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.