SLU maintained their two point lead at 21-19.  Then, SFA caught fire and rattled off four straight points to briefly turn the tide and threaten to send the match to a decisive fifth set.  Taya Mitchell got a kill and then a block to tie the score and then SFA went ahead on a kill by Leah Powell followed by an attack error by Maddera.  At that point, SFA led 23-21.

But then the match took a final twist as SLU followed with four points of their own to close out the final frame 25-23. SLU's Sam Gomez got a one-on-one kill in the middle followed by a Maddera strike on the left side.  Powell then errored to set up match point.  The final rally went long and saw SFA have several chances to cut the lead back to one, but none of the 'Jacks swings were particularly solid and that gave Maddera a chance to rattle the final kill of the match off the block to complete the upset.

Overall, SLU was led by Newsome who put up a double-double with a match leading 17 kills to go along with 12 digs. Jolie Hidalgo also posted a double-double killing 11 balls and digging 10.  Adams chipped in 10 kills, Gomez had 7 and Maddera six.  Lions setter Ariana Hebert finished with 31 assists and SLU's second setter in the 6-2 offense Cali Collins contributed 14.  SLU got 25 digs from libero Ansley Tullis, many of which came in the final two sets of the match.  At the half, Lizzy Low led SLU in digs and she finished with 16.

No one in Ladyjack purple finished in double figures in kills with Cerny having the highest tally at nine.  Each of Taya Mitchell and Leah Powell had 8 terminations and each of Procious and Gillett threw down seven.  Mitchell was errorless and hit .381 to keep her overall league leading attack percentage for the year at .388.  Procious hit .333 and Cerny .250.  Maddie Miller finished the week with a 33 dig performance giving her 56 for the week in just seven sets (8.00 digs per set).  Gillett's 12 digs were followed by eight a piece from Bourque and freshman Bryli Contreras.  Bourque dished out 25 assists and Hamsher added 15.

SFA returns to action on Thursday, March 18 hosting Central Arkansas with first serve scheduled for 6:30.  I'll have the play-by-play and Brittany Castledine will be back alongside for the ESPN+ broadcast.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

From the Sideline: SFA 3, Nicholls 0 [Match Summary]

 Thibodaux, LA --  SFA's right-side attack was far too much for the Nicholls Colonels defense to handle Thursday night as the 'Jacks posted another straight set (25-19, 25-17, 25-14) Southland Conference victory.  The win improves the Ladyjacks to 19-4 overall in 2020-2021 and keeps their SLC record perfect at 7-0.  The right-side duo of Sophomore Payton Cerny and freshman Ielan Bradley combined to generated 19 total kills in just three sets of work.  Bradley hit .462 (7-1-13) and Cerny posted a .375 mark (12-3-24).  SFA enjoyed huge leads in both the second and third sets of action, both of which saw the Colonels struggle to post any consistent offense. 

The first set was by far the most competitive of the night as the score was tied as late as 16-16.  Both teams were hitting over .250 at that point in the set, but then the 'Jacks went on a 5-0 run fueled by kills from Cerny and freshman Ashley Procious combined with two attack errors by the Colonels' Yani Johnson.  From there, the teams traded points and SFA was able to close out the first set 25-19.  All of the Nicholls errors that piled up in the very back part of the first frame dragged their overall attack percentage down to .125 for the set, the highest mark they would post all evening.  During the first set, 'Jacks libero Maddie Miller posted the 1800th dig of her collegiate career and sophomore OH Ariana Pagan also scooped her 200th ball of the season giving her two-straight 200-dig campaigns to begin her career.

Nicholls' scoring leader Emily Gauthreaux was removed for the beginning of Set 2 while Nicholls' head coach Kallie Noble instead went to sophomore Devon Bright at outside hitter.  To no avail, SFA raced out to a 6-1 early second set lead behind two kills from Leah Powell and another from Bradley.  Later, a dump by Allie Hamsher started a four point run that saw SFA stretch their set lead to 11-4.  The rest of the way, Nicholls would get no closer than five points as SFA cruised to a 2-0 lead at the half.  During the second set, Nicholls also made a change at one of the middle blocker spots tabbing freshman Jhayla Bolden in favor of senior Lydia Frederick.  The Colonels stuck with that change for set 3 and also returned Gauthreaux to the floor, albeit in only a front-row role.

The 'Jacks again began the set with a fury as the lead quickly got to 8-2 behind three straight kills to open the set by Cerny and then a slew of attack errors by the Colonels.  It appeared as though the third set would finish extremely lopsided when SFA had stretched its lead all the way to 15-5 as Bryli Contreras served up two aces during her emphatic six serve run. Nicholls then showed some life going on a 7-2 run of their own as Gauthreaux caught fire for just a moment and thundered down three kills forcing SFA into their only timeout of the night with the score 17-10.  The teams traded mini-runs out of the timeout and then one final five point surge by SFA was led by two kills from Leah Powell and strong short serving by Maddie Miller.  Miller put on an absolute clinic on the back row racking up 23 digs in just her three sets.  That tally leaves her at 399 for the year, just one dig shy of her fourth straight 400-dig season.

SFA hit .270 or above in every set and finished with an overall attack percentage of .298 while holding Nicholls to just .104.  SFA was led by Cerny's 12 kills and Powell had eight.  Ariana Pagan and Bradley each chipped in seven a piece.  Hamsher had 19 assists and Maddy Bourque tallied 17 as both setters were efficient all night long.  Pagan chipped in eight digs behind Miller's 23.  Ashley Procious added three more blocks to her conference leading total of 64 total blocks during 2020-2021.  SFA travels to Hammond, La on Friday for practice and then an early Saturday morning (10 AM) date with the Lions of Southeastern Louisiana.  That match will be broadcast live on SFA VolleyBlog Radio here in this space.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Shining Purple Lights On: Julia Whitehead

 For the full interview with Julia, you should click here to go to our SoundCloud audio site.

