Monday, January 18, 2021

2021: A Reason For Hope

By now you have gone from wondering when COVID-19 would first appear in your community to either having experienced it first hand or knowing someone close to you who has been affected. You have gone from wondering how to make a homemade mask to adding a box of disposable ones to your Walmart shopping lists. You have learned to high-five, elbow bump and the little waves are getting less awkward in lieu of all the handshaking being omitted. If you didn’t already, you now have scores of little bottles of hand sanitizer in each room of your house or apartment along with every nook and cranny of your car. What a year 2020 was. 

On the surface, a virus – and most other things in life, actually – don’t care that its now “2021” as opposed to “2020”. But, with every new year comes renewal and hope. Such it is for the volleyball world and in terms of volleyball at Stephen F. Austin, we have a lot to be hopeful for as we move into a conference slate which for the first time in my memory will be played in the Spring. Of course, on the horizon is a return to (dare I say) a “normal” Fall slate as well. By now you know that will take place with SFA as a member of an entirely different athletics conference, but more on that in later posts. 

But first, how did this space go all of 2020 without a post? Well, you know the answer. It’s the answer to just about every issue that “didn’t happen as planned”: COVID. Darn COVID. 

Back during the first weekend of September 2020, our Director of Broadcasts and Technology had to quarantine and our ESPN coverage of opening weekend got nixed. So, instead of television, I spent the opening Friday calling four matches on public address as the only floor worker that wasn’t required to be in a mask. By the following Tuesday night the back aches and fever had set in and the next morning I tested positive for the virus and began an eight day period of various symptoms all of which were thankfully quite mild. My wife and two youngest kids also caught it and so all-in-all a 17 day quarantine took place at my house as everyone was working and schooling from home. That pretty much wiped out my September and by the time everyone was healthy, only two matches remained on our Fall schedule. 

My absence broke a long, long streak. For 20 years, I had never missed an official home contest. Twenty years. I began attending SFA Volleyball matches in 1999, and by 2000 I was completely hooked. In 2006, I had begun working for the club. So, when Lamar came to town – oddly enough on 9/11 of all dates – the streak ended. Lamar. If you know your SFA Volleyball history, Lamar also ended a way more important streak for Ladyjack volleyball in 2007. You should look it up. 

At least the match was quick. The Cardinals only managed 28 points across three sets and so my despondence of lying in bed while a fine substitute called the match on ESPN+ was short lived. 

But now.. hope. Hope for better health. Hope for the effect of a vaccine to settle into our communities. Hope for getting closer to herd immunity. Hope as a result of maybe knowing just a little bit more about how to handle things and navigate these pandemic waters. Hope built on the patience that has been forced upon all of us. Hope for more volleyball to be played. 

So, what can we hope for during this Spring 2021 season of Ladyjack Volleyball? The first thing that comes to mind is the development of all this youth. I don’t remember a squad this young. I mean, this club is YOUNG. Of the 19 athletes on the Spring 2021 roster, 16 of them are Freshmen or Sophomores. All three of the upperclassmen are transfers. Interestingly, this means that all of the incoming classes of 2017 and 2018 are no longer with the team. That’s a ton of change. For most clubs, that much roster overhaul would point to reloading amidst struggles. Of course, we know that’s not the issue here. As a reminder, SFA is 97-15 (.866) overall since the 2017 season with multiple conference championships and two NCAA tournament appearances. 

Competition for roster spots is increasing as the club’s recruiting has skyrocketed in terms of bringing in greater talent. During a recent meeting with Debbie Humphreys she used the phrase “out recruited” as a way of describing the year-to-year increase of incoming talent that at times pushes out other quality players. It’s the way a powerhouse is built and clearly SFA shows no signs of letting up. The league voters agree as the Ladyjacks were once again picked first in the 2021 Pre-Season Southland Conference poll. 

This Spring we’ll get to see Maddie Miller dig balls for the final season in Ladyjack purple. We’ll get to see the final evolution of Taya Mitchell. We’ll check on whether she can continue to block balls and provide a level of defense that saw her land among national leaders during 2019. What about Peyton Cerny? What a huge step she took during those 10 matches that we got in during 2020. For me personally, that was the most eye opening thing about the shortened campaign. The setter position has suddenly become incredibly deep with transfers Allie Hamsher and Gosia “G” Andersohn, Freshman Maddy Borque and returner Dara Kane all having capable hands. Ariana Pagan – always the steady passing wizard - has become more of an offensive threat and now blends with exciting freshman attackers Leah Powell and Coco Gillett. 

The middle also showcases blossoming freshman Ashley Procious, who led the team in blocks in the Fall, and fellow newcomer Ielan Bradley who earned more playing time as the matches last year came to a close. All of this doesn’t even factor in the ridiculously deep bench of other youngsters and new sophomore transfer attacker Kennedy Wright, who is already drawing praise from the brain trust. So, there is no shortage of on-the-court hope and promise. 

What about team coverage this Spring? Well, starting this week Brittany Castledine and myself will be back on ESPN3 and ESPN+. We’ll cover all of our home matches on TV/streaming in that way. This will be my 6th year as play-by-play on ESPN and Brittany will begin her 2nd tour as our color analyst. For the 7th straight season, I will have radio for road contests which you can listen to free of charge here at the blog. I will travel on every road trip this season and will broadcast all but one match. So, 17 of our scheduled 18 regular season contests will have radio/TV coverage during Spring 2021. 

In recent years, I have focused more on video interviews and that will have to be pulled back a little due to the pandemic and social distancing. I still expect to do a little bit of it, but expect more audio over on my SoundCloud site (see link in right hand margin). All of this points to more articles being posted here in 2021 in order to compensate for the decrease in one-on-one video interviews. So, the blog will return to its “early years” style of more writing and analysis. 

One new thing planned for 2021 is that I will write supplemental “game wrap” stories after every match and post them here and with links on Facebook and Twitter. If you haven’t already, you can follow me @SFAVolleyBlog. The game stories at use computer content automation software. It works as a skeleton summary, but I’ll try and include more detail, quotes and stats in a more traditional “newspaper” game recap sense. And of course, they will be 100% written by a human being that attended/called the match. 

The new year holds the hope of playing two schedules in two different conferences. So, maintain your spirit of hope and keep your fingers crossed that we get to see a lot of volleyball in 2021. We could all use it and I’m thrilled for it all starting up in just a few short days. See you in the gym!