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.