Honestly, I started this blog back in 2009 to showcase folks like Julia Whitehead.  I hardly imagine that anyone could think of the SFA Volleyball program over the last few years without also thinking of Julia.  At this point, she is THAT central to everything that goes on around the club.  You know her now.  You knew her as a player.  But, you might not know EXACTLY what her current role is called.  Officially, she labels herself as a Graduate Assistant, but that's just too tame.  It just sounds too boring for Julia.  How about something more like "The Incredible Do-Everything That Needs to Be Done and Other Stuff that No One Will Ever See All While Always Smiling and Helping Anyone That Has Anything to Do With SFA Volleyball Person".  Yeah, that's a better title.

Julia is infectious.  Not in the yucky COVID way, but in the positive, inclusive and humorous way.  Literally.. it is impossible NOT to like this gal.  She's just THAT good at what she does and THAT important to everything volleyball related at Stephen F. Austin.  Now, the overall script probably hasn't turned out the way she would have diagrammed it in her dreams.  After all, every athlete shoots for a big playing role on the team with lots of "camera" time, but that wasn't in the cards.  In fact, during her playing days at SFA, she saw the court very, very little.  I can't count the number of players that I have seen in her position just literally pack it up and fade into college life developing other interests and allowing athletics to do a slow burn.  Oh sure, most of those former athletes are out there doing great things in life, but in terms of volleyball, they are easily forgotten among the shuffle of players constantly coming in to the university.

This is especially true of young defensive specialists.  They were pretty much all stud liberos in high school and their club days, but have you ever noticed how many "freshman DS" players are listed on college rosters?  Start looking it up.  Lots of teams carry two, three, four of them.  Then, after a year in the college ranks, these folks are the most likely NOT to return the following year.  After all, they are "specialists" and if they aren't in line for the libero jersey during the middle of their careers, it makes it easy for them to walk away and say goodbye to the volleyball portion of their college lives.

All of that sounds really harsh, I know.  But, it truly is the reality of things.  Saying that, though, we should all step back and realize just how special it is to get the chance to wear a college jersey.  You have to be really, REALLY.... REALLY good at the high school level to ever put on a college volleyball jersey that says "SFA" on the front.  Every one of the athletes you see on our roster now or have ever seen on our roster was a truly special prep player.  Julia was no exception.  In preparation for doing this interview, I actually went back out on the web and looked up some of her recruiting videos on various websites.  Yeah, they are still out there.  I probably had seen them back in the summer before she arrived at SFA as I tend to do that sort of thing once we announce signings.  After all, it is my job to know our personnel well as they begin their careers here.

Videos aside, I really wish I had seen Julia play more live.  Yes, I was probably in attendance those few times she played in matches for SFA.  But, I mean that I wish I would have seen her live before she got here.  I love floor defense and it's easy to envision her as a true spark plug while in high school.  When it came time for her to come to Nacogdoches, she arrived on campus with Danae Daron, Ann Hollas, Corin Evans, Xariah Williams and several others.  All of those names just written saw the floor a ton during their days in purple, but sincerely, Julia will be remembered right alongside of those playing greats.

I think with Julia it's all about love of the program and true, true commitment.  You can either embrace your role or you can shun it.  Julia has embraced it and then some.  Oh, sure, sure.. you'll hear it in the interview:  Like any other athlete she worked for and desired more playing time.  She wanted to be the team's libero.  She wanted to put up stats, dig balls and earn accolades.  Any athlete that doesn't want those things shouldn't walk in the gym.  Julia very much wanted to play and contribute in a major way to the on-the-court product.  Of course, she did contribute, just in indirect ways that assisted others to be their best.  But, her junior year came and the libero position was in transition and wound up in the hands of freshman Sabrina Monaco.  Whitehead was the elder statesman of back row players and didn't wind up winning the role that she wanted most at the time.  As a accent point to my statement about freshman back row players.. guess what happened to Monaco after her freshman year?  Yep, she left.  See, it's a position ripe with attrition.  We transferred in Maddie Miller and that coupled with other things led Monaco to step away even after garnering lots of playing time.

By that time though, Julia had made her own personal decision to transition as well.  But, as she puts it in the interview, head coach Debbie Humphreys wouldn't let her walk completely away from the program.  I've seen Humphreys' wisdom in personnel decisions over and over and OVER through the years and Debbie was wise to keep Whitehead around.

Julia is unbelievably valuable.  A cheerleader.  A confidant.  A mom-like figure to the younger players.  An organizer.   A shoulder to cry or laugh on.  Take a look at the photo below.  There she is - right in the middle of things pre-game at UNT last year. Shoot, Julia has even been the one that saves me a seat on the bus.  You see, I've started travelling with the club on road trips this year in order to help out with our budget.  This seat-saving thing is wonderful.  It keeps me up front with the coaches, trainers, managers and Julia where I belong!  I love being around all these players but they don't need/want me back there with them and I'll be honest and tell you it's mutual.  At dinner?  At social gatherings?  Around the court?  Oh sure, put me next to any one of these players - they really are all a delight.  We all get along and they make me feel very welcome in all those situations.  But, a six hour bus ride home late at night after a long weekend?  Yeah, front, please!  So, thanks for that, Julia!

