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.

Friday, February 5, 2021

From Red to Purple: Maddie Miller

 San Antonio - Ladyjack libero Maddie Miller has spent each of two years in two places.  Now, as the Southland Conference slate fires up for the final time for Miller - she will come full circle.  The current Ladyack libero began her career in UIW Cardinal red and now returns on Saturday to the McDermott Center that she used to call home.  It's not her first time back, but it will be her last time in San Antonio to wear her collegiate jersey.  

No matter the color of that jersey, one thing has been always true:  Miller is a back row anchor.  She was during her first two seasons at UIW, and is currently for SFA.  Miller came to San Antonio during the year that turned out to be former head coach Jennifer Montoya's last season at the helm of the UIW program.  "Honestly, I loved going to school here as a freshman", Miller said at breakfast early Friday morning  - the team still in Corpus Christi after a long two hour plus battle with the Islanders the night before.  "I loved all the girls that I got to meet and play with when I first came to UIW", she added.  We talked and traded names of players that she played alongside of and that I remembered from having called matches between SFA and UIW - including two that Miller herself suited up for in UIW colors.  "A lot of us left for various reasons, but I still keep up with many of my former teammates, coaches and assistant coaches", Miller said.  She specifically referred to current Cardinal setter Pilar Gonzaba as we chatted about the differences between her first and last two seasons.

Miller will step onto the floor Saturday with exactly 1700 career digs at the D1 level.  Two 400+ dig seasons as the libero for the Cardinals her first two years were followed up by a monster 2019 in Ladyjack purple which saw her scoop just five balls shy of six hundred.  That tally constituted the seventh highest dig season in recorded SFA Volleyball history,   That's pretty impressive considering that six of the top season marks belong to Stephanie Figgers and OJ Olson, two of the best liberos in program history.  At her current pace, Miller projects for somewhere safely above 1900 career digs, with an outside shot at the nice round number of 2000 if SFA can both play deep in the Southland Conference tournament and make a third consecutive NCAA tourney appearance.  

For some perspective, while Miller won't crack the career digs leaderboards at SFA having only played two seasons in Nacogdoches, only three liberos have ever tallied 2000 digs as a Ladjack:  the previously mentioned Figgers and Olson along with Maddie Hanlan.  Miller's career mark - if it were to have all been at SFA - would have currently ranked fourth all-time only behind those three ladies.  During 2019, Miller averaged 5.31 digs per set, a mark only bettered by Figgers - albeit three times.

In terms of demeanor, however, Miller couldn't be more far apart when compared to Figgers and Olson.  Miller is unassuming and not a loud person by nature.  She's plenty vocal on the floor to exhibit her queenship over the back row, but generally, Miller is more reserved and plenty humble - always allowing teammates the limelight.  Figgers and Olson both were folks you heard the minute you walked by any room they were in - cackling and howling most everywhere they went.

Since the institution of the libero position in women's collegiate volleyball, SFA has truly had some amazing athletes at the position:  Figgers, Olson, Hanlan, and add in Lexus Cain, who ranks fifth all-time in digs as a Ladyjack.  All things considered, it's amazing that despite only two years as our starting libero, Miller is right there in that conversation. Personally, I think because she played at another Southland school and we were all familiar with her before arriving in Nacogdoches, it gets easier to keep her in the conversation of all-time greats.  You see, Debbie Humphreys and current assistant coach Alisa Blair have a long history with Miller and her family.  There is a deep familiarity which actually makes it seem like Miller has been with us longer  than just two full seasons - even though this last one is being stretched across the fall and spring.

In fact, I wrote about Miller briefly while she was still in San Antonio,  After talking with coaches and watching her play a handful of times in 2017-2018, I wrote that I thought she'd be a candidate for Libero of the Year honors at some point in her upperclassman years.  Little did I know that it would be playing for SFA.  "A Diamond in the Rough" is what I referred to her as in my post picking my 1st Annual All-Sophomore Team" in 2018.  You can read the post at this link.  That same year, she was a "just missed" pick for my All-Conference Blog picks.

Nothing is "just missed" about Miller at this point.  Completely entrenched in the libero role, whomever wears the jersey in Fall 2021 will have big shoes to fill.. figuratively, of course, since Miller is 5'3"... maybe!  At least that's what we list on the team roster.  But, height is the only thing truly diminutive about Maddie Miller.  

Character, leadership, poise, intellect.. digging volleyballs to target?  No.. for all those things and more, Senior libero Maddie Miller stands very, very tall.

Photo Credits:  Tracy Gillett

Thursday, February 4, 2021

From the Sideline: SFA 3, Texas A&M - Corpus Christi 2 [Match Summary]

 Corpus Christi - Ladyjack Volleyball got a wild win on the Island tonight knocking off Southland Conference foe Texas A&M - Corpus Christi in five sets (25-19, 14-25, 32-34, 25-18, 15-9).  The win puts SFA at 13-4 overall on the extended 2020-2021 season while the Islanders drop to 2-1.  The match was the conference opener for each team.  The 'Jacks fought off a vicious offensive attack by Texas A&M - Corpus Christi as the home blues saw three players chip in 50 kills out of the 71 total that found the floor.  SFA had a tough time containing middle blocker Rachel Young, who throughout her tenure on the Island has been known for her efficiency.  Young killed 17 balls on just 30 swings to post a .367 attack percentage with  many of her winners off the slide on the right pin.  Senior outside hitter Chloe Simon wasn't to be outdone by Young as she tallied a match-high 19 kills while hitting an impressive .375.