Julia is trustworthy.  We need her to be.  She handles so, so many things behind the scenes that no one sees.  From keeping track of all of our meal orders on the road to consoling with players about the demands of coaches, Julia is always there.

I want everyone to think about how much time all this takes.  That's one of things that I've always wanted to accent here at the blog:  the TIME it takes to me a part of a collegiate athletics program.  The players and coaches sacrifice a tremendous amount of their personal time.  Actually, all of us do.  The time commitment for what a broadcaster does is, frankly, quite immense (that is, if you care about doing it even half way well), and what the athletes do trumps that by orders of magnitude.  Honestly, the casual fan has no real sense of how much time, dedication and discipline it takes to be a student athlete.  Julia is STILL making these sacrifices despite a) not playing much in her jersey days, b) being in graduate school and c) having tons of reasons to just let volleyball go.  Instead, she's focused on all the reasons to keep volleyball around.  She's created an incredible niche for herself.  She's exactly the kind of help and support and friend that every single program needs.

Julia never filled the stat sheet as a college player.  But she's filled each of us that have intersected with her full of something much more important:  Respect.

She has 100% of mine.  One. Hundred. Percent.  Listen to the interview linked to above and let's shine a huge, huge purple spotlight on an absolute gem.  Thanks so much for your dedication, Julia!  All of us around the club know how much of a 'rock star' status you really have. Your smile and loyalty is reflected in all those banners hanging in Shelton Gym.

Every one of us should always remember that there are people around this team that are every bit the 'champion' that the star athletes are:  the trainers, the managers, the support staff, the game day staff, the gym custodians, the "Incredible Do-Everything That Needs to Be Done and Other Stuff that No One Will Ever See All While Always Smiling and Helping Anyone That Has Anything to Do With SFA Volleyball Person".  Yep, it takes a family, and Julia is as key a member of the SFA Volleyball family as we have.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

From the Sideline: SFA 3, ACU 1 [Match Summary]

 Abilene -- For the second time in the last week, an SFA Volleyball match took on a strange set of emotions as the Ladyjacks won a four set contest that ebbed and flowed among lopsided stanzas in the Teague Center on the ACU campus.  Truly only the first set of the 3-1 win (25-21, 25-10, 18-25, 25-17) was competitive in what amounted to a bit of of let down in expectations between two teams battling for the rights to first place in Southland Conference play.  ACU came into the match 4-1 in league play looking to move into the top spot if they could defeat the 5-0 Ladyjacks.  In the end, SFA created a two game separation between themselves and the Wildcats by capturing the road win that upped their record away from Shelton Gym to 8-3 across the 2020-2021 season and 18-4 overall.

The first set lived up to what many expected to be a tight match.  With SFA establishing an early lead,  ACU played catch up all set long after falling behind 6-1.  The Wildcats struggled to pass in the first few rallies of the day, allowing SFA to build a cushion that they would never relinquish.  A kill by Wildcat outside hitter Katelyn Mueller and a pretty dump on second contact by setter Sarah Nading got ACU to within three with the score 10-7.  But, ACU's passing inconsistencies continued and SFA got kills from Ashley Procious, Payton Cerny and two by freshman Leah Powell to stretch the lead back out to 19-13 during the middle portion of the set.  The Wildcats had one last push to even things up by rattling off three straight points, which included a service error by the 'Jacks, an attack error by Ariana Pagan and then a kill by ACU middle blocker Brianna Box to once again get within three at 19-16.  The Ladyjacks would trade points with the Wildcats down the stretch, get two kills and a block from Procious and a kill by senior middle blocker Taya Mitchell to close out the first set action with a 25-21 win.  Procious was dominant all day putting together her best overall match of the year by connecting on a season-high 10 kills and assisting on five blocks.

ACU started off the second set with a plethora of attack errors that created a tone for one of the most lopsided sets of the Ladyjacks season.  SFA raced out to an 8-2 lead as Wildcat right-side hitter Lindsey Toney, outside hitter Kate Blasingame and Mueller combined to make five errors early on and set their club way behind without SFA having to do much damage on their own.  Procious and Powell then continued the onslaught they began in set 1 and Pagan dropped in an ace to make the score 15-5 mid way through the second frame.  Mueller made a total of six attack errors in the second set and just about nothing went right for ACU the entire frame.  After the Wildcats managed three straight points, two of which were on 'Jacks attack errors, SFA finished out the set on a 10-2 run featuring a rain of kills from Cerny, Mitchell, freshman right-side Ielan Bradley and Powell.  In a metaphoric twist, 'Jacks libero Maddie Miller was credited with a set ending kill after playing a ball at her waist which flew over the set softly and landed between several Wildcat front row defenders.  ACU hit a woeful -.208 for the set against SFA's .360.

At the half it appeared as though SFA was on its way to a fifth straight Southland match sweep.  But, the Wildcats turned the tables in Set 3 as ACU head coach Angela Mooney sat Blasingame in favor of freshman outside hitter Emily Van Dyke.  Van Dyke responded with three kills and ACU built as much as a nine point lead after going on a massive 10-1 run during the middle of the set.  Mueller flipped the switch and racked up three kills and an ace during the eleven rally span.  SFA dropped to hitting just .093 for the set and ACU committed only three attack errors in the set in a stunning reversal of Set 2.  The Wildcat crowd of just under 200 got energized as ACU never let off the gas and despite the 'Jacks going on a 5-1 spurt near the end of the set, the Wildcats maintained control throughout and cut the set lead in half going into Set 4.

But, as they did in sets 1 and 2, the Ladyjacks grabbed an early lead in the fourth tilt.  Kills by Procious, Mitchell and Cerny helped SFA grab a 4-0 start that expanded to 12-5 after a Wildcat service error and an attack error by Van Dyke.  The crowd lost its energy and SFA put the poor third set behind them and throttled the Wildcats from the service line.  At one point, 'Jacks libero Miller dropped in three straight service aces which were half of her total of six on the afternoon.  Those three straight without a return proved to be the final dagger for ACU as SFA stood with a 16-7 lead.  ACU made one final attempt at a comeback to get within four at 20-16, but SFA countered with four straight as the combination of Procious, Powell and Wildcat attack errors struck again. SFA closed out the final set on a 5-1 run.

Cerny consistently found the floor during each of the four sets to tally 12 overall to lead SFA.  Mueller led all with 13 kills on 54 swings.  The much more balanced offense of Stephen F. Austin saw four players post double-figure kills with Mitchell, Powell and Procious all finishing with 10 a piece. Freshman setter Maddy Bourque was impressive, posting a double-double with 30 assists and 10 digs.  Along with the six aces, Miller scooped 16 balls to get within just six of 1800 for her collegiate career.  Cerny tied a career high with six blocks.  She assisted on all but one of SFA's team stuffs, often teaming up with Procious to force Mueller into a total of 10 attack errors.  Mueller came into the match averaging 4.17 kills per set, but could manage hitting only .056 against the tough SFA front line.  On a afternoon that saw Pagan struggle to score, she contributed well on defense by posting 12 digs.

After an off-week upcoming, SFA is back out on the road against Nicholls on Thursday, March 4 and Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday, March 6.  The 'Jacks will be shooting for their 24th 20-win season under head coach Debbie Humphreys, who is closing in on 750 career victories.  Both matches in Louisiana will be carried live here at the blog on SFAVolleyBlog Radio.  The 'Jacks next return to Nacogdoches on March 18 when they take on Central Arkansas.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

From the Sideline: SFA 3, New Orleans 0 [Match Summary]

 Nacogdoches -- In a match that held a strange vibe all evening long, Stephen F. Austin earned another straight set victory- their fourth in a row - over the Privateers of the University of New Orleans.  In all, SFA has now won seven straight matches as their conference record improves to 5-0 and overall 2020-2021 tally is now 17-4.  As a club, the Ladyjacks only committed eight attack errors in 100 swings posting a .320 attack percentage for the match.  SFA has now hit over .300 in five of the 11 matches they have played during the 2021 portion of the extended year schedule.

Of the three sets of action, the first was easily the most competitive. SFA built an early 8-3 lead in large part due to two kills from senior middle blocker Taya Mitchell and an ace by junior setter Allie Hamsher.  The 'Jacks came into the match leading the nation in total aces with Hamsher posting the 12th highest individual total in all of NCAA Division 1 volleyball.  Hamsher went on to add two more aces in the match to run her team-leading total to 27.  After the 'Jacks had the early lead, New Orleans scored five of the next seven points to get with two at 10-8 still early in Set 1.  During the UNO mini-run, they got the benefit of two SFA ball-handling errors along with kills from middle blocker Diamond Holly and right-side hitter Alexis Parrish. During the middle of the set SFA would push out to a 17-12 lead behind a pair of kills from each of Leah Powell and Payton Cerny.  Both Powell and Cerny stayed hot all evening as Powell wound up with a team high 13 kills against only two attack errors to post a .355 attack percentage.  Meanwhile, Cerny sprayed shots all during the match from her signature line smashing kills to sharp angle winners that saw her tally eight overall kills hitting a cool .389.  Late in the set, a kill by UNO's Trinity Jackson coupled with an SFA attack error - one of only three in the set - drew the Privateers to within three at 21-18.  

However, two rallies later, UNO setter Lucie Pokorna jumped to swing on second touch and then landed on the top of the foot of teammate and libero Hannah Volpi.  Replays indicated the play ended with Pokorna injuring her left foot.  Pokorna stood several times, but then had to sit on each attempt at stabilizing herself and eventually had to be replaced by Kolbi Reed, a freshman who is listed on the UNO roster as an outside hitter.  Reed functioned as the setter for the remaining portion of Set 1 and all of Set 2.  Pokorna never returned and while UNO has a second setter listed on their roster, she was not in jersey at the match.  Therefore, Privateer head coach Millicent Van Norden was forced to mix and match at quarterback the rest of the way.  The injury occurred with the score 23-18 in favor of SFA and the 'Jacks would close out the set on a 4-0 run to finish things off 25-18.  SFA hit .389 in the set.

With UNO struggling to find consistency without their setter, SFA built a huge lead at the beginning of Set 2.  SFA raced out to an 11-1 lead, effectively dooming any chance of a Privateer comeback.  While UNO would occasionally regather on offense, they would never get closer than seven points and SFA went on several long runs - eventually stretching the second set lead all the way out to 23-9.  Privateer freshman outsider hitter Kai Williams tried to energize her club by knocking down three kills late in the set to create a more respectable, but still lopsided, final score of 25-14 in the second frame.

Up two sets to none, SFA again quickly built a big early lead in the third set.  Van Norden mixed and matched again swapping out Volpi for new libero Sheilah Purcell, who had held down a DS role in the first two sets.  Volpi then became the second half of a 6-2 offense featuring her and Reed attempting to run the offense.  At one point near the end of the third set, UNO shifted one final time back to the 5-1 setup with just Volpi setting.  Out of position, neither Reed nor Volpi could consistently get the Privateer offense going as the back row for UNO struggled to create consistent first contact down the stretch.  Pokorna racked up 12 assists before exiting at the end of Set 1, but Reed and Volpi could only manage 13 between the two of them during the final two sets of the match.  SFA's offense ripped through the third set posting a hitting percentage just a shade under .400 as the 'Jacks cruised to a 25-13 set win to seal the match.