SFA's offense was more balanced being led by freshman outside hitter Leah Powell with 14 kills.  Taya Mitchell had an around top-shelf performance as she posted 11 kills, 4 blocks and 4 aces.  Two of the aces came at very critical points in the match.  SFA rounded out their offense with Ariana Pagan falling one kill shy of double-double (9 kills, 11 digs, two aces),  Ielan Bradley chipped in 8 terminations and fellow freshman Ashley Procious had 6 as did sophomore right side hitter Payton Cerny.  All-in-all, the 'Jacks were out killed by the Islanders 71-59, but SFA was slightly more efficient holding the attack percentage advantage .279 to .242.

SFA returned to having a quality defensive match on the net after briefly struggling in that department last weekend.  SFA posted 12 team blocks compared to only three for Texas A&M - Corpus Christi.  Procious racked up 7 total blocks, with three of them being of the solo variety.  Cerny had a season high five block assists.  The battle of what might be the top liberos in the conference, Maddie Miller posted 19 digs and her counterpart  Carissa Barnes scooped up 24. 

In the first set, the 'Jacks fell behind 4-1, but then quickly righted the ship by going on a7-2 to run to gain the lead. The Islanders would tie it at 8 all, but then four straight points by SFA featuring kills from Pagan, Bradley and Procious and one of the aforementioned aces by Mitchell put the Ladyjacks up for good.  SFA stretched the lead to six and held on to win the first set by that margin at 25-19.

Set 2 saw the 'Jacks offense that had hit .273 in the prior frame struggle to run efficiently as strong serving by the Islanders and poor passing by the SFA back row allowed Texas A&M - Corpus Christi to make quick work of the set by a score of 25-14.  SFA came out flat in the set with the Islanders scoring the first six points to force an SFA timeout.  The break temporarily worked as SFA then scored four straight to draw close, but in the middle of the set Islander libero completely took over at the service stripe.  With her club up 9-7, Barnes proceeded to serve eight times and ace the Ladyjacks three times in a monstrous run that saw the Islanders push their lead all the way out to 17-7.  The aces picked on three separate SFA players which were credited with return errors:  Pagan, Miller and sophomore Kennedy Wright who made a brief appearance during the onslaught.  From there, Texas A&M - Corpus Christi continued to roll - leading by as many as a dozen at 22-10 late in the set.

Set 3 was one for the ages.  Easily the most competitive set, neither team could gain much of an advantage, but the Islanders held slim leads for the majority of the early phases.  A Kaylee Payne service error got SFA tied at 15 and from there the teams began slugging out points back and forth.  The set was tied consecutively at 19, then 20, then 21 before finally SFA gained the lead at 23-21.  After a Young kill, Islander setter Faith Panhans was called for double contact giving SFA their first set point.  From there on, the set got completely wild.  A Simon kill and another Barnes ace knotted the match at 24.  The see-saw battle went on and on with the score tied at 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 and 32.  At one point in the chaos, freshman outside hitter Coco Gillett made a sprawling pancake dig that sent the SFA bench and the 'Jacks COVID-limited fan base into full furry. Another Simon winner and then a block by Islanders middle blocker Sam Dumity coupled with Panhans assisting ended the rambunctious set 34-32 in favor of the home team.  SFA had six set points thwarted by the Islanders during the energetic set.

Down two sets to one at that point, the young Ladyjacks then turned the tables on the Islanders and ran out to a huge early lead in Set 4.  As uncompetitive as Set 2 was in favor of Texas A&M - Corpus Christi, the same was true in Set 4 concerning the SFA dominance.  The Ladyjacks raced out to a 12-3 start featuring a long service hold by Taya Mitchell which included two consecutive aces.  The Islanders went on a mini 4-1 run near the end of the set to close to 20-13 forcing a Debbie Humphreys timeout.  From there, the teams traded points with SFA closing it out 25-18 - SFA getting their last three points of the set off of Islander service errors.

In the decisive fifth, SFA jumped out to a 6-3 behind three quick kills from Powell and two more from Mitchell.  Freshman defensive specialist Bryli Contreras then served five times to stretch the 'Jacks lead out to a whopping mark of 10-3.  Simon tried to bring her club back by tallying four kills in five rallies to close the Islanders to within four at 11-7.  A kill by Pagan, a service ace by 'Jacks freshman Maddy Bourque and two Islanders errors sealed the set 15-9 for SFA and completed the 2 hour and 15 minute marathon.

SFA travels to San Antonio on Friday for practice and then will face off with the Cardinals of Incarnate Word on Saturday with first serve scheduled for 1:30 PM.  The match will be carried live here at SFA VolleyBlog Radio.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Shining Purple Lights On: Allie Hamsher

 For audio of the entire interview with Allie Hamsher click here.