Other than Powell's 13 and Cerny's eight kills, SFA got five from Ielan Bradley and four a piece from each middle blocker - Taya Mitchell and Ashley Procious.   Maddie Miller dominated on floor defense picking up seven digs in set one, eight in set 2 and seven more in the final frame to end with a whopping 22 digs in just three sets.  That effort got her season rate all the way up to 4.72 digs per set as she begins to close in on 1800 digs for her collegiate career.  Ariana Pagan, who was able to rest periodically in sets 2 and 3 in favor of Kennedy Wright, was still able to garner nine digs in limited time.  Wright picked up three errorless kills.  Each club posted only three team blocks, with Bradley and Mitchell assisting on two each.  Each Ladyjack setter - Hamsher and freshman Maddy Bourque dished out 15 assists.

UNO was led by freshman Kai Williams who racked up nine kills.  Holly was next with six, and Shelby Pullins and Parrish each had five.  Pullins was in on two blocks and the floor defense was led by Volpi who collected 12 digs and Purcell who scooped up 11 balls.  UNO fell to 2-3 in conference play and 2-5 overall.  UNO was never able to side out at better than a 48% clip as the 'Jacks stayed in control on offense the vast majority of the night.

SFA travels to Abilene to take on the Wildcats of ACU on Saturday.  First serve will be at 1:00.  The match will be carried on ESPN+ with the Wildcats providing the broadcast and SFAVolleyBlog Radio will be back in action from West Texas as I'll have that call for you here in this space.  After the match in Abilene, SFA is off again for all of next week from competition.  The following week is the university's Spring Break - at the end of which the club will travel to Nicholls and Southeastern Louisiana.  Both of those matches will also be on radio here at the blog.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

From the Sideline: SFA 3, McNeese 0 [Match Summary]

 Nacogdoches - It took only 73 minutes for the Ladyjacks of SFA Volleyball to completely lasso the Cowgirls of McNeese as SFA completed its second sweep of the week with a 25-19, 25-15, 25-13 victory.  SFA improves to 4-0 in Southland Conference play and 16-4 overall on the 2020-2021 campaign.  After a competitive first set, SFA cruised in the final two frames and were never pushed by the Cowgirls down the stretch.

SFA went back to freshman Ielan Bradley to hit from the right during the rotations where sophomore Payton Cerny was off the floor.  Last Thursday, the 'Jacks mixed and matched in that spot.  Bradley responded with six kills while hitting .556.  Early in the match, SFA Head Coach Debbie Humphreys tabbed sophomore transfer Kennedy Wright to play in freshman OH Leah Powell's back row spots, but then later in the match freshman DS Bryli Contreras returned to her DS role in that spot.  Contreras was not used against Lamar.

Powell was the bright spot on offense for SFA as she racked up 14 kills on 28 swings hitting a stellar .357 for the match.  Taya Mitchell, efficient as always, knocked down seven kills on 11 swings while hitting .545.  With that effort, Mitchell is now hitting just shy of .400 for the entire season.  McNeese struggled mightily on offense during sets 2 and 3 committing more errors than kills amassed and finishing the match overall at an even .000 attack percentage.  The struggles in large part were due to adjustments needed for having their two primary outside hitters out on COVID protocols.  Neither Regan Stiawalt nor Alexis Lambert travelled on the Abilene-Nacogdoches trip.  To compensate, McNeese shifted setter Baylee Laskoskie to the L1 spot while still running a 6-2 offense using freshman Ceci Harness setting opposite senior setter Caitlin Sharrock.  Things clicked in the first set for McNeese as they hit  .241 and found scoring opportunities in the middle with both Lauren Burt and Jaiden Kennedy as well as three kills in set 1 from 6'4" right side hitter Kendall Glueck.

But after surviving the first set with a late push, SFA wouldn't allow the Cowgirls to get close in the final two frames.  SFA raced out to a 10-5 lead in set 2, held Glueck to just two kills in the last two sets and coupled with poorer passing by the Cowgirls, the 'Jacks were able to cruise to big set wins and complete the sweep.

One bright spot for McNeese was net defense as Kennedy got five blocks and the Cowgirls out blocked SFA 10-8 for the match.  Despite that advantage, the offensive numbers were incredibly lopsided in favor of SFA.  The 'Jacks killed 41 balls compared to only 19 for McNeese.  The Cowgirls got only four and five kills, respectively in the last two sets.  Overall, McNeese has no one with more than five kills for the match (Laskoskie and Glueck).

SFA libero Maddie Miller was well positioned all night and had a lot of easy reads for digs as her 16 scoops led all.  Complementing Powell, Mitchell and Bradley on offense, sophomore Ariana Pagan had six kills and Cerny had five.  Powell's 14 kills were two shy of her season and career high. Pagan also contributed 13 digs in just three sets of work.  Setter Sharrock led the Cowgirls in digs with nine.

SFA has next week off from competition as the next scheduled match for the 'Jacks falls on Thursday, February 25 as they host the Privateers from UNO.  That match will be carried live on ESPN+.  The next day, SFA will travel to Abilene and take on the Wildcats of ACU on Saturday, February 27.  The match against Abilene Christian will be carried here on SFAVolleyBlog Radio.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

From the Sideline: SFA 3, Lamar 0 [Match Summary]

 Nacogdoches -  The final score didn't do the Lamar Cardinals effort justice as SFA slid by in the first two sets before hitting a higher gear in Set 3 to claim a straight set win (25-22, 25-23, 25-18) on Thursday night in Shelton Gym.  The Cardinals had chances to claim the beginning sets, but SFA found a way to stay in front down the stretch as a feisty Lamar club flexed its offensive muscle in the early going.  The Ladyjacks came into the match only allowing opponents to hit at a .179 clip, but Lamar posted marks of .273 and .286 in sets 1 and 2.

Cardinals outsider hitter Kayla Neumann struggled with consistency, but wound up leading the match with 12 kills while falling one dig shy of a double-double.  Neumann also committed nine attack errors and hit an inefficient .097.  On the flip side, Ladyjack senior middle blocker Taya Mitchell has now only posted one error across her last three matches.  Mitchell led SFA with 8 kills on just 11 swings to hit a robust .727 for the match.  Overall, SFA hit .303 and Lamar attacked at a rate of .163 - in large part due a third set that saw Lamar's offensive efficiency go in the tank at they tallied more attack errors than kills.

The first set showcased different rotational alignments for each club compared to what they had used in previous weeks.  For SFA, sophomore Kennedy Wright drew the start opposite OH Ariana Pagan, in the spot where freshman Leah Powell had been previously stationed. Wright and Pagan each settled into six rotation assignments for the match with Powell subbing in for front row duties when RS Payton Cerny rotated back.  This left freshmen RS Ielan Bradley and DS Bryli Contreras on the bench to begin the match.  For Lamar, freshman setter Hannah Waters started out on the front row, rather than in the typical left back serving position.  The entire night featured each club mixing and matching personnel looking to get the right combinations of attackers and defenders on the floor.

In set 1, the right side attack of the Cardinals abused SFA time and time again with Malaysia Murdock and Neumann each getting several strikes on the right side with surgical precision.  Murdock was especially hot early on as she was hitting .1000 through both sets 1 and 2.  Neither team created much separation during the first set with Lamar playing surprisingly well on offense and giving SFA continual fits while the Ladyjacks never really looked in sync.  Pagan was a bright spot with four kills in the opening frame and SFA held on to claim a 25-22 set win.

Set 2 saw Lamar race out to an 8-4 lead again with strong attacking all across the front row.  But SFA went on a 9-1 run during which the Cardinals made several unforced errors. After the run, SFA had a 13-9 lead and the teams played a side out battle the rest of the way with Lamar closing to within one late in the set.  Starting RS Cerny sat down as Head Coach Debbie Humphreys began searching for more offense. Junior setter Allie Hamsher began running the 6-2 instead of the set starting with freshman Maddy Bourque on the floor.  This turning of the dial was also complemented by Humphreys inserting Coco Gillett on the right for Cerny trying to get that offensive spark.  Gillett only played in Set 2, but wasn't able to find the floor on her four attempts.  Nonetheless, SFA only made two attack errors in the set and held on by the minimum two points to go up 2-0 at the half.

Kaitlyn Gil had the best overall performance on the pins for Lamar as she consistently terminated balls during both sets 2 and 3.  Overall, the errorless Gil had 8 winners on 14 attacks to post an impressive .571 attack percentage.  The SFA offense finally got in high gear during Set 3 when Humphreys tabbed Bradley to enter on the right.  She responded with 4 kills in 5 swings and provided the spark that SFA needed to race out to a big lead that they would never relinquish.

SFA kept the ball away from the Cardinals' new libero Sam Swayze as she only posted four digs in her three sets on the floor.  DS Giselle Santini was better in defense and she more consistently dug to target and led her club with 11 overall scoops.  Maddie Miller led the match for SFA and overall with 13 digs.  Pagan finished with 7 kills and 10 digs, putting up numbers similar to what SFA has been become accustomed to which are just a handful of stat marks shy of double-doubles.

SFA out blocked Lamar 8-1 and was led at the net by Mitchell who posted five blocks.  Ashley Procious assisted on three blocks.  For the match, SFA committed only eight attack errors, remarkable given that the flow of the match never really saw the Ladyjacks offense dominate until the final frame when the 'Jacks hit .357.  Instead, Lamar pushed SFA all night long and created a fair amount of trouble up front with the trifecta of Murdock, Gil and Neumann.  Those three accounted for 27 of Lamar's 37 kills overall.  Each team was a bit sloppy at the service line committing 10 service errors a piece.

The win raised SFA's season record to 15-4 and the 'Jacks are now a perfect 3-0 in Southland play.  SFA is 8-1 on the extended 2020-2021 season in Shelton Gym.  Lamar falls to 0-7 overall and 0-2 in league play.  The 'Jacks continue the homestand on Saturday with first serve scheduled for 1:00 PM against the Cowgirls of McNeese.  The match will be broadcast live on ESPN+.  Earlier in the day, McNeese lost to Abilene Christian in four sets.  McNeese will travel Friday to Nacogdoches with all eyes on the weather as a severe cold snap looks to settle into East Texas during the weekend.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Shining Purple Lights On: Bryli Contreras

 For the full audio of the conversation with Bryli Contreras, click here.

You know the type.  That casual sports fan that doesn’t understand why the wide receiver can’t catch a throw from the quarterback.  Or, why a batter would swing at a curveball that bounces a few inches in front of the plate.  What about the guy or gal that laments why a player on their favorite team can’t keep the opposing point guard from driving right past them to the basket?  We’ve all been “that fan”. We love to criticize from the safety of our recliners in our living rooms and talk about sports performance as though it’s easy peasy.  The fact is:  It’s harder than it looks.