 There are times during a program's history where a player and a position become synonymous for a long stretch of years.  To wit, Lauren Railey at outside hitter during the middle '00's.  Then, there is the greatest libero to ever wear purple - Stephanie Figgers - during that same basic era.  The record book is full of the name Aubrey Duncan as a defensive force during the early 1990's. Two setters that quickly come to mind are JJ Jones during the same time frame as Railey and Figgers and the recently graduated Ann Hollas.  I've been fortunate to see some of the great SFA setters play their entire careers.  I didn't see Wendy Walling (1990-1993) or Bianca Aranda (1995-1998), but I saw all of the Jones and Hollas years along with the time Marissa Dorcheus (1998-2001) ran the club.  I personally called virtually all of the matches Paige Holland (2011-2014) was a part of during her Ladyjack tenure.  Dorcheus, now Marissa Avery, and I still occasionally intersect on social media and she was the SFA setter during the time that I first began attending Ladyjack Volleyball matches.

So, why the archival lesson? Because SFA is always looking around the corner hoping to discover "our next great setter".  At present, my thought process is that we have a trifecta of setters that collectively achieve greatness.  This isn't meant as a slight to any of the individual players that make up the 2021 setting roster, but instead I see the combination of our setters as merging in a unique way since they each bring different qualities to the table to achieve their effectiveness.

When Hollas graduated, that automatically meant that we were going to have a "new" setter in 2020-2021.  This because Margaret Dean also committed as a graduate transfer to Mississippi State back in April of last year.  Dean is currently playing out her last year of eligibility in Starkville.  

So, rather than put all the eggs in one basket, the coaching staff brought in transfers Allie Hamsher, a decorated JUCO two-year athlete from North Central Texas College (NCTC) and Malgorzata "G" Andersohn who had spent her first year at Arkansas State.  The wisdom in those signings was the experience factor.  Hamsher already had success at a lower level and was ready for a step up and Andersohn had gained experience by appearing in all 30 matches for the Red Wolves, who play in a conference comparable to our own.  Those two join freshman Maddy Bourque to give the 2021 version of SFA Volleyball a veritable three-headed setting machine that can interchange parts fluidly and efficiently.

The interview linked to above is with Hamsher, who has emerged as the leader of the aforementioned crew primarily due to her experience and consistent productivity.  As of this writing, Hamsher leads the club in assists and assists per set and has appeared in more sets during 2020-2021 than either of the other two quarterbacks.  Hamsher has also proven to be a deadly server, racking up 17 so far on the season, four of which came last Saturday against Tulane.  Behind libero Maddie Miller and six-rotation outside Ariana Pagan, Hamsher also ranks third in digs for the Ladyjacks.

One of the portions of our chat that I absolutely loved was when I asked her to compare and contrast herself with Andersohn and Bourque.  Her answer was exquisite and framed exactly in the way that my mind had processed the three of them to this point in their time with us.  Pay particular attention to her phrasing in answering this question around the 8:00 mark in the interview.

Something that folks in my line of work always do is observe.  People who call matches are always watching. We take note of the smallest of things in order to constantly add to your familiarity of the athletes that you are going to discuss and showcase when on a broadcast.  One of things I've really noticed about Hamsher in matches, practices and even in brief off-the-court situations is that she is emotionally invested.  She brings a lot of energy and joy to the position.  Sometimes, on air, I refer to this personality as what I call a "warm setter".  By her own admission, she's not the cold and calculating technical setter, but instead delivers a quality ball while mixing in the right dose of fire and energy (warmth) for her offense.  

I think the time playing meaningful minutes for a club that had a lot of success at the JUCO level has really helped Hamsher slide over into her role this season at SFA.  She's steady and personally very likable.  That personality blends well with her attackers on the floor and with the entire club when they are not in competition.  She's vocal and authoritative and that's a positive quality in a setter if kept under control - which her poise allows her to do.  She instantly finds herself as one of the most experienced collegiate players on the roster being one of only three upperclassmen.  So, she needed to come right in and lead and garner faith from the rest of the younger, more inexperienced freshmen and sophomores.  It's clear that she has their trust.

Amazingly, you'll learn when you listen to the interview that she almost let volleyball go during her final year in high school.  Given the talent she possesses that surprised me a bit, but it points to maturity.  She was comfortable considering the possibility that her playing days might be running their course, but opportunistic enough to take advantage of an offer that would allow her to see if she could still produce at a high level.  I often tell students that "opportunity begets opportunity" and that's exactly what happened with Allie Hamsher.  The chain reaction of opportunity from high school to NCTC and then to SFA has carried her further than her high school self had the wherewithal to imagine three years ago.

I think you'll enjoy listening to the chat.  More importantly, I think you'll enjoy Allie Hamsher running a portion of our offense for the next two seasons.  It was a delight to sit and talk with her.

"Shining Purple Lights On:" is a new weekly interview series that will showcase an athlete, coach or team personnel member associated with SFA Volleyball.  It's your chance to learn a little more about a member of the current Ladyjack Volleyball family.

Photo Credits: Tracy Gillett

Next Week:  Bryli Contreras