Catching a pass with a defensive back bearing down on you is harder than it looks.  Hitting a round ball with a round bat is harder than it looks.  Guarding someone lightning quick in basketball is harder than it looks.  Well, passing a volleyball in serve receive and digging a ball to target during a rally is harder than it looks.  Much, much, much harder than it looks.

When you watch a volleyball match from the stands or on your screen while sitting perpendicular to the net, you aren’t doing most serves justice.  This is especially true of serves that are categorized as floats.  To really appreciate the difficulty of receive, you should relocate to behind the receiving team and watch the serve approach you.  Knuckling.  Weaving.  Dropping.  Curving.  Zig-Zagging.  The words will all come rushing to your head.

As far as digging balls to target: Go stand twenty feet away from someone and let them throw a ball at you as hard as they can and see if you can a) even truly get your hands on it – and then if you can – b) can you pop the ball up to a prescribed height roughly half way between you and the person who chucked it at you.  It’s harder than it looks.

My favorite position in volleyball is the defensive specialist (DS).  Well, if I am being honest, it’s the libero AND the defensive specialists.  That’s because my favorite component of volleyball is floor defense.  I love in-rally “digs”.  It’s the part of the game that gets me the most enthused when I see it done well or a spectacular play made.  Sure, everyone loves the big kill or monster block or ace.  But, the sprawling dig to target that resets the offense or that perfect platformed dig in which the DS is anchored down on the floor after that huge attacker just shot a bazooka down the line?  THOSE are my favorite plays.  Anyone listening to the match on radio down at Corpus Christi knows that I about lost it when Coco Gillett went flying to the floor for a ridiculous pancake dig in the middle of a key rally.

Today’s feature is on Bryli Contreras.  At present, Bryli is our main DS.  Recently, she has been coming on the floor when fellow freshman OH Leah Powell rotates back row (Rotation 5, serving first).  Contreras comes into serve (generally,  our 5th server if we served first) – which she’s ultra-good at, and then take a stroll along the back row for three turns (rotations 5, 6 and 1) before giving way to Powell.

One of the things you’ll notice about Contreras is that she is under control as a back row player at a higher rate than most other young defensive specialists.  Some DS’s are flashy (but not really that good) and others are steady.  Contreras is steady.  That’s not to say that she can’t make those plays where the right side gets robbed on the huge attack or those quick twitch plays to keep balls alive that begin to ping-pong around on our side of the floor.  She can do that.  But her demeanor and court presence are steady.  It’s workmanlike and right now, she a great reflection of libero Maddie Miller in that way.

It’s too early to tell whether Contreras is the heir to the jersey once Miller bids the court adieu in the fall.  But, unless you want to convert an outside hitter and lose some offense, I really don’t see anyone currently on the roster that would be a better choice.  Of course, at the rate at which we are recruiting now, there could be another high school libero as talented as Contreras was last year waiting in the wings.  Still, her usage patterns of late indicate she has gained the trust of the coaching staff.  It would seem that she projects for a role at least equal to what she has now going forward – if not more.

In this space this year I’ve mentioned a couple of times that broadcasters and people who write and speak about sports would do good to observe (and usually, observe quietly).  This is something I really try and do.  Just watch.  Soak things in and think (rather than talk).  After all, I have to talk in order to call games, but when I watch volleyball at a practice or on television, I usually try and do so without talking.  That way, my brain can work.  One super obvious observation about Contreras is that she is polite.  It’s unmistakable.  I call gals like her “raised right” athletes.  You can tell she was “raised right”.  I write that with no implication that her teammates weren’t as well.  I just mean that Contreras is respectful, conscientious, and attentive.  These are positive qualities in an athlete and frankly, in just a downright good person.

If you pay attention, you can also firmly see Contreras is rooted in her faith and family.  People that are rooted in things don’t have to try to convince you of their priorities.  Instead, they just naturally show up in their actions, speech and decision making.  I can see, even in limited interaction, that Contreras has a solid priority list in life.

In the interview linked to above, you’ll hear her talk about what makes a good passer.  Notice, she doesn’t speak to the physical side of the task as much as she reminds us of the mental side of sports.  I also asked her about what makes a good floor defender.   We also talk about the role of being a DS after having been a libero at lower levels for so long and what adjustments that requires.  We discuss the correlation between working on serving and serve receive and then the difficult task of being a freshman student athlete.

I’ve always thought DS’s were overlooked and didn’t get enough “glory”.  That’s the word I use in the interview:  glory.  For instance, here is a stat for you.  After all, you didn’t think you were getting out of this article without any stats from the statistics prof, right?  A crude (accent on crude) way to normalize digs/set to role is to factor in rotations played.  For instance, with the exception of waiting for one side out to return to the floor, a libero will play in six rotations.  Maddie Miller as of this writing is averaging 4.60 digs per set, which equates to 0.77 digs per ROTATION per set.  Six rotation outside hitter Ariana Pagan is second on the club in overall digs per set, and her rate equates to 0.43 digs per rotation per set.  Contreras’ dig rate is equivalent to 0.56 digs per rotation per set.  Of course, Pagan has a more diverse role.  However, the point is (crudely) made:  Contreras’ rotation value is substantial, while as expected, not equal to the liberos.  Interestingly enough, Allie Hamsher’s dig equivalency per rotation is 0.63.  That has some pros and cons to being that high, but I digress.

Back to the glory idea… DS’s deserve more glory.  It’s harder than it looks.  But, when I brought this up to Contreras in the interview, she deflected.  You’ll hear her say that her teammates let her know that her role is valued and properly acknowledged.  So, there you go “armchair quarterbacks”.  Those of us that just watch sports and mouth off about them should learn from Bryli Contreras.  The players that don’t have Contreras’ role know how challenging it is.

I’m just glad she’s getting valuable court time while so young.  Who knows what might become of it?  Opportunity begets opportunity.  It will be fun to watch what Contreras blossoms into during her time with us.  For now, let’s shine the purple light on Bryli Contreras and remember… give the DS’s their due glory!

Next Week:  Julia Whitehead !!

Saturday, February 6, 2021

From the Sideline: SFA 3, UIW 0 [Match Summary]

 San Antonio - After playing a full five sets last Thursday night in Corpus Christi while earning their first conference win of 2021, the Ladyjack Volleyball squad made quicker work of their Saturday opponent.  The 'Jacks defeated Incarnate Word in straight sets (25-14, 25-21, 26-24) to up their conference mark to 2-0 and season record to 14-4.  "I thought we did a lot of good things tonight.  Especially considering we have been on the road.  Overall, I was pleased with what we did", said Head Coach Debbie Humphreys.

The first set at the McDermott Center saw the Ladyjacks play at a near flawless level on offense.  SFA hit .412 in the first frame while only committing two attack errors.  The Ladyjacks raced out to a 5-1 lead behind kills from sophomores Ariana Pagan and Peyton Cerny coupled with a pair of Cardinal errors.  From there, they never looked back. The lead ballooned to 14-6 and UIW never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.  The 'Jacks wouldn't allow UIW to make much of a run at any point in the set, siding out at a 75% clip for the set.  SFA put up 16 total kills for set 1 while UIW could muster only seven while hitting a paltry .029.

Incarnate Word, which had run a two-setter offense in Set 1, switched to the 5-1 setup, trusting junior Pilar Gonzaba with the task of running the offense herself from that point on in the match.  UIW outside hitter Bethany Clapp, who carries a heavy load for the Cardinal offense was held to just two kills in set one, but began to heat up in the second.  Clapp killed seven early balls in the set, but still found her club trailing to the Ladyjacks 17-13.  At that point in Set 2, the Cardinals got error prone.  A service error, then two straight attack errors followed by a ball handling error on Gonzaba coupled with a Cerny kill combined to create a 5-1 run and push the score to 22-14 in favor of the purple. However, the 'Jacks struggled to quickly close out the set at that point allowing a late 7-1 Cardinal run that creeped UIW to  to within two points at 23-21. "With a young squad, you are going to have your ups and downs.  Those things are going to happen", Humphreys said about the UIW run.  "One thing we will definitely work on in practice this coming week is not allowing our opponent to go on runs like that', she added.  SFA was able to close out Set 2 behind consecutive kills from Taya Mitchell and Pagan.  The 'Jacks hit at a .195 clip compared to .175 for UIW in the second set carrying a 2-0 lead into the half.

While staying with one setter, UIW made additional changes to begin Set 3.  The Cardinals switched liberos going to senior Alyssa Carlin after having started with freshman Britney Ong in the off-colored jersey.  Ong paired with fellow freshman DS Audrey Patton to try and achor the back row.  Patton played well - digging several balls to target and passing crisp in the later sets. Early on, it appeared the changes sparked the Cardinals as they raced out to a 4-1 lead.  SFA clawed back and took their first lead of the set after 'Jacks freshman Bryli Contreras dropped in an ace in front of Ong to make the score 7-6.  The set stayed close to the midpoint with SFA clinging to a one point lead at 12-11, but then SFA went on a mini-run behind kills from freshman Leah Powell and Cerny to stretch the score out to 16-12.  Incarnate Word fought right back and the 'Jacks errored in two straight rallies and then suffered an ace by the hands of Gonzaba.  UIW continued the run with kills from senior Chase Jackson and Clapp that left the score tied at 18.  After an Ashley Procious kill for SFA and a Clapp error, SFA had a two point lead and was first to 20.  But, UIW again went on a run, this time scoring five of the six next points to take the lead 23-21 and put themselves in a position to force a fourth set.

After a 'Jacks timeout, the tables were turned as SFA scored five of six for themselves to close out the set and the match.  The final run in the third set featured three straight kills down the stretch for Cerny, the last of which tied the score at 24.  From there, a Cardinal attack error and a final 'Jacks kill from Leah Powell completed the 3-0 sweep.

SFA hit .304 for the match and allowed the Cardinals only a .129 attack percentage.  Ariana Pagan paced SFA with 11 kills and Cerny chipped in 10.  Junior setter Allie Hamsher had three aces and 13 assists while her setting counterpart Maddy Bourque dished out 18. SFA out blocked UIW 7-5, with Procious and Cerny assisting on four each.  Maddie Miller had 12 digs to pace her club.  Like she has all four matches she has played in during 2021, UIW's Bethany Clapp had a double-double.  Clapp knocked down 13 kills to go along with her 12 digs. Gonzaba had 27 assists for the Cardinals. 

The 'Jacks head back home to Shelton Gym for two matches next week before having a scheduled week off from competition.  SFA will take on Lamar on Thursday evening and then tangle with the Cowgirls from McNeese on Saturday.  Both matches are slated to be broadcast live on ESPN+.  Brittany Castledine and I will have the calls - with first serve against Lamar set to begin at 6:30 PM Thursday.